Liberty Matters

Revolution and Force-Pump Development

I am very glad to see that my fellow respondents gave thoughtful, appropriately generous, and critical responses to our lead authors–even as my initial criticisms and claims were so harsh and wildly out of the leftern wilderness. 
Speaking of the wilderness, I was slightly surprised by the insistence that world history would be impoverished without the “development” of the American West as it actually happened. I do not doubt that my colleagues would agree that economic exploitation of the Plains could well have occurred without the decimation and genocide of the Natives, but if you want to claim the supposed benefits of that process while also following a “reality-based approach” to American history, you also then seem committed to endorsing at least many of the actions which caused those outcomes. The reality, after all, is that the rapacious Americans slaughtered Plains Indians and many others whenever they had lucrative opportunities.
Once independence was achieved and the government began positively encouraging westward settlement, so began what the great locofoco radical William Leggett called the “force-pump method” of development. The race to “develop” the West was a giant government-created socio-economic distortion that warped American history into something twisted and unnatural, little different from the process of distorting an economy through state intervention. In an editorial discussing the ideal of a “Free Trade Post Office,” Leggett undermined the supposed necessity of a government postal service and advocated for trust in “the laws of trade.” But with the (white) settlement of the West, as with the mails, the government did everything but trust in “the laws of trade.” Leggett addressed the argument that a government post is necessary in order to “[extend] mail routes through the wilderness, and thus [present] inducements for population to gather together at points which would otherwise remain unimproved and uninhabited for years.” Leggett’s reply to this challenge deserves full consideration because it speaks directly to the reality of how the West was settled in the wake of the Revolution
To this we answer, unequivocally…We would withdraw all Government stimulants; and let no man suppose that the progress of improvement would be retarded by such a withdrawal. The country would grow from year to year, notwithstanding, as rapidly and more healthily than now. It would only be changing the hot-bed system to the system of nature and reason. It would be discontinuing the force-pump method, by which we now seek to make water flow up hill, and leaving it to flow in its own natural channels. It would be removing the high-pressure application of Government facilities from enterprise and capital, and permitting them to expand themselves in their own proper field. The boundaries of population would still continually enlarge, circle beyond circle, like spreading rings upon the water; but they would not be forced to enlarge this way and that way, shooting out into strange and unnatural irregularities, as it might please land speculators, through the agency of members of Congress, to extend mail facilities into regions which perhaps God and nature meant should remain uninhabited for ages to come.[1]
When the government lays its heavy hand on the table to influence the results of the game, there is always deadweight loss and distortion. In the case of the West, the costs of government-sponsored “development” were the wholesale slaughter of entire peoples, the wiping away of ancient cultures, environmental catastrophes, and distortions of American life to a degree that could never possibly be measured. It was a terrible turning point in history when Americans decided the world was theirs to make and remake at will–like the Revolutionaries who took it upon themselves to decide the fates of others.
[1] Lawrence White (ed.) & William Leggett (original author), Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy,  “Free Trade Post Office,” March 23, 1835.