The persistent influence of the frontier on American life

Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein, and Mesay Gebresilasse have a new NBER working paper on that theme, here is the abstract:

In a classic 1893 essay, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American frontier promoted individualism. We revisit the Frontier Thesis and examine its relevance at the subnational level. Using Census data and GIS techniques, we track the frontier throughout the 1790-1890 period and construct a novel, county-level measure of historical frontier experience. We document skewed sex ratios and other distinctive demographics of frontier locations, as well as their greater individualism (proxied by infrequent children names). Many decades after the closing of the frontier, counties with longer historical frontier experience exhibit more prevalent individualism and opposition to redistribution and regulation. We take several steps towards a causal interpretation, including an instrumental variables approach that exploits variation in the speed of westward expansion induced by national immigration inflows. Using linked historical Census data, we identify mechanisms giving rise to a persistent frontier culture. Selective migration contributed to greater individualism, and frontier conditions may have further shaped behavior and values. We provide evidence suggesting that rugged individualism may be rooted in its adaptive advantage on the frontier and the opportunities for upward mobility through effort.

I am very much a proponent of this line of reasoning.


As a resident of a remote Alaskan village I'm interested in this paper but question the idea that living here makes one oppose redistribution and that individualism in this community would be linked to "upward mobility through effort" because I don't see either of them in this community. Decent jobs outside of commercial fishing are usually achieved through nepotism (at least to a greater degree than you'd see in Utah, Michigan or France) and our local politics is entirely focused on winning federal grant money

That was then, this is now.

Another way of reading this paper is this: when there's no government to bail you out, you must, out of necessity, like a forced move in chess, do it yourself. However, once 'civilization' occurs, people love Big Brother since it makes life easier (complacency). That seems to be the historical process. As has been said by another, the 'evolution' of economics seems to be towards complacency and big government, all the way back to the time of the Pharaohs and the hydraulic axial kingdoms of surplus back then. Most people prefer to be a poor, but provided for, slave than a Robinson Crusoe frontier pioneer is a short way of saying the same thing. Equivalently, most people prefer a guaranteed passbook savings account at a tiny but predictable interest rate return rather than a more risky but lucrative stock market return.

... it's a bit more basic than individual-versus-government -- it's one-versus-many.

a lone human anywhere will much more quickly be destroyed by the many natural hazards of planet earth

but there is safety in numbers --cooperative human groups of any size make individual survival/progress much more durable generally

the problem is that groups always develop dominant persons or sub-groups that usually become threats to the other individuals -- subjugating or destroying these individuals.
"government" is the most common form of these sub-groups

so individual humans constantly face the dilemma of choosing the risks of individualism versus the risks of submitting to the oligarchic collective group.

(ultimately, Mother Nature kills everybody -- eliminating such petty human concerns)

Interesting comparison, but I don't think a remote Alaskan town in 2017 is very comparable to the American frontier in the 19th century.

Most people went to the latter seeking opportunity via hard work in activities like farming, ranching, mining, or small business. It was a region of opportunity, or at least perceived as such (though reality didn't always match the hype). By contrast, remote communities today are usually conspicuous for lacking economic opportunity. The selection bias into both types of communities would be quite different.

Also the ability to provide goods, infrastructure, and government to remote communities was much less back then, resulting in a greater need for self-sufficiency.

Or even a 150 year old smaller city in the interior west. An Alaskan village is usually far more dependent of government provision than even a suburb in the Matsu valley for survival, it is more like the clmmunity one might find around centers of government administration in the period of expansion. Leavenworth, KS, Salt Lake, Sacramento, Helena, or Yuma are rather different even today from most of their neighbors in various attitudes.

This look like a study of facts, not something you should decide whether to be a "proponent of". Tylers comment also implies that had the study come to the opposite (or null) result, Tyler would not have been a proponent and certainly not posted it here.

Wow, you have mined many conclusions from one ambiguous sentence.

Or maybe he is just in favor of this line of research since his priors are that it will lead to this not widely held concluion.

