How the west and east were won

U.S. was a third-world country 150+ years ago.  Consider Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia or Daniel Boone’s Kentucky.  Hernando de Soto says so in The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (Basic, Perseus, 2000).  Squatters’ rights is his focus: how the new country and the English colony before that managed to recognize and codify them. 

Such codification of recognized practice is the essence of workable law, he implies, echoing Hayek.  Good law does that, he says.  It’s not made of whole cloth and it changes custom only in “trivial” ways, he says, quoting one of many sources he has consulted to produce his mid-book chapter, “The Missing Lessons of U.S. History.”

Sidetrack: Our civil rights revolution went astray when it moved from abolishing bad laws to making new ones that attempted too much and poisoned the well of respect for law.

Continuing the thread: Colonial Pennsylvania “connived at or permitted many usages it was powerless to prevent . . . “ (115–116)  The making of Maine, 1820: squatters made Maine too hot for Massachusetts to handle.  (118)  Squatters moved in and wouldn’t move, so Mass. said the hell with it. 

In such matters, the American revolution can be seen to be already under way, colonists refusing (pre-Lexington and Concord or Boston Tea Party) to be bound by the Crown’s property laws, which proved inapplicable in the new world.  Indeed, “local elites,” usually themselves immigrants or related to some, were sympathetic to squatters and gave them a break.

All in all, these early Americans were not easily cowed or domesticated, I say.  “Don’t tread on me” was the motto not only of the first Marines

Legislating against squatters in the first half of the 19th century, as in regard to Northwest Territory and other government-owned lands, Congress had no idea what the situation was out there, where a sheriff could be shot and the shooter exonerated if he tried to enforce their laws.

It was all in the course of the U.S. creating a body of laws that allowed entry into property ownership, says de Soto, who presents himself not as a rewriter of American history but, like his “legendary” predecessory of the same name, an explorer.  He’s a Peruvian who writes platinum-grade English without translator.  Quite an interesting book so far.

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