Thanksgivings Past

November 24, 2010

by Chidem Kurdas

Thanksgiving was originally a spontaneous celebration. Over time it grew into a social custom. It did not become an official holiday until Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863. Then in 1939 Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date.

New England Puritans must have needed an alternative holiday because they did not like to celebrate Christmas. Massachusetts in 1659 passed an act punishing with a fine of five shillings “anybody who is found observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way, any such days as Christmas day,” according to the historian Daniel Boorstin.

No taking it easy, no feasting. The law was repealed in 1681, writes Boorstin, but upstanding Puritans still preferred to go about business as usual on Christmas. Thanksgiving would have given them a rare break.

By mid-19th century Puritanism was no more. Or  rather, it was a joke. The humor writer with the pen name Artemus Ward said in his 1859 Fourth of July oration:  “Peple which hung idiotic old wimin for witches … may hav bin very nice folks in their way, but I confess I don’t admire their stile ..”

Lincoln – incidentally, an avid reader of Ward and an admirer of his style – gave the day off to federal employees. Following that,  states legislated the holiday.

In 1939, November had five Thursdays and Thanksgiving fell on the 30th. But that meant a late start for the Christmas shopping season. Store owners needed all the time they could get, what with lackluster sales. The economy was weak despite a wide variety of nostrums from the FDR administration—or more likely because of those various nostrums.

So Roosevelt proclaimed that Thanksgiving should come on November 23, the fourth Thursday, to allow more time for Christmas shopping. It was a kind of stimulus. Not clear that the change had any stimulating effect in 1939, but certainly shopping came to be a national preoccupation between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Here is another oratory gem from Ward (via Boorstin):  “I hain’t got time to notis the growth of Ameriky from the time when the Mayflowers cum over in the Pilgrim and brawt Plymouth Rock with them, but every skool boy nose our kareer has been tremenjis.”

He garbled the history a bit, but you have to agree that “our kareer has been tremenjis.”  Have a tremendous Thanksgiving.

20 Responses to “Thanksgivings Past”


  1. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

  2. Andreas Hoffmann Says:

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. Richard Ebeling Says:

    Let me share that wish for a Happy Thanksgiving, and mention that over at Northwood University’s blog, “In Defense of Capitalism & Human Progress” I have a piece on “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving: the Triumph of Capitalism over Collectivism,” which is worth remembering tomorrow.

    http://defenseofcapitalism.blogspot.com/2010/11/real-meaning-of-thanksgiving-triumph-of.html

    Richard Ebeling

  4. chidemkurdas Says:

    Nice piece, Richard.

    This point is very apt:
    “The desire to “spread the wealth” and for government to plan and regulate people’s lives is as old as the utopian fantasy in Plato’s Republic. The Pilgrim Fathers tried and soon realized its bankruptcy and failure as a way for men to live together in society.
    They, instead, accepted man as he is: hardworking, productive, and innovative when allowed the liberty to follow his own interests in improving his own circumstances and that of his family. And even more, out of his industry result the quantities of useful goods that enable men to trade to their mutual benefit”

  5. Lord Keynes Says:

    The desire to “spread the wealth” and for government to plan and regulate people’s lives is as old as the utopian fantasy in Plato’s Republic.

    The desire to “spread the wealth” is far older than that. It is not some alien, wicked propensity caused by “evil” governments.

    Our species is about 200,000 years ago, and agriculture only emerged about 10 000 years ago. For most of our history (probably over 88% of it), we were nomadic hunter gatherers. Modern human psychology (which is partly and significantly caused by the evolved structure of the human brain) remains fundamentally the product of that evolution.

    Therefore our evolutionary psychology has been shaped by hunter gatherer societies. A sense of “fairness” or even “entitlement” leading to the existence of common property (the ancient equivalent of public goods) or sharing the wealth (e.g., egalitarian food sharing practices amongst hunter gatherers ) appears to be evolved in us as an advantage for survival.

