Book Note: The Not So Wild, Wild West

Terry Anderson and Peter Hill combined forces to write this book on the development and definition of property rights on the frontier. It is, in essence, a case study on how well-defined property rights that are advanced by institutional entrepreneurs encourage resource stewardship and discourage rent dissipation. Published by Stanford University Press in 2004, it was the culmination of many years of research by both authors.

The book’s thesis is that institutional entrepreneurs and cooperation shaped the West with success while centralized bureaucracies ruling by fiat encouraged waste, war and destruction. According to the authors, secure and transferable property rights are critical for achieving cooperation instead of conflict.

In summary, people find ways of cooperating and trading without a need for centralized government interference. Such interference may in fact sow the seeds for greater discord and even lead to war. The discussion of how special interest lobbying on the part of the military and other interests encouraged the Indian Wars following the Mexican and Civil Wars is priceless.

It is critical that “property rights evolve from the bottom up,” according to our authors. It is possible that their thesis can’t be proven on the basis of a study of the frontier, standing alone (it would be great to see a comparison of frontier development with that of other areas), but a good start is made in that direction and a fascinating interpretation of frontier economic history is provided.

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