Monday, January 18, 2010

Was the Wild West Really that "Wild?"

The later half of the 19th century in the Western United States is often known as the period of the "Wild West." It is nearly always exaggerated by historians and Hollywood. The implication of this presentation is that, without government, society becomes disordered and out of control. Areas without a State become hotbeds for crime, exploitation, and inestimable rises in price. The Wild West is often cited as an example of such anarchic conditions. In their book The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier, Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill provide a solid exposition of the period and dispel many of these myths. Thomas Woods describes how the "Wild West" was more peaceful and much safer than most modern cities in his book 33 Questions About American History You're Not Supposed to Ask.

Among the most interesting aspects of this period in U.S. history were the innovations in property rights that occurred far from government enforcement. The pioneers themselves created and enforced contracts and, as Anderson and Hill describe, the result was a large relocation of population to the West relatively free of conflict. One problem arose from defining and defending property rights concerning cattle in large expanses of land. Several entrepreneurial solutions resolved these problems as they ensued. These solutions were gradually introduced, and included cattle branding, constant supervision by armed cowboys on horseback, and the invention of barbed wire. Barbed wire permitted for the first time an effective separation of vast stretches of land at an affordable price.

In a recent essay addressing conventional propaganda in regard to the period, Ryan McMaken described the American West as a "heritage of peace." It is important to understand that proponents of laissez-faire aren't subsequently forced to renounce all rules and forms of regulation. By definition, supporters of laissez-faire economics renounce rules and regulations enforced by coercive bureaucracies that can't go out of business. Don't fall for the straw man argument postured by statists that free-market supporters believe in a "no rules" system or that the "Wild West" was a period of excessive violence, severe injustice, and predominantly unsuitable for civilized human habitation.


Sherry said...

This is interesting Matt, as Dad and I are currently wathching the sequel
to "Lonesome Dove"!

Elisa Morrison said...

I like it.