    And the desire to share things is also deeply ingrained in many of us from the time we are children (e.g., ever been told by your parents to share something with your brother or sister when you were a child?).

    Of course, none of this constitutes an adequate moral defence of modern taxes or public goods, since the argument from nature is a logical fallacy (and quite convincing moral justification for such things could be easily given through rule utilitarianism, Rawls’ ethics, or Kantian ethics).

    But, frankly, if the human desire to “spread the wealth” is deeply ingrained in our psychology by evolution, you’ll have a hard time trying to remove it from the human mind.

    The mass “conversion” of people to libertarian or Austrian philosophy (and the elimination of all taxes or public goods) is about as likely as the disappearance of the widespread human fear of snakes, which also seems to have a deeply ingrained, evolutionary and psychological basis as well.


  6. We’re mixing politics (libertarianism) and economics (Austrianism) here. Most Americans think people should earn their own living.

    They may assent to temporary public assistance in emergencies, but are against long-term dependency. That issue played out in the welfare reform debate.

    The attitude also explains why the negative income tax has no traction among the broader public, even though eceonomists of all stripes love it (to reference an earlier discussion). The American public wants people to work for a living. They don’t want people to starve, but prefer goods-in-kind- to money-income transfers.

  7. Lord Keynes Says:

    Most Americans think people should earn their own living.

    Undoubtedly correct. But such a sentiment is completely compatible with the widespread support for progressive taxes and public goods – just as the belief in sharing your kill with other hunter gatherers is perfectly compatible with the belief that they should also hunt or work for the tribe, instead of doing nothing.

    I think you also exaggerate the extent of the American public’s economic conservatism.

    There is quite impressive evidence that the majority of the public favours a universal health care system of some kind:

    http://www.wpasinglepayer.org/PollResults.html

    My point above is that there may be an evolutionary and genetic explanation for why libertarian notions of extreme self interest are rejected by most people.

    Concentrations of wealth by the few when others have little or not enough seem to provoke a feeling of unfairness in most people – and that is probably explained by the evolution of the hunter gatherer brain, where people who preferred to share property, food etc and co-operate survived with an advanatge over humans with more selfish impulses.

    You can’t beat out 100 000 years of evolution by reading Rothbard or Ayn Rand.

  8. Richard Ebeling Says:

    Hayek, too, sometimes made the argument that since humans had spent most of their existence on earth in small tribal societies, the different “rules” and societal relationships of the “great society” (as Adam Smith and Hayek use this term), have been difficult for modern generations to fully adapt to and accept.

    I have no idea whether nor not man as a “collectivist” gene because of some long evolutionary process.

    But what is clear to me, is that people are often captives of wrong ideas left over from earlier periods. Such as the idea that when one man gains, another must have lost (Mercantilist thinking about trade); or that accumulated wealth must mean that a person had cheated or plundered his neighbor; or that the pursuit self-interest (and profit) implies disregard and abuse of others; or . . .

    I have found that these are conceptual and historical confusions that can be “cured” in most people over a semester in a economic course. I did not say all or everyone. But most students get over a good many of their misconceptions.

    Bits of Austrian Economics and Public Choice Theory are great antidotes to most of the collectivist disease.

    I have found, in general, that it is harder to eliminate it in students from Europe (France, Italy, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, for example) than in most Americans. It is a bit more embedded in Canadians, too.

    But if the student is a least somewhat open-minded and attentive to what your trying to explain, the logic of economics does its job most of the time.

    Richard Ebeling

  9. Lord Keynes Says:

    I have no idea whether nor not man as a “collectivist” gene because of some long evolutionary process.

    There is no such thing as a “collectivist” gene. We have about 25 000 genes.
    A normal human being does, however, appear to have core characteristics that are universal, owing to genetic factors (e.g., ability to acquire language, ability to walk on two legs etc).
    The structure of the human brain is a very complex interaction of thousands of genes. Human psychology in any individual human is also the product of a highly complex interaction between genes and environment. The brain is the product of evolution (with natural selection and sexual selection), but even our psychology appears to have near universal core characteristics.

