The Mild West: Terror or Tranquil?

In Mel Brook’s 1974 film ‘Blazing Saddles’ Sheriff Bart’s farewell to the townspeople of Rockridge ended with “all right, you caught me. Speaking the plain truth is getting pretty damn dull around here”. Not only are his words an excellent allegory for politics today, they excellently satirise the historical inaccuracies surrounding the Old West of the 19th century which, in the Hayekian legal tradition, had a relatively peaceful society.

Sergio Leone, the director credited as the inventor of the Spaghetti Western genre, described it as a society where ‘life has no value’. The old American frontier is notorious for its fiendish and violent way of life, mainly due to such distortions created by the film industry. This stereotype was popularised by American folklore, music and dime novels published in the latter half of the 19th century with prominent figures such as ‘Buffalo Bill Cody’ but taking a look at the historical evidence paints a different picture.

Bayard Taylor, contemporaneous travel author, noted “the punctuality with which debts were paid, and the general confidence which men were obliged to place, perforce, in each other’s honesty.” However, Dodge City, a place thought of as the biggest and most rambunctious town of the Wild West experienced a grand total of 5 deaths in 1878, its worst year for homicides. Take one of the most famous gunfights; the ‘O.K. Corral’ shoot-out. It lasted for a total of 60 seconds and resulted in 3 deaths. Though it was 5 and 3 deaths too many, you were still more likely to be gunned down in Victorian London than in the Wild West. (1) 

The Old West can be best explained by Hayekian legal institutions where laws were grown organically, not manufactured. It is a process analogous to the market’s production of prices arising from voluntary interactions between individuals using information they have available and producing information in the process. Over time, through competitive jurisdictions, groups of individuals observe this information, develop expectations about the results of particular interactions, and plan their behavior accordingly. Thus this system resolves disputes according to the ex ante rather than ex post expectations of the parties.

They effectively developed unofficial legal institutions to fill the vacuum created by the lack of a state. These involved cattle associations with clear land ownership boundaries, private enforcement of property rights and even enforced codes of permissible moral behaviour. It resulted in a competitive environment in which different ranches imposed different codes of conduct on cowboys, and took different approaches toward the introduction of farming into the land.

The gold mining districts even agreed on a constitution, defining their borders, allocating claims and limiting claim size. Enforcement was done through various dispute resolution processes, amongst them the infamous vigilance committees: a response to the lack of state-provided legal services. They overcame free rider problems in the private provision of legal services by enabling community members to band together against threats and take steps to defend themselves.

Whilst the frontier was a harsh place where social capital lay relatively thin on the ground, Hayekian legal institutions flourished. Customary legal institutions not only flourished in but successfully adapted to conditions across the West. This case is yet another testament to the fact that Leviathan can be avoided.


(1) Marriott, E. (2011). Bad history - How we got the past wrong.