All Commentary
Monday, March 1, 1965

The Frontier is Freedom

Dr. Coleson is Professor of Economics at Spring Arbor College in Michigan.

In the report of the Superintend­ent of the Census for 1890 appeared the remark that at long last the frontier was gone, that while there were still pockets of unsettled territory, there could hardly be said to be a frontier line anymore. Thus closed an epoch in American history, an heroic and often tragic story of the win­ning of a continent.

But the passing of the actual frontier was not the end of the story, just the beginning: appar­ently the energies once expended on the Oregon Trail or clearing a plot of land about the cabin door were now to be released on a new fictional frontier where countless millions of cowboys and Indians would perish on movie and TV screens. The battle for the West had just begun.

Furthermore, the preoccupation with the American frontier is more than an obsession of “pulp” magazine writers and their fans. Serious scholars have attributed all sorts of virtues to the Ameri­can people, clearly the consequence of the pioneer experience, or so they think. Others were sure that such calamities as the Great De, pression were in fact the con sequences of the passing of the frontier: we just couldn’t live without one! And, finally, whet politicians run out of slogans -New Deals, Fair Deals, and th( like—there is always the Nev Frontier to catch votes.

Just what was this “frontier effect,” which has such a hold 01 the American imagination, am how has it shaped our country for good or ill?

What the Frontier Didn’t Do

The opening up of the New World by Columbus, Cabot, Drake, and a host of others was a tre­mendous event to a Europe which had been stewing in its own juice for centuries. Here were boundless horizons and new frontiers with­out limit. Surely, our contempor­aries reason, liberty was the nat­ural outgrowth of such an expan­sive situation in a world of un­spoiled abundance. It is inevitable also, according to the same logic, for us to find ourselves in quite a different situation today with our empty lands long since filled and our resource base already seriously depleted. The freedom of the frontier is no longer pos­sible; and anyone who insists we could and should operate our econ­)mies and governments according to the principles of the “Gay Nineties” is completely out of contact with reality, or so we are old.

Now, as a matter of fact, the later part of the nineteenth cen­tury and the early years of the twentieth, up until about World War I, was one of the outstanding eras of human liberty in world history. John Maynard Keynes extols this period in the most complimentary terms. But we must not assume, as people tend to do, that if life in the 1890′s was rel­atively simple and unfettered that the 1790′s must have been freer and the 1690′s still more so. This just isn’t the truth. The world of three or four centuries ago, with the machine age still well in the future and vast areas yet unex­plored, was as complicated and repressive in its way as our own—and for the same reason. Freedom is the consequence of a philosophy of life, a Weltanschauung or “world view” as the Germans would say, a modus operandi, the outworking of a deliberate choice, and not the spontaneous result of living at a special time in his­tory or in some favored natural environment.

The notion that freedom is as natural as breathing for those hardy souls who dwell on the pioneer fringe is not supported by the facts. If the English settlers in America absorbed the love of freedom by osmosis from the air or water of the New World, then why didn’t the French and Span­ish catch it, too? New France was born in chains and never prospered; that is one of the rea­sons why the English finally won out.

Spain’s regulations of her Amer­ican colonies were, if anything, even more stupidly repressive. In fact the only legal outlet for an Argentine cow, about the only likely export of the fertile pampas back then, was westward across the continent, up over the Andes (the second highest range in the world), by ship from Peru to Panama, then across the fever-in­fested Isthmus, and finally once a year to Spain, when the royal convoy sailed. All of this man­made complexity and confusion, when a child could see that the obvious and practical route was out the front door through Buenos Aires by direct sea route to Eu­rope!

The colony would have lan­guished utterly but for an active smuggling trade carried on in spite of terrible penalties. Had one remonstrated with the royal bureaucracy about this or a multi­tude of other equally inane pro­hibitions, he would have been told that there was already a “surplus” and, but for these benign restric­tions which like a dam held back this ruinous wave of potential abundance, the markets of the world would be inundated with such a glut that every tradesman, merchant, and farmer would be bankrupt.

This pleniphobia, or fear of abundance, was as much of an obsession to the seventeenth cen­tury mercantilists as it is to our contemporaries who are sure auto­mation will be our ruin. It is hard for us to see how they ever got the notion that their meager little was too much; yet, so many fail to see that there are still vast unmet needs even today.