    But what is clear to me, is that people are often captives of wrong ideas left over from earlier periods.

    Absolutely true. We have many wrong ideas or irrational emotions about the world and objects in it, from

    (1) sheer superstition (e.g., religion),
    (2) faulty or poor inductive reasoning (e.g., pre-modern science or medicine), or
    (3) innate human psychological traits that are the product of evolution (e.g., a widespread and visceral fear of, or repulsion towards, snakes, even though most of us in industrialised nations never encounter snakes, and tobacco, sugar, alcohol or cars kill more of us today than snakes ever do).

    The argument from nature is certainly a logical fallacy. But the justification for progressive taxes, welfare and other reasonable state interventions can be given through many convincing objective ethical theories, independent of human psychology, such as rule utilitarianism, Rawls’ ethics, or Kantian ethics.

    Bits of Austrian Economics and Public Choice Theory are great antidotes to most of the collectivist disease.

    And what ideas actually are (in your view) a symptom of this “collectivist disease”??
    The ability to sympathise and empathise with others, and the willingness to give what you have in abundance (and do not need) to those in need appears to be a fundamental trait of the human mind. Such behaviour done to save human life is also morally justifiable by quite independent modern ethical theories as well, and requires no human propensity to do so to make it moral.

    I would suggest to you that a fundamental idea of Austrian economics (e.g., that a starving human being unable to find private charity has no right to basic support from the state in order to survive in a society of relative abundance) is in fact a morally depraved and highly unnatural view, the equivalent of a mental “disease”.

  10. Prateek Sanjay Says:

    Look, I would be the first one to say that there is no such thing as an individual. There has never been. Hippies who tried to grow their own crops and live in self-sustenance understood that, when in a few months they looked worse, shabbier, and more ill-fed than anybody in Phillipines or Sudan. As it is, humans have always lived and worked together. Man is a 100% collective creature.

    The problem is that this discussion of individualism vs. collectivism is totally irrelevant to harder, practical matters of economics. Just as irrelevant is the idea of whether people should earn their living. The actual issue at hand is whether a large complicated system can be implemented or not, and whether calculation is possible for it. Anything else is meaningless. How does it matter whether your proposal is moral if it can never come into existence? It’s like the fable of Indian farmers who fight over their “future” farmlands that they don’t even own.

    But if we really want to discuss ethics and philosophy, we need to pick up some proper Greek literature or something more ancient. Just as annoying as 18th century individualists are all these aforementioned theories like “rule utilitarianism, Rawls’ ethics, or Kantian ethics.” All of these things are written by people who discuss any issue by first disregarding all the facts. Whether it’s the individualists who ignore common sense and human history, or whether it is utilitarians who will make up their own arbitrary notions of what is good or bad, it all comes down to the same stupid lie. Aristotle, Socrates, Zarusthratha, Aquinas, and all such older philosophers had done far more telling work on human nature. But alas came the printing press, and you had Rousseau and Locke inventing a State of Nature and a Noble Savage out of thin air, and deducing everything from their isolated philosophy. Then comes John Rawls, and even worse, Robert Nozick. What rubbish.

    I’d rather discuss ethics from casuitry than appeal to such modern day pop thinkers, who are only a step above Ayn Rand.

  11. Richard Ebeling Says:

    “Lord Keynes”:

    Empathy, charity towards others, is not inconsistent with the free market order, or the social philosophy upon which it is based.

    The issue is whether it is better to leave such matters to the voluntary choices of the members of society, or to use political coercion to impose some individuals conceptions of charity on others.

    By following the “voluntarist” approach there are, in my view, the following benefits:

    (1) Some people’s conceptions of the “good” and “right” in these matters are not forced upon others. Rather, freedom requires and can help cultivate an attitude and belief in benevolence towards others. This sense is not fostered, I believe, in an environment in which people end up saying, “Well, I paid my taxes, it is not my job or responsibility.” (See, the discussion of aspects of this in Bertrand de Jouvenel’s “The Ethics of Redistribution” [1952].)

