by Don Boudreaux on April 30, 2011

in Complexity & Emergence, History, Prices, Property Rights, Trade

In this post, “How Free Trade killed the Buffalo,” Olaf Storbeck links to a paper (forthcoming in the American Economic Review) by M. Scott Taylor on the late-19th-century slaughter of bison in America.  Storbeck describes Taylor’s paper as showing that “the most important driver of the extinction of the American bison was technical innovation, globalisation and unfettered capitalism.”

Although I can pick several nits with Taylor’s paper, I read it not as a morality tale about what an unholy trinity “technical innovation, globalisation and unfettered capitalism” are, but, rather, as describing an historical instance in which capitalist institutions worked.

Yes, innovation that allowed for the successful tanning of bison hides prompted hunters to slaughter more bison in order to help meet the global demand for leather.   And for a while this increased hunting did indeed reduce the size of bison herds to dangerously low levels.  But only for a while – as Taylor himself notes when describing the

numerous private parties who found buffalo to be such a valuable resource that they established property rights on their own by capturing and then breeding live buffalo.  Several entrepreneurial ranchers in the 1870s and 1880s established private herds that, until federal legislation arrived in the mid 1890s, probably saved the buffalo from extinction [p. 33].

Taylor needn’t have qualified his conclusion with the word “probably.”  Such private property rights certainly saved bison from extinction.  Private owners of bison are no more likely to let their herds be slaughtered to extinction than are Jim Perdue and other private owners of chickens to let their flocks be slaughtered to extinction.

Storbeck also errs when he asserts that, in the late-19th-century bison market, “the law of supply and demand was not working.”  What Storbeck here refers to is the fact that dwindling supplies of bison put no upward pressure on the price of bison leather and, therefore, the dwindling supply of bison hides was not choking off the quantity of bison leather demanded by consumers.   But all this fact means (assuming it to be a fact) is that bison leather and cattle leather were such good substitutes for each other that – because bison leather was only a tiny fraction of the world supply of leather – the global price of leather did not rise noticeably when the supply of bison leather became threatened by bison extinction.

To repeat, though: there was a perfectly predictable (see Harold Demsetz 1967) private market response on the supply side – namely, private entrepreneurial efforts to establish private property rights in a resource whose market value increased enough to justify the costs of establishing and enforcing such property rights.

UPDATE: My friend Dave Rose, at Univ. Missouri at St. Louis, upon reading this post, e-mailed to me a great line: “The only thing that trade ever destroyed is privilege.”  Indeed so.

Be Sociable, Share!



77 comments    Share Share    Print    Email


Sandre April 30, 2011 at 12:19 pm

People see what they are trained to see. or They process what they see with the biases ingrained in them.

Daniel Kuehn April 30, 2011 at 12:33 pm

It’s not clear to me that the quantity of bison consistent with with profit maximization of bison hunters and breeders, where breeders would have a clear incentive to prevent extinction, in any way diminishes his point about the slaughter of the bison. The incentive to establish (or more accurately, to revise) the property rights regime may prevent extinction but presumably it can be still inconsistent with the optimal level of biodiversity. I’m happy that the internalization of select benefits prevents extinction, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still problems associated with market functioning when not all benefits (and costs) are internalized.

Don Boudreaux April 30, 2011 at 12:50 pm

The Starbeck post is titled “How Free Trade Killed the Buffalo.” The buffalo was not killed – contrary to Starbeck’s claim, and capitalist institutions (“innovation, globalisation, and unfettered capitalism”) did not lead to the extinction of bison. Starbeck mentions nothing about “biodiversity.” His implication is clear: capitalist institutions destroyed bison herds. But the paper he cites belies that claim.

Gil April 30, 2011 at 11:40 pm

Would it have better titled “How Free Trade Nearly Killed the Buffalo Species”? If people wanted to hunt the Buffalo instead of farming how is that not Capitalist. If most people had no intention of preserving of the Buffalo because they believed cattle to be superior and were merely clearing the land of the Buffalo to make way for cattle then how is that not Capitalist? It’s clear the extinction would have been no big deal (except to Environmentalists) since there are ready substitutes for the Buffalo.

CalgaryGuy May 1, 2011 at 3:15 am

How is it Capitalist if people wanted to hunt buffalo instead of farming? What is your definition of Capitalism? Capitalism deals with property ownership, specifically private ownership. What do people’s intentions have to do with a system of ownership? Capitalism/free markets isn’t about people being able to do whatever they want.

Gil May 1, 2011 at 5:04 am

Because that’s what the people of the day wanted. It would be anti-Capitalist if the government interfered with the people’s choices and forced people to stop hunting buffalo and farm them instead.