Frontier Abundance and Reality

Not only is freedom far from a spontaneous development on the frontiers of the world, but the familiar notion of the fabulous wealth of a bounteous nature needs some qualification. Many a “modern” who prates endlessly about the departed glories of ear­lier days would return by jet plane, the next flight, should any­one exile him to some pioneer settlement of today. Trees on the stump and ore in the ground are indeed assets, but they take some fixing before they are very useful. One might starve or perish from exposure in the midst of such nat­ural abundance, as indeed many have, simply because most of na­ture’s gifts must be processed to be of any use to mankind.

Of the many broad and rich frontiers of George Washington’s day—and the world was mostly “new frontier” from pole to pole back then—only a few conspicu­ous areas have developed phenom­enally. The rest are still back­ward, probably now the benefi­ciaries of some development pro­gram. They haven’t advanced and won’t, not because resources are lacking but because the conditions necessary for progress are lacking. While such people need modern machinery, education, sanitation, and about everything else imagin­able, these tools and techniques still won’t get them started down the road of progress in any per­manent way unless they change their minds fundamentally. The philosophy of freedom, liberty under law, could accomplish for them what multiplied billions in foreign aid has not done and can­not do.

When the Industrial Age started somewhat more than two hundred years ago, the Western world suffered from the same health and nutritional problems that plague the backward areas even today. There was the same desperate problem of poverty and want that casts its shadow over many a land today. In England two centuries ago, a bushel of wheat cost nearly a full week’s wages for a common laborer. The diet was meager and monotonous, and famine stalked the land when the scanty crops failed due to natural calamities. Epidemics swept away large frac­tions of the population on occa­sion. Infant and childhood mortal­ity was appallingly high: Adam Smith remarked that it was not uncommon to find a peasant mother in the Highlands of Scotland who had borne twenty children but had not even two yet surviving. In short, we find the same heart­rending conditions that can be found in the backward areas of the world even today. What hap­pened to change all this for a few favored people like you and me in the midst of a world of ignorance and want, where the typical individual goes to bed hun­gry every night?

Frontiers or Freedom?

While some were seeking New Frontiers, other Englishmen be­gan to tinker with textile machin­ery in the early years of the eighteenth century. Somewhat later Watt produced a practical steam engine that got industrial production off to a vigorous start. While it is never possible to know all the conditions which went into making a given situation develop as it did, one thing is certain. This movement for the betterment of mankind came close to dying in its infancy. Watt was not per­mitted to set up a shop in Glas­gow, and might never have gotten his chance at all if the University had not taken him in as the official instrument maker. Savage mobs attacked the new textile mills and destroyed them. The sewing machine was invented in France before it was known in America, but was destroyed by French tailors who feared automation. A mowing machine was devised in England before Mc­Cormick invented the reaper, but again it was throttled in its in­fancy. Ingenious people no doubt invented many a contrivance again and again across the ages, only to have them stillborn because of the difficulties of machining without the lathes and other ma chine tools we take for granted and more particularly because the neighbors simply would not allow the new labor-saving device to come into being.

There is little reason to believe that the frontier held the magic that a lot of people ascribe to it. Astounding progress has exploded in old settled lands such as the England of George III or West Germany after World War II. Frontier lands have remained primitive for generations. Nations with great natural resources have stagnated while tiny countries like Switzerland have forged ahead without much of anything to go on. The mysterious ingredient of industrial progress is simply the freedom to try and the assurance that creative effort will be re­warded. The stagnation of the Great Depression was the con­sequence of massive governmental interventions in the economic proc­ess, not the passing of the frontier. Certainly, the backwardness of many an underdeveloped nation today is related to the fact that the enterprising individual is stig­matized and ruined by his neigh­bors and the local officials. To have lived in some remote “native” vil­lage long enough to know how their social curbs on progress oper­ate is to understand why the best laid plans of economic develop­ment schemes have a way of f ailing utterly. Without freedom to achieve and without a measure of security for life and property, aid is use. less; and with freedom, it is un­necessary. Any enterprising in­vestor is happy to put his money into a going concern and nothing succeeds like success. But the rigidities of a managed economy stifle initiative and scare off venture capital, keeping the depressed area stagnant and backward. Only a rich country can afford the economic interventions of socialism—and they can’t afford it for long.

Freedom is not a luxury for few wealthy nations, as many of our liberal pundits try to tell us but a necessity for the poor and hungry as Erhard’s Germany so eloquently demonstrated after he crushing defeat in World War II.