Of course, rugged individualism and community are opposites. Every book and movie with an American frontier theme contrasts the rugged individual hero (e.g., John Wayne and Clint Eastwood characters) against the community of the weak. The community of the weak needs the rugged individual hero to save the weak from a rugged individual villain. The hero rides into the community, vanquishes the villain, then rides out of the community, presumably to repeat the task in other communities of the weak. Contrast the rugged individual hero depicted in books and movies with the real world and how the real world deals with villains: community, the army community, the navy community, the air force community, the community of allies. Ayn Rand novels are just an updated version of the rugged individual hero and the community of the weak. Is it any wonder that modern-day libertarians liken themselves to the rugged individual hero of the American frontier. Even Cowen, with his praise for "mobility" ("go West, young man"), falls for the image of the rugged individual hero.

i would love your explanation of the political abd cultural reactions to High Noon versus those to Rio Bravo.

Extra points for incorporating “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”

Well, speaking of real life, we still see plenty of examples where individualism (rugged or not) is needed and rewarded over the "community". Tech companies are an excellent example, but I'd say entrepreneurs in general still represent that. Sure, the State does have a monopoly (of sorts) in violence so it is logical that physical threats are dealt by "the community". But the strong defense of the 2nd amendment is a demonstration that a lot of people don't feel comfortable with that arrangement.

"the American frontier promoted individualism": I wonder. I'd have guessed that it would have promoted Burke's "little platoons" whereby people would rely a good deal on voluntary collaboration with their neighbours. I'd expect to see individualism in the anonymity of big cities.

But then I'm not using individualism as a hurray-word.


Rather than being between the individual and the group, the trade-off is more often between the big group(the state and mainstream culture) and the small group.(The extended family or small town where everyone knows one another.) The most noncomformist groups in modern America relative to mainstream society, various religious and immigrant communities, are very conformist within the group.

I actually don't disagree with your point but This reminds me of those people who say that "entrepreneurs are not really stories of individual success because they depend on public roads". Of course everything can be taken out of context, or even inserted into a different context. Regardless of what groups surrounds the individual, I think there is still a place for individualism to be valued and promoted. On the flip side, I think there is a clear and obvious danger in allowing the collective to take over individualism with its thirsty for power and uniformity.

"the American frontier promoted individualism": I wonder. I'd have guessed that it would have promoted Burke's "little platoons" whereby people would rely a good deal on voluntary collaboration with their neighbours. I'd expect to see individualism in the anonymity of big cities.

But then I'm not using individualism as a hurray-word.

...And yet the Utah/Idaho Mormons of the 1800s was the closest to a communist society the US ever had. I bet the causation goes like this:
Bipolar Disorder and openness to novelty/risktaking are on a scale...those that were born with high values of these traits naturally set out west compared to others.

There's a Third Option between individualism and community: extended families living in close proximity, bound together for common defense by kinship bonds. If you looked at the American frontier starting as early as 1790, you'd see a lot of Albion's Seed's "Borderers", and that's their thing. They also did not like the government, just not from a position of individualism.

Also, if I'm told that there's a relationship between 19th century American communities' "infrequent children names" and opposition to government, I don't think individualism I think religious movements- not just the Mormons, but all those weird little splinter groups.

"extended families living in close proximity, bound together for common defense by kinship bonds"

Sounds like an Islamic tribal society

I am glad to see the Turner thesis getting renewed attention. Arguably in some areas we have not managed the transition to mature, fully settled State very well. Mass shootings and the lack of comprehensive medical coverage come to mind. (Yes, I know the arguments on both sides.)

The past really is a different country. I recall a young person remarking that the "Little House" series was the story of a rootless eccentric dragging his family around the frontier, nearly killing them all in the process. The tiny Wilder line ended in 1968. That perspective had never occurred to me.

Perhaps the Turner thesis was a factor in the persistence of slavery. It's not financially feasible to pay your citizen-Anglo workforce enough to stay put and do hard, repetitive work for you when they can light out for the frontier and work for themselves instead.

I would love to see more academic exploration of the Turner thesis. Thanks for the post, Tyler.

It was the northern industrialists that opposed western settlement not the slave holders. There was never going to be enough immigration to satisfy the needs of southern plantations once king cotton came into being so it simply wasn't an issue for plantation owners. In fact the plantation owners were huge manifest destiny supporters in their quest to unlock more slave states.

Meanwhile the rapacious northern industrialists needed all the labor they could get and weren't very interested in paying for it so they sponsored legislation like the Foot Amendment to cut off the sale of western lands bottling up labor to be shuffled into the factories of the north.

