Give Thanks for Pilgrims — and McDonalds, by Victor Niederhoffer and Laurel Kenner
November 22, 2018 (our annual article about Thanksgiving)
Thanksgiving is about sharing prosperity, and it’s a good time to think about where
prosperity comes from. The Pilgrims figured it out in 1623. We’ll retell
that story as we celebrate the way it lives on in countless U.S.
families and companies today. And in particular at one company,
McDonald’s, that in its humdrum way beautifully
demonstrates the source of prosperity and the American way of life.
The Pilgrims started with so little. They had to hide in England
because the authorities considered them dangerous. They fled to Holland
but found themselves compelled to take menial jobs. On the way to
America, many of the company died. They lost their way to Virginia and
landed in Massachusetts just as winter set in. The Virginia Co., their
backers in London, went bankrupt and couldn’t send relief supplies.
To cope with want, the Pilgrims made the same mistake that so many
countries do even today: They divided all their land, efforts, supplies
and produce in common, to each according to his need.
As always in such systems, need surpassed supply.
The Pilgrims spent their first three years in America suffering from
hunger, illness, cold and infighting. People stole from the common
stores “despite being well whipped,” according to William Bradford’s “Of
Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony, records what happened next:
“They began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could,
that they might not continue to languish in misery. After much debate,
the Governor decided that each settler should plant corn for
Under the Land Division of 1623, each family received one acre per
family member to farm. That year, three times as many acres were planted
as the year before. Prosperity was not long in coming.
The Pilgrims turned from their Old World system of common ownership
to incentives. They didn’t go that way out of ideological conviction,
but because they didn’t have the luxury of waiting for support to come
How many families in America tell the same tale? “When we came here, we worked hard and our lives were better.”
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Before the switch to
incentives, the hungry settlers were at each other’s throats. Hard
workers resented receiving the same portions of food as those who were
not able to do even a quarter of the work they did. Young men resented
having to work without compensation to feed other men’s wives and
children. Mature men resented receiving the same allotments as did the
younger and meaner sort. Women resented being forced to do laundry and
other chores for men other than their husbands. Many people felt too
sick to work.
But when they were allowed to farm their own plots, the most amazing
thing happened. Everybody — the sick, the women and even the children —
went out willingly into the fields to work. People started to respect
and like one another again. It wasn’t that they were bad people,
Bradford explained; it’s just human nature. Adam Smith came to the same
conclusion later, and Friedrich Hayek updated Smith’s ideas for the 20th
century. But we don’t need to go back to New England for understanding.
Similar outcomes can be seen at McDonald’s every day.
For centuries, people on the lower rungs of the social ladder weren’t
able to eat meat. They ate grains and beans. But people like beef. And
When McDonald’s started popping up in every neighborhood, all of a
sudden there was an affordable place for families to eat. Previously,
one of the main differences between the upper and lower classes was that
the rich could eat out. Even if the poor could afford the tab, they
couldn’t hire baby sitters, and they couldn’t bring their kids to the
elegant establishments designed for the rich because they would have
disturbed the other diners.
Most kids don’t like fancy restaurants anyway. They want fries, not
polenta with wild mushrooms. They want fried codfish, not turbot. They
want burgers, not lamb chops.
How many people has McDonald’s made happy? How many families has it
brought together? How many Happy Meals have been eaten there? How many
kids have enjoyed the playgrounds? How many tired workers have been able
to catch a quick meal? How many women are able to pursue careers and
other productive activities and dreams because McDonald’s has freed them
from the task of having to cook every night?
The Pilgrims might have served 200 or 300 American Indians at their
Thanksgiving feast. McDonald’s serves 26 million customers a day at
13,700 U.S. restaurants.
For the traveler, McDonald’s is a home away from home, offering so
much for so little. The restrooms are clean. And McDonald’s serves hot
strong organic coffee in smooth cups of some wonderful material that
keeps liquids hot without burning the hand, shaped to fit into the cup
holders that just happen to be in your car, with carefully designed tops
that permit just the right amount to be sipped.
No regulator, no fascist dictator, no socialist planner decreed sip
tops or cup holders. But how many late-night drivers have died for the
lack of a good cup of coffee? What could be more munificent than saving
And the story doesn’t end there. Consider the employees of
McDonald’s. How many people have worked there and learned the most
important lesson in America: The customer is always right?
The anti-this-and-that people who demonstrate against profit
incentives and free markets like to single out McDonald’s as a symbol of
modern capitalism. (They don’t mean that in a nice way.) As the McLibel
Support Campaign puts it: “(McDonald’s) has pioneered many business
practices that have been taken up by others, and have come to represent a
symbol of the way that society is going –’McDonaldization.'” But when
have you ever seen an unhappy customer at McDonald’s? There couldn’t be
too many of them, because about 10% of America eats there each day.
Given the choice of cooking at home or going to other restaurants — and
competition ensures that there are other restaurants — people go to
McDonald’s because they trust they’ll find good food, quick service and
value for money. What could be more munificent, more representative of
sharing the fruits of hard work than McDonald’s?
McDonald’s and the Pilgrims are the essence of America. The people
work hard, motivated by the chance for profits. They provide a welcome
to others, whether to Indians joining in harvest celebrations, or to
customers looking to satisfy their hunger. Their work results in high
quality, low costs and family togetherness.
Those humdrum, everyday attributes are what makes America great.
That’s what we should be celebrating. It’s the source of all our
munificence, from the first Thanksgiving to today.