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The Wild or Mild West:

John Tierney's NYT column today questions popular notions that the old West was a wild and dangerous place. While settling the West was unquestionably tough, Tierney notes many scholars now believe there was more order and cooperation than many once thought. At the very least, the West was not as violent and tumultuous as portrayed in movies and on TV.

Tierney relies, in part, on The Not So Wild, Wild West by economists Terry Anderson and P.J. Hill. This book focuses on the development and evolution of institutions on the western frontier. Anderson and Hill have a particular interest in the evolution of property rights and cooperative institutions. Some of their prior work demonstrated how technological advances, such as the development of barbed wire, facilitated the expansion and enforcement of property rights on the western range. I would expect their new book to be equally informative and provocative, and well worth the read.

UPDATE: In a related vein, this paper by CWRU law professor Andrew Morriss argues that "Hayekian legal institutions" flourished on the Western frontier, until they were crowded out by more formal state institutions.

CharleyCarp (mail):
And Army doctors during the Korean War were not nearly as witty and/or insubordinate as those portrayed on the TV series MASH.

Shocked?
6.25.2005 3:58pm
JohnAnnArbor:
Well, there was a full inquest and autopsies done after the fight at the OK Corral. That doesn't imply lawlessness.
6.25.2005 4:23pm
Troy Hinrichs (mail):
He's been dead for 20 years so Ican't check his sources, but my Grandpa -- amateur (and widely and deeply read) historian) always told me the West was mostly cooperative. The cowtowns and boom towns would get hairy when they would swell up with men, liquor and guns, but "in it together" was mostly the attitude. Also, reading the short stories of Bret Harte (set in 1860s and 70s CA) also shows (even accounting for fiction) a relatively mild west with gambling and drunkenness being the biggest vices and violence of the TV sort being the exception and not the rule.
6.25.2005 10:17pm
Sudha Shenoy (mail):
It's curious how everyone seems to assume that Americans in the Wild Wild West were cultureless atoms. They were not -- they were part of a common-law society. They took these customs &attitudes with them, as did the settlers who came to the Eastern seaboard in the 17th century.
6.26.2005 12:06am
Trenchard Gordon:
I agree that both the Anderson-Hill book, and the Morriss piece are excellent places to start. John Reid's Law for the Elephant: Property and Social Behavior on the Overland Trail also offers a fascinating account of how western pioneers outside the reach of any government legal institutions nevertheless proved remarkably law-abiding, demonstrating an almost religious respect for property rights, and improvising their own justice system when necessary.
6.26.2005 12:03pm
CharleyCarp (mail):
To expand on Sudha's point, self-government in English North America was invented on the deck of the Mayflower. Realizing that they were beyond the reach of law -- and hearing mumbling from certain passengers about how this might play out once everyone settled on land -- the leaders put together a Compact, and got everyone to sign it.

I'm not sure whether Hayekian is the right word . . .
6.26.2005 6:44pm