Except that they hit the end of the black lands (so-called because of their soil type) in East Texas, and that was it for new slave states. The slavery model simply could not transfer to other sorts of agriculture let alone to manufacturing, and an increasing majority of people in the United States-- and in Europe, whence most immigrants then-- wanted nothing to do with slavery. When the slavery folks failed to flip Kansas to slavery despite election rigging and outright violence, the gig was up and the South only hope was secession.

Also, you seem to be forgetting the Homestead Act which was passed one the South was out of the Union temporarily and Congress was GOP-dominated and the industrialists of the northeast were getting their way.

And? I never said it was successful I just pointed out that as far as supply of labor went the north was a lot more obstructionist to westward settlement than the south. The south made no effort to impede western settlement and the main proponents of manifest destiny were westerners and southerners.

Northern industrialists absolutely opposed western settlement up until changes in industry made all that labor they bottled up to drive down prices superfluous. Then it was sic em on the Indians time.

Except that your thesis runs afoul of the fact that the Homestead Act was passed AFTER the South seceded and Congress was composed of only Northern and border state senators and House members.

In reality the North had no need to be geed for labor: there was an endless supply of workers immigrating to the US in those days with very little to hinder them. And from an industrialist's point of view the frontier was a useful safety valve since malcontents could just take themselves west rather than hang around to stir up trouble.

The history of the Homestead Act begs to differ:

Pretty typical low quality responses at MR. But admittedly anything slighting plutocrats on this site is chum in the waters.

Things change a lot in twenty years which is the length of time between the foot amendment and the homestead acts. By that time the industry of the north had more people than it needed. Efficiency gains had rendered the old need for huge amounts of labor unnecessary. Industrialists now worried about labor unrest and incipient workers movements. Thus was born the homestead acts to channel all that bogged up labor out the east now that it was no longer needed. Kind of like how all that take of the New Colossus and broad backs went out the window the second workers started showing signs of being influenced by socialist immigrants from Europe.

Situations change you dont get to be a plutocrat but failing to adjust.

People had already lived successfully on the frontier, or, what to them was simply home, for many, many generations, as individuals and as communities. The invasion from the east wasn't as difficult as it might have been because the technological level of the invaders wasn't really all that complex. They weren't going to another planet and the people that they were displacing were physically very much like themselves. It's obvious that generally only highly individualistic people would be likely to uproot themselves from homes and families to move into an unknown situation. This has always been the case. When these self-sufficient individuals meet a normal community with the normal percentage of individuals, it means domination and disaster for the latter.

The hunter-gatherers are always in trouble when the farmers show up.

Agriculture was highly developed in the pre-Columbian New World. After all, that's where maize, potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins and other plants originated.

East of the Mississippi, yes (and of course in Mexico extending up into Arizona and New Mexico). Most of the western United States and almost all of Canada was still populated by hunter-gatherers.

This is a complicated issue. By the 19th century there were many nomadic Indian tribes in the Great Plains but that was a recent development made possible by the introduction of horses (which I believe reached the Plains in the 18th century). Most tribes had been settled farmers and most continued to farm to some extent. Moreover, the 19th century view of the Plains Indians is distorted because the Indians that American settlers had encountered were already reeling from disease, the introduction of alcohol, and the migration of tribes from further East. And if you go back to the 16th century, there were still significant urban settlements in the Mississippi Valley and along its tributaries.

There is no archaeological evidence for agriculture in large areas of western and northern North America-- more or less the territory I cited.
Some agriculture was practiced west of the Mississippi on the Great Plains, but mainly in river valleys however it disappeared before Columbus, probably as a result of the spell of global cooling (and drying) that we call The Little Ice Age in Eurasia. The Mound-Building proto-civilization also seems to have contracted radically at the same time, leaving only remnants in the lower Mississippi Valley but disappearing altogether farther north (e..g, Cahokia)

One of the first best-selling authors in the US was James Fenimore Cooper who certainly expressed Rousseau influenced ideas about the essential purity of man in nature. I have long wondered about the effects of the Highland Clearances on the American frontier; perhaps the harsh expulsion from places where their families had lived since time immemorial made the early settlers extremely reluctant to accept another landlord especially one empowered by the instruments of government.

The highland clearances began long after the early settlers of the US had arrived. The expelled scots almost all settled in the Carolinas not on the frontier. To the extent that there was a Scottish influence on the frontier it would have been mostly from the Scots Irish who frankly were the beneficiary of Irish expulsions.

