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.”