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P.J. Hill speaking at the Praxis
event last Thursday. Andrew Dixon | Collegian

The absence of formal gov­ernment insti­tu­tions in much of the American West during the frontier era did not lead to violent chaos, but rather an effective laissez-faire approach to pro­tecting property rights, according to P.J. Hill, a senior fellow at the Property and Envi­ronment Research Center, who spoke at Praxis’s “Not so Wild, Wild West” event April 8.

Hill, who grew up in the west himself in a family of Montana ranchers, said his passion for learning and ranching inspired him to pursue the study of laissez-faire eco­nomics in academia.

“I still wasn’t sure if I would pursue an aca­demic career [after a Ph.D. program at the Uni­versity of Chicago.] I went back to the ranch thinking I would work there full time, but grad­ually started taking vis­iting appoint­ments and then ended up with some per­manent aca­demic appoint­ments. I taught at Wheaton College in Illinois for 25 years. It was just gradual. I like teaching, I like ideas, I like ranching. I just put them together.”

Hill began the talk by describing frontier prac­tices of Native American tribes, pointing to the example of salmon traps, which were placed at various points along a stream to harvest salmon. However, tribes often let larger salmon nav­igate upstream to a spawning area to increase yield and create a more favorable genetic pool. 

According to Hill, there was a cor­re­lation between the size of salmon and per­ma­nence of property rights. In dis­puted ter­ri­tories, salmon were smaller because tribes would rush to seize the salmon before the other tribe would, fearing that they could not move upstream. 

However, in other sec­tions of the stream where one tribe rec­og­nized the other’s right to that section, larger salmon were har­vested because of the assurance that such property rights would be rec­og­nized by the other tribe. Thus, through the prin­ciple of mutual respect-rather than central planning-tribes were able to sustain themselves.

Hill also looked at property rights recog­nition by American set­tlers. Pre­senting the examples of the Cal­i­fornia Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, Hill argued that just as indigenous tribes rec­og­nized property rights in salmon streams, so did American set­tlers establish a decen­tralized rule system for mining gold. 

Hill also argued against more gov­ernment inter­vention, refuting the argument of the tragedy of the commons which is the theory that natural resources will be exploited absent gov­ernment protection.

Pre­senting the often used example of the expo­nential decline of bison pop­u­lation in the Plains, Hill noted that the erad­i­cation of bison caused cattle to surge, which were far more effi­cient to transport to rail­roads and thus to indus­trial centers on the East Coast, allowing the market to sort itself out for the better.

Hill also con­demned the injustice of increased gov­ernment reg­u­lation of the frontier, which he said con­tributed to the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 and leg­is­lation like the Dawes Act of 1887, which dis­tributed tribal lands to indi­vidual Indians.

Even though the frontier of the 19th century no longer exists today, Hill said that the laissez-faire approach should still guide con­tem­porary policymaking.

“One of the lessons is bottom-up insti­tu­tional change. I would argue for much more localized control and what we call fed­er­alism: more power in the hands of the state than in the national government.”

Hill con­cluded the talk by sum­ma­rizing three prin­ciples of the not-so-wild west: con­flict is neg­ative sum, coop­er­ation is pos­itive sum, and the impor­tance of pre­serving neg­ative rights.

After the talk, sophomore and Praxis Vice Pres­ident Andrew Davidson praised Hill’s argument.

“I love how the event used facts to overturn common mis­con­cep­tions about the ruggedness and unfairness of cap­i­talism,” Davidson said. “People point to the West as an example of law­lessness when clearly, from the ground up, there was a lot of order and peace. When anyone can kill anyone else, there is a good incentive to be orderly.”

Chairman of Eco­nomics Charles Steele, who also researched at the Property and Envi­ronment Research Center from 1990 to 1994, con­curred with Hill on the ability of the lassez-faire approach to protect property rights and the environment.

“When gov­ern­ments came in and said ‘that’s a prim­itive and old-fash­ioned way,’ that’s when it turns into commons,” Steele said. “These are ways to solve that common problem. But when you get the bureau­cratic allo­cation, it becomes almost a tragedy of commons that people race for.”

While the talk mostly focused on property rights on the frontier, junior and Praxis Pres­ident Ben­jamin Bies said he sees the lassez-faire approach as rel­evant in future fron­tiers, like space colonization.

“Dr. Hill is a very good speaker and the topic that he is speaking on, evo­lution of property rights on the frontier, is very inter­esting as it has large impli­ca­tions for whenever we have an unde­fined sphere of eco­nomic activity,” Bies said. “When you have a quickly advancing tech­no­logical society, you need to be able to keep up with that inno­vation and property rights in institutions.”