Puritan Economic Experiments (Gary North)

This is a summary of North’s PhD dissertation, though it reads better than most dissertations. North outlines three major economic experiments in Puritan New England: 1) govt control of land; 2) govt control of prices; 3) govt control of fashion.

Common Ownership

The problem, as William Bradford noted, if there is common ownership of land, what is to guarantee that men will work for other men’s wives in the field, and that women will sew and weave for other women’s husbands?

Problem 1: “Free” land meant strong demand for its productivity,and town leaders never were able to find a rational, efficient means of restricting uneconomic uses of the town property (North 12).

The problems became so bad that the only way to fix them was to slowly (if reluctantly) introduce free-market solutions.  The idea of common ownership was eventually replaced by Jefferson’s yeoman farmer. North writes:

“The idea that individual men are more responsible for the administration of property than boards of political appointees or even elected officials became a fundamental principle of eighteenth and nineteenth century American life. The concepts of personal responsibility and personal authority became interlocked, and the great symbol of this fusion was the family farm” (20).

Price Controls

The Puritans inherited the economics of the medieval schoolmen (23).

What is a Just Price?

Problem 2: The effect of these wage ceilings must have presented itself almost immediately: an excess of demand for the services of artisans over the available supply (25).

Max Weber argued that the essence of theocratic and/or socialist regimes was the reliance upon substantive theories of justice (27).  But the problem here, as in just prices, is that man can never be sure of what the magistrate would do. This made rational acting and planning by entrepreneurs impossible.

Sumptuary Legislation

The Puritans misinterpreted the 5th commandment on this one.  While it is true there are distinctions between superiors, inferiors, and equals, that doesn’t mean the state has to legislate clothing.

As to time-wasting, magistrates employed “licensing.”  The licensed taverns.

Problem 3 :So when men began to follow the tenets of the Puritan faith, they found themselves steadily increasing in wealth, both personally and culturally. This was to raise an absolutely baffling dilemma: how was the fact of social mobility to be reconciled with medieval categories of fixed status, implying defined place and function (51)?

Conclusion: The hierarchy of medieval life – a hierarchy reflecting a great chain of being from God to Satan – was being shattered by the winds of change. Men and women were increasingly unwilling in the late seventeenth century. to accept the limitations of such arbitrary status concepts of the exercise of their property rights (56).


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