How Did They Survive the Oregon Trail? | Learn Liberty


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.

25 thoughts on “How Did They Survive the Oregon Trail? | Learn Liberty”

  1. When a politician get a complaint from .1% of wagon trains, they go into 'do something' mode, mistaking a well working system for one that is having all sorts of problems and needs strong regulatory measures, even though it seems obvious to most other people that regulations are not required.  It seems obvious, even as you have described it here.

  2. Harmony and agreement is easy the fewer  people's needs and desires have to be considered. To suggest that a wagon train of even a few hundred people is remotely like a nation is a ludicrous false equivalence.

    And even with such limited scale democracy, the trains got wiped out, starved to death or fell into irreconcilable discord on more than one occasion.

  3. The biggest problem with government is the people make the rules and laws aren't usually the ones affected by them.

  4. How can you say with a straight face that a contract that precedes your birth is anything close to a unanimous decision? WTF?

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