Do you remember the video game Oregon Trail?
It was popular in 1980s and 1990s. And you had to overcome a whole series of obstacles in order to succeed. The history it represents is also interesting. And it shows us fascinating
ways in which people can overcome obstacles like those in the game.
I’m P.J. Hill, an economic historian who taught for twenty-five years at Wheaton College in
Illinois. And I’m also a Montana cattle rancher. Between 1840 and 1860, 300,000 people made
their way across the Plains. It wasn’t easy. There were lots of obstacles. You had to decide
how to ford rivers, how fast you should go, what trail you should take. They tended to
organize in groups of ten to twenty wagons with about fifty people. How did they succeed
in this world? It would seem like that would be a recipe for conflict, or massive theft,
or chaos. They did it by writing contracts. Everyone
going on a particular wagon train would sign that contract. It would be very similar to
a unanimously approved constitution. Contracts were different for different groups. If it
was quite homogeneous, then they didn’t worry a lot about dispute resolution. If they came
from different places where they didn’t even know each other, then they wrote down some
very specific rules about how you were going to deal with people who didn’t get along.
It is very difficult for government to be as flexible. There’s a very simple message
here. When people are faced with difficult tasks that require substantial cooperation,
they can come up with innovative solutions on their own. What do you think would have
happened if there would have been a government agency that would have been in charge of wagon
trains? There probably would have been rules about the optimal size for wagon trains, about
safety precautions, about fast they could go. We don’t have to have formal government
to try to solve those sorts of problems.