That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom-these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.
Indeed, we often see libertarianism associated with frontier cultures. The American West is the primary example, but the Australian Outback also comes readily to mind. I have often heard an argument against libertarianism that springs from this frontier association. The argument contends that libertarianism worked fine in the wide open spaces of the West where land and other resources were plentiful, but now that we are more tightly packed, and more cosmopolitan, we need a top down solution to make everything work. I think this argument suffers from a fundamental post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
Charles C. Mann offers an interesting insight in his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which I mentioned before. Mann discusses the Marajó culture, which thrived along the Amazon from about 800 to 1400 A.D., with archaeologist Anna C. Roosevelt (p. 294-95):
In highland Mexico, “it wasn’t easy to get away from other people. With all those rocky hillsides and deserts, you couldn’t readily start over. But in the Amazon, you could run away–strike off in your canoe and be gone.”
As in Huckleberry Finn? I asked.
“If you like,” she said. “You could go [along the river] where you wanted and homestead–the forest gives you all kinds of fruit and animals, the river gives you fish and plants. That was very important to societies like Marajó. They had to be much less coercive, much more hang-loose, much more socially fluid, or people wouldn’t stay there.” Compared with much of the rest of the world at the time, people in the Amazon “were freer, they were healthier, they were living in a really wonderful civilization.”
Marajó never had the grand public monuments of a Tenochtitlán or a Qosqo, Roosevelt noted, because its leaders “couldn’t compel the labor.” Nonetheless, she said, Marajó society was “just as orderly and beautiful and complex. The eye-opener was that you didn’t need a huge apparatus of state control to have all that.”
The argument against libertarianism says that we don’t have liberty any longer because libertarianism only works in a frontier environment. Once we progress beyond the frontier, we progress beyond libertarian solutions. However, Roosevelt’s observations about Marajó society illustrate, instead, that we have libertarianism in frontier cultures because frontiers are one of the few places in which normal people can curb their political leaders’ unrelenting desire to use “force in order to substitute their own inclinations for those of the human race.”
Are there any frontiers left? I’m ready to move.
* I would argue in favor of Anglosphere exceptionalism more generally, but that’s for another time.