Many decades after the closing of the frontier, counties with longer historical frontier experience exhibit more prevalent individualism and opposition to redistribution and regulation

One might also see this in the frontier myth that lives on in the Western (and arguably in space-colonization SF). WRT the Western, it's notable that when I was reading Lonesome Dove, two people saw the book cover and mentioned that it was their favorite book.

Very few people just talk to me about the book I happen to be reading, but Lonesome Dove inspired that behavior not once but twice. Even though the Western as a genre is mostly dead today, it still seems to affect the culture, even in cosmopolitan, Europhilic NYC.

I lived on a homestead in Alaska in the 1950's as a young child. It was perhaps the last homestead act in the US that had significant participation, though there wasn't much. First, there is a more powerful selection gradient than most people probably think. Tiny numbers of people homesteaded, but many who did had lots and lots of children. Second, to do well you had to be resourceful and make things work with what you had most of the time. This also meant you often relied on your neighbors and they relied on you. Though there was a lot of generosity, it wasn't so much that being a moocher was bad as it was unthinkable. Third, someone who writes well on this general area is Patricia Limerick. So some links -

Something in the Soil, a book I liked about the history of The West. Has a chapter on the Turner Thesis. ..

Something in the Soil, a book review, ...

Synopsis of Limerick's book Legacy of Conquest,

Is that what makes USAers (and Latin Americans) so much wilder that Europeans?

And yet how to explain Canada which also had a frontier experience, yet ended up with a rather different culture?

No Revolution mainly.

Really dumb take. Especially when you take a half a second to remember oh shit Europe has had tons of revolutions. Never mind that the wilder parts of the United States weren't exactly hotbeds of patriot sympathy.

Nah, Europe's revolutions were very different from the American one. Thought you knew that. I guess I can change 'mainly' to 'in large part'.

No they really weren't. The Dutch revolution was extremely similar. Thankfully I was sure you wouldn't know this. Because you aren't one of those curious dumb ass types you are one of those open your mouth and confirm the dumbass types.

I know more about European history than you will ever know. The Dutch one was closest, but if you think that means the manner and causes of the American Revolution was not somehow a major driver of the nation's character because hey the Dutch broke from Spain a while back too, well, that's on you. The question was comparing Canada to the US by the way not Europe to the US. The difference between how Canada and the US split from Britain is without question a main cause of the differing national characters.

Tyler even did an interesting post on it a while back, speculating how the US would be different if it had split from the UK in a more peaceful, Canadian manner. But you keep on being you, cowboy.

A more succinct difference may be that slavery was never integral to the colonial Canadian economy.

I lived in Alaska for nine years. My memory is that it was both more individualistic and community-oriented than here in the lower 48. I find it interesting how virtually everyone considers them to be opposing forces that must be binary and mutually exclusive. Alaskans considered being an individual to be a basic human right, and they also considered helping those around you a basic part of being a decent human being. My experience is that both ends were practiced far more than anywhere I've lived in the 48.

Hawaii, where I lived for four years, was just a racist nepotism run amok. With beaches. And Dukes and Teddy's Burger. And spearfishing.

How is individualism defined in the paper? Do these same jurisdictions have "individualistic" views about recreational drug use, gender roles, sexual orientation, religion and reproductive rights? It strikes me that they are likely conflating libertarian economic views for individualism.

As an example, consider the demographics of the various Alaskan gold rushes. The interior Athabascan societies were matriarchal and the women were and are rather dominating. Their men were easy-going, laid back fellows. The bachelor gold prospectors were individualistic in a sense but also self-reliant Alphas capable of making their way in an inhospitable wilderness, at least according to their own lights. In a situation involving these three groups of people, who do you suppose will come out on the short end?

Well, the most obvious contradiction for me is Russia with centuries of frontier experience and presently as statist population as u can possibly get

Did they have property rights?

Individuals went crazy for land in the OK land rush. A few years later they were begging for government help in the dust bowl. There was plenty of arable land to be worked in the US and people would starve if they didn't work. I guess they preferred farming to unemployment in the cities. Plus many were immigrants and were treated as second citizens by the earlier generations of settlers in cities. So they packed up and built their own little piece of heaven. Plus people had property rights in the US, excepting Indians and blacks.

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