Enterprise & Society 6.4 (2005) 745-746
Adopting the approach of the "new institutional economics," Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill argue that grassroots, cooperatively developed property rules in the nineteenth-century American West led to the peaceful resolution of most conflicts. To the degree that cooperation trumped conflict and violence, the authors insist, "the 'wild, wild West' was really the 'not so wild, wild West'" (p. 5). Institutional entrepreneurs, they contend, emerged to establish property rights governing access to rangeland, mining claims, and other resources, preventing—in most instances—a "tragedy of the commons" (p. 77). Where property rights did not exist, as in the case of bison, there was no motivation to conserve, and the great herds were slaughtered to near extinction. The culprit in such cases was a misguided federal government whose policies hampered the enforcement of cooperatively agreed upon property rights.
This is a troubling book with an agenda-driven thesis that distorts the historical record. Anderson and Hill single out Patricia Limerick and "revisionist" historians for special criticism but without engaging in a dialogue with recent and widely acclaimed histories of the West. The endnotes include numerous citations to their own published works and the writings of other free-market economists. Attacking recent interpretations of the West from the vantage of a kind of free-market imperial vision contributes to errors of omission, idiosyncratic interpretations, and a problematic and suspect narrative. The federal government's ham-handed policies, according to the authors, brought suffering and hardship through ill-advised homestead acts that produced unnecessary tragedy by encouraging premature settlement. National land laws imposed from afar wasted resources and lacked the "economies realized by the rule for establishing property rights under land claims clubs and cattlemen's associations" (p. 75).
The authors celebrate and romanticize mining camps for developing orderly property rights to carry out the efficient extraction of valuable minerals and to promote economic growth. "In both California and Nevada," they write, "miners quickly found effective ways of defining and enforcing property rights" (p. 119). In similar fashion, Texas cattle drovers, en route to the northern plains in Wyoming and Montana, developed and enforced property rights to their animals and then peacefully divvied up the rangelands once they arrived. Because of the peaceful resolution of such volatile issues, the West "became a crucible for institutional change" (p. 139). Left unsaid in this book is the considerable personal and social violence that took place in cattle and mining towns, places usually composed of young, single males. Dodge City and Ellsworth, Kansas, and Aurora and Bodie, California, were violence-prone communities, with high incidences of murder and manslaughter. Moreover, the authors' claim that violent crimes such as rape were insignificant ignores the widespread rape of Indian women, practices especially widespread in the aftermath of warfare.
"Property rights that evolve from the bottom up," the authors argue, "are much more likely to conserve resources and promote investment" (p. 8). On the great western ranges, farsighted herd owners developed institutional innovations—branding and brand registrations—to steer free of costly range wars. By controlling entry to the open ranges, cattle associations were able to avoid a "tragedy of the commons." Perhaps because it does not fit their thesis, Anderson and Hill conveniently ignore discussion of the best-known tragedy on the high plains, the "Big Die-Up," the winter of 1886–87, when thousands of cattle perished on recklessly overstocked ranges. In Montana Territory alone speculative ranchers lost upwards of 60 percent of their cattle.
Some of the most controversial arguments advanced in The Not So Wild, Wild West involve the federal government's relations with Indian tribes. "Historians generally agree," Anderson and Hill write, "that negotiated settlements predominated over war in the early history of Indian-white relations" (p. 56). And, in contrast to the writings of James Ronda, Stephen Ambrose, and a host of other historians, the authors contend that Thomas Jefferson supported Indian rights to land. Citing the work of...