    (2) Voluntarism enables competing conceptions and visions of how best to advance charitable work, rather than “one government method fits all.” Thus, competition is set free to find ways to solve what people may consider to be “social problems” deserving of consideration.

    (3) It makes those who organize and administer charitable work sensitive to successfully demonstrating to their supporters and donors that each dollar given is used with good results — otherwise, donors shift their charitable giving to other groups and organizations viewed as more creative and effective in its philanthropic activities.

    (4) It is less likely to generate an attitude of “entitlement” on the part of the recipients of charity. An attitude that is harmful and undermining to a proper psychology of “self-help” and personal responsibility. (See, Henry Fawcett, “Pauperism: Its Causes and Cures” [1874].)

    (5) It is less likely to create a government bureaucracy whose self-interest is dependent upon justifying no end to the “social problem” for which they need continued (and usually) larger annual budgets and increased power and authority over others who receive those forced redistributive transfers. (See, Thomas Chalmers, “Problems of Poverty” [1912].)

    The market-oriented and voluntary “solutions” to “social” problems have, therefore, many advantages over the political compulsory methods.

    Richard Ebeling

  12. Current Says:

    > I would suggest to you that a fundamental idea of
    > Austrian economics (e.g., that a starving human
    > being unable to find private charity has no right
    > to basic support from the state in order to
    > survive in a society of relative abundance) is in
    > fact a morally depraved and highly unnatural view
    >, the equivalent of a mental “disease”.

    What I don’t understand about this type of example is why my innate sense of morality should be focused on the individual starving rather than those whose possessions are taken to feed him.

    Even if we do suppose it’s a mental “disease” then does that means it’s somehow bad? From a utilitarian standpoint the argument is about whether it has bad consequences. Lots of modern forms of behaviour are very different from those of hunter-gatherers, and very learned. We may consider any of them mental diseases if hunter-gatherers are our benchmark.

    Matt Ridley talks about lots of these issues in “The Origin of Virtue”. I think I’ve recommended that book before around here.

  13. Lord Keynes Says:

    What I don’t understand about this type of example is why my innate sense of morality should be focused on the individual starving rather than those whose possessions are taken to feed him.

    That you personally feel that nothing immoral is happening if such a person dies under these circumstances does not change that fact that most people probably would.
    I contend that the innate sense of morality in most people that is a legacy of evolutionary development of human psychology in hunter gatherer societies
    would make them feel something immoral is going on.

    Because of genetic differences owing to sexual reproduction and environmental influences, a minority will not have this feeling, of course – just as not everyone has a visceral fear of snakes (although this fear does seem to be present in most humans and it seems to have come from our brain’s limbic system, itself created by the interactions of many genes by the process of evolution by natural selection).

    From a utilitarian standpoint the argument is about whether it has bad consequences.

    Correct. As I pointed out above, the argument from nature is a logical fallacy, so just because evolution makes us feel that something is immoral does not necessarily make it so.

    A proper defence of what is right and wrong must come from an objective theory of ethics (e.g., rule utilitarianism, Rawls’ ethics, or Kantian ethics).

    And, as I said above, convincing defences of progressive taxes and basic welfare (even universal health care) are not difficult to construct and justify using these theories.

    About the only moral theory you could use to justify absolute property rights is natural rights/natural law ethics, which has severe flaws and is untenable (itself committing the fallacy of the argument from nature too).

    My point above is that libertarian/Austrians face the double blow of advocating (1) things immoral by most objective ethical theories and (2) things that our innate sense of morality itself finds immoral.

    Any libertarian/Austrian faces a hard upward battle trying to conceive people of ideas that (1) seem naturally repulsive and (2) can be rejected by knowledge people as well by using rule utilitarianism or Rawls’ ethics.

