Anti-Horse Thief Association

Friday, Jul 30, 2010

The West during [the period 1830 to 1900] is perceived as a place of great chaos, with little respect for property or life. Histories describe the era and area as characterized by gunfights, horse-thievery, and general disrespect for basic human rights. The taste for the dramatic in literature and other entertainment forms has led to concentration on the seeming disparity between the westerners' desire for order and the prevailing disorder.

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.

In his book, Frontier Violence: Another Look, W. Eugene Hollon stated that the he believed "that the Western frontier was a far more civilized, more peaceful, and safer place than American society is today." The legend of the "wild, wild West" lives on despite Robert Dykstra's finding that in five of the major cattle towns (Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City, and Caldwell) for the years from 1870 to 1885, only 45 homicides were reported-an average of 1.5 per cattle-trading season. In Abilene, supposedly one of the wildest of the cow towns, "nobody was killed in 1869 or 1870. In fact, nobody was killed until the advent of officers of the law, employed to prevent killings." Only two towns, Ellsworth in 1873 and Dodge City in 1876, ever had five killings in any one year. Frank Prassel states in his book subtitled "A Legacy of Law and Order," that "if any conclusion can be drawn from recent crime statistics, it must be that this last frontier left no significant heritage of offenses against the person, relative to other sections of the country."

To understand how law and order were provided in the American West, we now turn to four examples of institutions which approximated anarcho-capitalism. These case studies of land claims clubs, cattlemens' associations, mining camps, and wagon trains provide support for the hypotheses presented above and suggest that private rights were enforced and that chaos did not reign.


From the above descriptions of the experience of the American West, several conclusions... appear:

  • The West, although often dependent upon market peace keeping agencies, was, for the most part, orderly.
  • Different standards of justice did prevail and various preferences for rules were expressed through the market place.
  • Competition in defending and adjudicating rights does have beneficial effects. Market agencies provided useful ways of measuring the efficiency of government alternatives. The fact that government's monopoly on coercion was not taken as seriously as at present meant that when that monopoly was poorly used market alternatives arose. Even when these market alternatives did become "governments" in the sense of having a virtual monopoly on coercion, the fact that such firms were usually quite small provided significant checks on their behavior. Clients could leave or originate protective agencies on their own. Without formal legal sanctions, the private agencies did face a "market test" and the rate of survival of such agencies was much less than under government.

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 anarcho-capitalism. When this agreement existed, however, we have presented evidence that anarcho-capitalism was viable on the frontier.

An American Experiment in Anarcho-Capitalism: The Not So Wild, Wild West, Terry L. Anderson and P. J. Hill, Department of Economics, Montana State University, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, 1977,