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Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

The Not So Wild, Wild West | Mises Institute

Posted by M. C. on July 7, 2021

In conclusion, it appears in the absence of formal government, that the Western frontier was not as wild as legend would have us believe. The market did provide protection and arbitration agencies that functioned very effectively, either as a complete replacement for formal government or as a supplement to that government. However, the same desire for power that creates problems in government also seemed to create difficulties at times in the West. All was not peaceful. Especially when Schelling points were lacking, disorder and chaos resulted, lending support to Buchanan’s contention that agreement on initial rights is important to anarchocapitalism. When this agreement existed, however, we have presented evidence that anarchocapitalism was viable on the frontier.

https://mises.org/library/not-so-wild-wild-west

Terry Anderson P.J. Hill

The growth of government during this century has attracted the attention of many scholars interested in explaining that growth and in proposing ways to limit it. As a result of this attention, the public-choice literature has experienced an upsurge in the interest in anarchy and its implications for social organization.

The work of Rawls and Nozick; two volumes edited by Gordon Tullock, Explorations in the Theory of Anarchy; and a book by David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom, provide examples. The goals of the literature have varied from providing a conceptual framework for comparing Leviathan and its opposite extreme to presenting a formula for the operation of society in a state of anarchy. But nearly all of this work has one common aspect; it explores the “theory of anarchy.”

The purpose of this paper is to take us from the theoretical world of anarchy to a case study of its application. To accomplish our task we will first discuss what is meant by “anarchocapitalism” and present several hypotheses relating to the nature of social organization in this world.

These hypotheses will then be tested in the context of the American West during its earliest settlement. We propose to examine property-rights formulation and protection under voluntary organizations such as private protection agencies, vigilantes, wagon trains, and early mining camps. Although the early West was not completely anarchistic, we believe that government as a legitimate agency of coercion was absent for a long enough period to provide insights into the operation and viability of property rights in the absence of a formal state. The nature of contracts for the provision of “public goods” and the evolution of western “laws” for the period from 1830 to 1900 will provide the data for this case study.

The West during this time is often perceived as a place of great chaos, with little respect for property or life. Our research indicates that this was not the case; property rights were protected, and civil order prevailed. Private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflicts were resolved.

These agencies often did not qualify as governments because they did not have a legal monopoly on “keeping order.” They soon discovered that “warfare” was a costly way of resolving disputes and lower-cost methods of settlement (arbitration, courts, etc.) resulted. In summary, this paper argues that a characterization of the American West as chaotic would appear to be incorrect.

Anarchy: Order or Chaos?

Though the first dictionary definition of anarchy is “the state of having no government,” many people believe that the third definition, “confusion or chaos generally,” is more appropriate since it is a necessary result of the first.

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Authors:

Terry Anderson

Terry Anderson is the William A. Dunn Distinguished Senior Fellow and former president and executive director of PERC. He believes that market approaches can be both economically sound and environmentally sensitive. His research helped launch the idea of free market environmentalism and has prompted public debate over the proper role of government in managing natural resources. His latest book, coauthored with Donald Leal is Free Market Environmentalism: The Next Generation (2015).

P.J. Hill

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