A Private Property Rights Commentary on “The Decline of The Plymouth Colony”

The article, “The Decline of the Plymouth County,” provided a fascinating account of religious intolerance and economic destruction. Murray Rothbard lucidly explains how Plymouth’s economic downturns were escalated by religious prejudice. The Quakers who arrived in Plymouth were treated cruelly at the hands of important dignitaries. Rothbard notes in his essay, ‘In 1659 six Quakers were banished and Governor Prence thundered that all Quakers deserved “to be destroyed, both they, their wives, and their children, without pity or mercy.”’ Most Pilgrims did not advocate for such harsh measures against the Quakers, instead many of the Pilgrims left their colony to be converted by the Quakers. Eventually, religious tolerance soon overcame the odds as ‘Town after town in Plymouth Colony eventually took it upon itself to grant full civil rights to the Quakers’.

However, there was one part of the article that significantly piqued my interest. Rothbard explains…

‘One of the persistent troubles of Plymouth was a shortage of ministers, aggravated by its poverty, decline, and increased intolerance. To deal with this scarcity, Plymouth took another fateful step down the theocratic road: it established a state church supported by taxation. (Emphasis added) Protests against this new establishment were led by Dr. Matthew Fuller, of the town of Duxbury, who for his pains was denounced as “wicked” by the Plymouth authorities and forced to pay a steep fine.’

The introduction of a ‘state church supported by taxation’ initiated furor among the populace. But, why would this ever happen? I believe in religious tolerance, but it seems rather curious that a church would garner such dissenting opinions. I would argue that strictly based upon information that I have accumulated in the past, and not based on my opinions on the matter, the church felt that its property rights were being violated.

Private property rights are rights given to an individual to use the property as he/she sees fit (as long as the property does not harm another individual or another individual’s property). Property rights are extremely important for the well-being of an economy because prices can only be created through property rights. Only through prices can information pass through the economy (through supply and demand) on what to produce, how to produce it and for whom. For an example of the dangers of non-existent property rights, one has to look at the decimation of an economy that took place under the hands of communism.

Additionally, since property is scarce, laws must be formulated in order to maintain a just and prosperous society. Anything that is superabundant does not require any laws because everyone can utilize it forever. When scarcity is an issue, there must be a formation of laws in order to diffuse any conflict. Thus, private property rights are of paramount importance in order to reduce conflict for property. As Hans Hermann Hoppe explains:

“[O]nly because scarcity exists is there even a problem of formulating moral laws; insofar as goods are superabundant (“free” goods), no conflict over the use of goods is possible and no action-coordination is needed. Hence, it follows that any ethic, correctly conceived, must be formulated as a theory of property, i.e., a theory of the assignment of rights of exclusive control over scarce means. Because only then does it become possible to avoid otherwise inescapable and irresolvable conflict.”

A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (Pg. 235)

The people of Plymouth were angered by the introduction of the state church because it violated their private property rights;, namely how to spend their own money. There may have been people who believed in a different parish or deity and did not want their money to be spent on something they did not believe in. This violates their private property and makes it a public issue. Economist David Henderson clearly illustrates this problem in his essay, ‘How Property Rights Solve Problems’:

“In other words, it appears to be a public-policy problem because of a prior violation of people’s right to keep their own property.”

The progenitors of the church should have delved into their own pockets or asked for voluntary donations. The people of the parish, through subjective calculation, would determine the costs and the benefits of the new parish. If they believed the benefits of the parish overcame the costs, then they would donate some money to the cause. No one would cause a disruption because no one’s property right (money) was harmed.

Interestingly, the free rider effect may rear its ugly head in this situation because the new church would provide a public benefit to all who belong in the parish. There would be unscrupulous individuals who may not donate because they hope others will. If everyone were to think this way, then the church may never get the financial capital necessary. In this situation, I may count on believers of this parish thinking it a sin to free ride on others. But, otherwise, this could be a legitimate problem if the church was old and breaking down.

In the end, respecting private property rights would have created a better situation for Plymouth County. A state church, funded through taxation, may anger the populace who do not believe in its message. No respect for property rights will always attract grave conflicts that are best left to be read in history books.

Further Reading:




2 thoughts on “A Private Property Rights Commentary on “The Decline of The Plymouth Colony”

  1. The use of private property to defend against public intrusions is textbook ‘begging the question’. Private property must be protected on the grounds that it is ‘private’. The language used assures the conclusion, in this case, that the state cannot establish publicly funded institutions. But, say we referred to ‘private property’ as ‘legally protected property’. From there we have to address how property becomes legally protected. Through the state, of course. Throughout history, that is where the property-endowed have gone to protect their property, after all. No less, the public pays for the legal system, the local police, and the national defense to enforce these very rules.

    The mystique of private property is established in its ambiguous name. Society pays a considerable amount for property to be respected as private, with benefits not shared even remotely equally. Seeking other things in return (though state religion may be improper for other reasons) like education, a little social spending, maybe even a pension, doesn’t seem that ridiculous.

    But again, it’s a matter of language.

    And additionally, I think you overestimate 1. The magnitude of charity before public spending became popular, and 2. the negative relationship between charity and public spending, both in regards to the proposed ‘free rider’ dilemma.

    And lastly, when does the BUUEA meet?

    • Thank you Luke for you comment.

      Yes, it was phrased in such a way that it would assure the conclusion. I was hoping just to expound on the problem that can occur from taxes and the use of it. I don’t ascribe to this idea, but I thought it would be interesting to write on it so others can appreciate its existence.

      You are indeed correct that the notion of private property is an ambiguous term considering the government (‘The monopoly of force’) protects it from other people. Indeed, history and the world economy may not have developed if it weren’t for the government protecting the use of private property. Another curious example would be… Patents.

      However, I have noticed though how people fight over issues such as the study of evolution in public schools and the various other things (it is undoubtedly annoying that such issues are still being contested).This COULD be attributed to the fact that their tax money is used to fund the endeavors (that they do not want). However, I still believe after looking at agency models that people do need government protection on private property in order for efficient allocation of goods and services to take place.

      I do overestimate the use of charity. It brings up the question that, if the government did not spend on welfare and all that money was given back to the people, then would that same amount be given to charity? Of course not. We would save it, spend it on other things and so on…
      The argument that I could possibly give in this situation would be to say that if the value of that church being built was not of importance to the people then the market has made an efficient allocation of resources. However, I don’t particularly believe in this argument myself because when a factory pollutes on someone’s laundry and that person cannot pay a lawyer to settle this in court, then the market has done us a favour.
      Or, if the Twinkies go out of business then again, the market has done us a favour. I don’t think that such an important element should be purged out of the economy…XD

      I don’t know if I overestimate the ‘free rider dilemma’. I think this is a genuine market failure when people just do not have the incentive to do so and wait for the other to do it. I mean, we have seen public goods being provided in societies in the past…Law and order in Iceland (8th Century) and in other parts of the world. But, I believe there are transaction costs, externalities and a myriad of problems that contribute to people not having the incentive to correct the market failure that takes place. But, I am interested on how you think I have overestimated the problem?

      The BUUEA meets on Tuesdays, usually once every two weeks. If you send us your email on our facebook page or even our BUUEA account (uea@bu.edu) you will be immediately added to our mailing list.

      Again, thanks for your comment.

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