I don’t read much lately, but my more libertarian daughter listens to Hoover & Cato podcasts. She mentioned one on The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier So I ordered the book. I don’t know much about economics but have come to admire economists because they so aptly describe human nature, and often give arguments for wise institutions. The authors argue that “entrepreneurs of institutions” helped make life relatively orderly on the frontier. For instance, one maximized the profits and minimized the costs by ensuring Abilene was railhead, where the cowboys ended their long contracts of driving the cattle and the railroads took them east. But often it wasn’t a “middleman” as much as the consensus of a group, as they set out in wagon trains or obtained mining rights.
Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill published this in the Stanford Economics & Finance series; the descriptions emphasize a libertarian approach (indeed, Anderson has been interviewed by Stossel). As I read it and talked about it, more friends showed interest – in some ways it stands on its head the assumptions we might have from some westerns, but in many other ways it explains contracts and relationships that were represented in some classic films.
In general, it cheers: as Americans pushed the frontier west, we see less of the “wild, wild west” than sensible boundary setting and sometimes quite innovative contracts to lessen transaction costs and increase rents. Not surprising, the rent seeking of larger governmental bodies is a subtle but repeated theme.
It may have begun as an introductory text. For me, that was good: I needed definitions of basic terms and concepts (and apparently the user before me – whose notes are often in what I think is Chinese and whose English note next to “The Institutions that Tamed the West” is “too many important terms are contained – reread.” The authors taught economics at Montana; their ancestors had been in those groups heading west in the late nineteenth century, first as miners and cowboys, an ancestry probably many of their students shared.
Chapters deal with “Property Rights in Indian Country,” problems with trapping and mining, bison and then cattle, “Wagon Train Governments” and “Cowboys and Contracts.” Claims to gold as well as to water, and always claims to land, were decided by often new concepts. The role of force (as by the army) and later the government affects much. The final chapter “Making the Desert Bloom” describes the first more successful institutions and the later, less successful (and more governmental) solutions to distribution of water in desert.
It is quirky but I enjoyed it. Its implicit message to a novice like me is how important the basics of economic thinking are and how man, left to his own devices, can be creative and productive about institutions as well as technology and art.