Vol. 14 No. 8 (August 2004), pp.643-644

THE NOT SO WILD, WILD WEST: PROPERTY RIGHTS ON THE FRONTIER by Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.  280pp.  Cloth $.24.95.   ISBN 0-8047-4854-3.

Reviewed by David Schultz, Graduate School of Public Administration and Management, Hamline University.  Email: Dschultz@gw.hamline.edu

Pop culture images of nineteenth century America depict a lawless western frontier of cowboys and Indians, cattle ranchers and rustlers, wagon trains and cattle drives, and forty-niners and homesteaders all following Horace Greeley’s admonition to head west for a better life.  Pushing out into the wilderness our imaginations see the frontier line representing the border of civilization and across that divide a world of savages, lawlessness, and disorder.  This is the world out of which western movies are made.  Yet is image reality?  Not so, according to the authors of this highly entertaining and creative look at property rights in the old west.

Terry Anderson and Peter Hill tell a story of the west that they describe as a revision of a revision.  In contrast to traditional histories of the west that celebrated heroic individuals boldly trekking west with undaunted courage, the authors want to tell a different story to that offered by revisionist historians who describe the civilizing of the frontier as one fraught with domination, exploitation, and colonization.  While not denying the violence of the west, they focus instead upon how the frontier brought with it a sense of order and cooperation, especially when it came to the settlement and determination of property rights.

The authors describe the settling of the west and the establishment of property rights through the lens of (new) institutional economic theory.  This theory describes how institutions change and thereby affect economic activity, including who get to use resources, how, and for what purposes. Institutional economics offers a theoretically rich understanding of violence, showing how it, as a zero-sum conflict over resources such as water, land, and gold, can be replaced by cooperative (non zero-sum) activity.  The explicit thesis of the book, then, is to show how the wild, wild west was not so wild, but instead how freely bargaining individuals could forge order and rights out of violence, if only given the opportunity. The nineteenth century American frontier thus shows how a Hobbesian world can be made Lockean, and, according to the authors, the violence that did exist was as a result of either individuals defending their rights or the government seeking to deprive others of their assets.  The not-so-hidden thesis of the book is that government is bad, economic individuals are good, and that the latter can bring order and efficiency to the world if only we would let them.

Chapter Two is the theoretical core of the book, describing the basics of institutional economics.  Here Anderson and Hill provide readers with a solid overview of their theory, indicating how rent seeking—the preservation or [*644] capturing of unique assets that cannot be reproduced—holds the key to understanding economic behavior.  Rents, in the case of the west, include mining claims, water rights, and grazing rights.  The story of the western frontier for the authors is how the rents from these three items were captured or lost.  The heroes in this book are not Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, but institutional entrepreneurs—those individuals who act in a Zarathustra-like fashion to create, modify, and assign property rights in search of profits and high returns.  This desire to capture rents and make money can in many cases drive individuals to cooperate, and the remainder of the book tells how the west was really won—by way of institutional entrepreneurs forging cooperation among settlers, miners and ranchers, all seeking to protect their rights while pursuing their self-interest.

The bulk of the book is a highly engaging and interesting discussion of how institutional economics and entrepreneurs settled the west.  Various chapters describe how property rights were originally captured from the Indians in a not so violent way, until the government got involved, how wagon trains had contracts to enforce rules against backsliders and free riders, and the ways that the riparian rights to water from out east evolved into a prior appropriation theory to address the need of irrigating the desert for farming and ranching.  Within the eight chapters that constitute the heart of the book, this institutional economic view of the west presents readers an absolutely fascinating reinterpretation and factual account of a west beset not by disorder, but discipline imposed by capitalism and investors.

The morale of the Anderson and Hill’s story is first that the Hollywood images of the old west are not accurate.  Second, well-defined property rights are the key to wealth and prosperity, and third, that institutional entrepreneurs are heroes, civilizing the world and, yes, perhaps even providing proper management to natural resources so that they are not squandered.

THE NOT SO WILD, WILD WEST is theoretically rich and factually entertaining.  It defines a new paradigm or perspective upon which to interpret frontier behavior while challenging the revisionist historians who deny the heroism of the west.  Yet, as good a read as it is, the not-so-hidden libertarian thesis that government is bad and entrepreneurs are good is actually undermined by their own factual claims.  Their argument seems to rest upon the kindness of self-interested individuals to bring order to the world.  Yet, their own analysis and discussion of conflict demonstrates that until some order was imposed and a monopoly over the use of coercion and the determination of rights was centralized or monopolized, disorder on the frontier persisted.  Their argument, then, actually points towards and not away from the necessity of government regulation, less entrepreneurs will continue to engage in destructive market competition to gain competitive advantages over one another.  Finally, recasting the taking of land from the tribes as an economic battle between entrepreneurs and spendthrifts, while sounding friendly, ignores the reality of the violence that did occur, with the government acting on behalf of those wishing to bring their view of order and rights to a world of rents they sought to capture.


Copyright 2004 by the author, David Schultz.