  14. Current Says:

    “That you personally feel that nothing immoral is happening if such a person dies under these circumstances does not change that fact that most people probably would.
    I contend that the innate sense of morality in most people that is a legacy of evolutionary development of human psychology in hunter gatherer societies would make them feel something immoral is going on.”

    I don’t agree that it’s as simple as all that.

    Where I live in Ireland there are certain streets where drunks and drug-addicts beg. They generally don’t get very much money. Though these addicts are in bad circumstances people ignore them. When it’s their own money on the line people get very picky about things.

    The point I’m making here is that the problem with your idea about what is innate is that you invoke the idea of the state. But, the modern state has no parallel in the environment of our ancient ancestors.

    You say things like: “The ability to sympathise and empathise with others, and the willingness to give what you have in abundance (and do not need) to those in need appears to be a fundamental trait of the human mind.” Certainly that’s true, but what does it have to do with the state?

  15. Current Says:

    To make my previous post more clear…

    Many individuals have a “relative abundance” of material possessions. But, when faced with others in need they frequently don’t give them up. I gave the example of not giving to begging drug-addicts. I could have given the example of not donating to charities working in Africa.

    So, consider two groups of people… Those who don’t give to charity even though they could, and those who don’t support state provision of minimal welfare. Would you say that both of these groups are “inhuman” or have some “mental illness” or something like that?

  16. Lord Keynes Says:

    Though these addicts are in bad circumstances people ignore them. When it’s their own money on the line people get very picky about things.

    Not giving money to drug addicts to fuel their addictions simply isn’t the same thing as not giving to people who will otherwise starve.

    And no doubt these addicts are able to claim basic welfare, so they DO have a support system at hand??

    But, the modern state has no parallel in the environment of our ancient ancestors.

    Really? The most obvious figure would be the dominant male/males of the tribe (just as in monkey and great ape groups) whose position is established by force and ability to protect other members of the group.

    But as I said above the argument from nature is a logical fallacy.

  17. Current Says:

    Rather than consider drug addict, what about people starving in the developing world? That happens quite often and some people don’t give anything to charity when it happens.

    Are you considering those people who don’t give to have a similar “mental illness”? Or is it only those who advocate the state not giving? If the latter then why?

    I agree to some degree with what you said about the tribe. Hayek made the same argument. But, I don’t think there’s really a very direct comparison. Ancient tribes were something concrete, individuals knew every member. The state is something abstract, we normal people never meet it’s leaders, only it’s representatives.

  18. Lord Keynes Says:

    That happens quite often and some people don’t give anything to charity when it happens.

    As I said above, that some people don’t does not change the fact that a vast amount of people probably would.

    Are you considering those people who don’t give to have a similar “mental illness”?

    Not at all. In my statement above:

    I would suggest to you that a fundamental idea of Austrian economics (e.g., that a starving human being unable to find private charity has no right to basic support from the state in order to survive in a society of relative abundance) is in fact a morally depraved and highly unnatural view, the equivalent of a mental “disease”.

    The last words (“the equivalent of a mental ‘disease'”) are poorly chosen.
    I should have said an “idea that most people would find emotionally and morally repugnant – and probably due to some property of our psychology caused by our evolutionary history.”

    Talk of mental illness

  19. Current Says:

    “As I said above, that some people don’t does not change the fact that a vast amount of people probably would.”

    I’m not really sure about that. I’ve never even asked most of my friends if they give to charity or not. In many cases I haven’t seen them give, so I don’t know.

    Also, the real question brought up it not if people give something, but if when they have enough and others are starving they give something. By your criteria it isn’t really enough to “do your bit” donate £10 or whatever and then do nothing else.

    I think that by this standard you have to castigate a lot of people besides libertarians.

    I don’t think you’ve really dealt properly with the issue of organizations and social groups. If it’s emotionally immoral to propose that the state don’t give charity to people in desperate need then what about other organizations? What about businesses, co-operatives, charities that don’t deal with those affects, state-run businesses?


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