The Old West and property rights

A friend of mine on Twitter who goes by littlemargaretnan left a comment on my last post about property rights and anarchy. She wrote:

Just want to add that many people can’t imagine how property rights could be agreed upon or protected without the force of government. So it may be helpful to show them how it has been done before, with great success–at least until government moved in to spoil it. (How we prevent that is another problem entirely.) A real-life, American example of voluntaryism at work is detailed in Tom Woods’s book, ‘33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask,’ chapter 6, “Was the ‘Wild West’ Really So Wild?” To sum it up, referring to the period from the 1840’s to early 1900’s, during the time of “wagon train governments,” which were voluntary organizations, the settlers relied upon “…non-governmental means of establishing and then protecting property rights…” The actual historical record, in stark contrast to Hollywood’s version, shows that, “…in spite of the formal absence of government, civilization did not collapse. It thrived.” The chapter goes into quite a lot of detail based on scholarly studies of actual records from the time.

I told littlemargaretnan that I had heard of the not so very “Wild Wild West” before and that I knew that the Old West of the movies and TV was not the way it really was. I once read a book by Terry Lee Anderson and Peter Jensen Hill called The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier. The book was summarized in a article called The Not So Wild, Wild West by Mr. Anderson, who was one of the book’s co-authors.


It is amazing how we internalize the myths of the movies, pulp fiction, or TV and then build arguments on the false ground of falsehoods spun by the entertainment industry. I have heard countless times in my life from people who claim that without the state, its laws, and its police we would be living with gunfights on every street “just like in old Dodge City”. For crying out loud, don’t people realize that the natural tendency in humans is to cooperate?

The hey day of the wild west lasted from the end of the Civil War to the gunfight at the OK Corral and movies or TV shows about this era were made by the thousands. We always get the message that the west was violent until government came and lawmen made the place safe for the women and children. Utter nonsense. In contrast, alternative literature based on the actual history concludes that the civil society of the American West in the nineteenth century was not very violent at all.

Professor Eugene Hollon writes that the western frontier “was a far more civilized, more peaceful and a safer place than American society today.” I have read that the murder rates of the eastern big cities were far in excess of those rates in the “lawless” west. Imagine that!

Terry Anderson and P. J. Hill in their book (linked to above) testify that “The West . . . is perceived as a place of great chaos, with little respect for property or life”.  The reality is that historical 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”

Private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society“! Good heavens, the progressives would take to their fainting couch if they ever read such a thing. Anarchy protects the individual, her life, and her property — that is the simple, proven truth.

Other sources tell me that the mining camps hired “enforcement specialists” who were private justices of the peace and arbitrators and in doing so developed an extensive body of property and criminal law — much like English common law was formed. There was very little violence or theft in these camps. The miners were also usually armed which was an additional factor that helps to explain why crime was relatively infrequent. One scholar wrote that the contractual system of law effectively generated cooperation rather than conflict just as we anarchists would expect and that when there was conflict that arose it was settled by nonviolent means.

Please note, I am not saying that there was no violence in the Old West. That came with the Government and it interventions; not to mention its war on the natives that had serious blow-back for the settlers.

What we have been describing is classic Murray Rothbard on how societies without government will use private agencies to help people cooperate and protect themselves and their property. I remember that Rothbard himself mentioned the old west but I don’t recall where in his many writings he did that. Material for another posts someday I guess.

I think that littlemargaretnan was right. Americans need to look to American history to believe that we have seen anarchy in action and that it works. Ancient Ireland is a wonderful example, but we have examples here at home to look at.


One thought on “The Old West and property rights

  1. Pingback: RLM News Show Blog - 2013-01-18 | Real Liberty Media

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