The Other Side of the Frontier: Economic Explorations into Native American History

By Linda Barrington | Go to book overview

Introduction
Relative Prices, Civilizations, and Evolving Institutions

LINDA BARRINGTON

Economic historians have increasingly come to acknowledge the interactive dance that takes place between institutions, macroeconomic growth trends, and microeconomic decisionmaking. Economic growth allows for the development of institutions, and the path along which these institutions evolve influences further economic growth. In addition, although any optimization decision is constrained by formal and informal rules, the optimization of economic self-interest simultaneously influences the creation of these rules. Institutions affect incentives, and incentives mold institutions.

Part 1 provides glimpses into varying preconquest civilizations and their institutions. These three chapters reveal how, before the arrival of Europeans, indigenous peoples reacted to economic forces -- establishing and adapting their civilizations in response to comparative advantage.

Vernon L. Smith, in Chapter 1, presents the big picture of prehistoric human evolution and settlement. He describes how economic concepts such as comparative advantage and the tragedy of the commons can explain global prehistory. Prehistoric settlement of the American continent and the evolution of its indigenous civilizations are part of this long economic history of humankind. In his chapter, Smith presents several generalized principles or hypotheses. Among them: (1) Hunters and gatherers invented technologies and created institutions that allowed them to obtain affluence manifested in terms of nutrition, health, and leisure. Skeletal records of late-Pleistocene humans and studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century hunting and fishing peoples in Africa, Australia, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Malaya, and Canada reveal little disease or malnutrition and notable quantities of time spent in leisure activities. (2) Opportunity cost has directed the development of humankind. For example, the horse increased the opportunity cost of settled agriculture for the Cheyenne by making hunting more productive -- a shift in relative costs that resulted in a dramatic change of lifestyle and cul-

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