O May 2, 2011 at 8:49 am

I don’t get it. The point of the paper – and to some extent also Storbecks post – is that even in the context of failed institutions (no established property rights) it has been a puzzle why all the Buffalos were killed so rapidly. Now, here is a reasonable explanation building on supply (technology) and demand (trade and price setting) which explains the whole thing. Clearly, supply and demand doesn’t work well without property rights, that is just one reason why these rights are so important. So why should we be upset?

On a more general note the paper shows something very reasonable. I mean, can anyone really deny that free trade (which in general is great of course) can exacerbate some of the problems stemming from a complete lack of property rights?

Don Boudreaux April 30, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Moreover, Daniel, the point you make can be made with equal force (or weakness) for the case of chickens, dogs, horses, catfish, hamsters, tulips, penicillin – even humans. If Starbeck’s point is really as broad as the one you suggest, then there’s nothing about the bison episode that contributes to that point.

Daniel Kuehn April 30, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Of course – Starbeck is certainly wrong for the reasons you raise. I’m providing my thoughts, not my version of his thoughts.

And the point can be made with equal force for any number of things. I don’t think people fully appreciate the extent to which (1.) welfare maximization by markets is crucially dependent on property rights, and (2.) property rights regimes are socially constructed, ad hoc, and incomplete. These sorts of issues are present in all kinds of situations. Clearly some we care about more than others. We worry more in the case of bison and other more magestic species more than hamsters and chickens, perhaps. We worry more about dramatic climate change than we do about… I don’t know… noise pollution.

For some, the question is “are we maximizing welfare or aren’t we”. That’s not really an interesting question to me. Obviously we’re never absolutely maximizing it, but we get a lot closer than we would under any other set of institutions. But when there are particularly disconcerting cases of departure for optimality, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to raise the issue.

Your take-down of Starbeck’s stronger claim was right on target – I think I noted that. I was just adding some other thoughts.

Chucklehead April 30, 2011 at 4:17 pm

I get nervous when someone talks about maximizing our welfare. First it suggest that we all have the same welfare. Second , the power necessary to maximize our welfare is the same power necessary to minimize our welfare. My impression is that collective efforts to maximize our welfare have in fact greatly diminished our welfare.

Daniel Kuehn April 30, 2011 at 4:39 pm

- Didn’t suggest we all have the same welfare.

- Didn’t suggest any single entity ought to be “empowered” to maximize it (we can talk on specific cases but that’s never the default assumption)

Do you feel better with those clarifications? “Maximizing welfare” oughta be a good thing, I think. Isn’t that the idea? Isn’t that why we like markets so much – because of their welfare maximizing properties?

dan April 30, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Naturally, Daniel, with Muirgeo exclaiming the virtues of socialism(Marxism, Communism, or an ‘light version of those) on a regular basis it is easy to become apprehensive when someone brings out the word ‘Welfare’.

ArrowSmith April 30, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Welfare to me means another government check!

Chucklehead April 30, 2011 at 5:44 pm

I didn’t state or suggest that you did, that should be self evident. I was not trying to put words in your mouth. I was providing my thoughts, not my version of your thoughts.

Daniel Kuehn May 1, 2011 at 5:47 am

Chucklehead -
I know you weren’t putting words in my mouth. I was trying to reassure you that one can talk about “welfare maximization” without worrying about collectivization.

Chucklehead May 1, 2011 at 3:18 pm

To me maximizing my liberty maximizes my welfare. To some others maximizing welfare means a gift or guarantee of a material thing, which usually involves the property of others, achieved voluntarily or by theft.
Liberty does not impose values on others, & like speech or religion, does not come at the expense of others, unless one consider another human someones property.

Leonard Golub April 30, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Boudreaux’s claim that “the bison were not killed” is odd. Indeed, they were down to numbers 100 or under when some courageous parties stepped in. Among them: a Boston women’s group, Texas rancher Charles Goodnight (who maintained a small handfull for the heck of it at his Palo Duro ranch, the majority had been “replaced” by European cattle), and the surviving few in Yellowstone National Park. These latter two groups would eventually form the entire genetic pool for the current northern and southern herds. Genetic problems abound, and stock is often lent out by wildlife biologists to try to stabilize. Interbreeding with European cattle has blurred the pure native genetics. For all intents and purposes, the wild bison was fully exterminated. This was a failure of the US government to honor its obligations as a conquering nation. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Of course, I see very clearly that “Externalities” do not appear as a topic category to the left of me on this otherwise valuable website.

Harold Cockerill May 1, 2011 at 7:43 am

“This was a failure of the US government to honor its obligations as a conquering nation”.

Destruction of the source of sustenance for the aboriginal Americans may very well have been government policy. Just shooting the Indians would have been politically expensive. Starving them while you made money off the Buffalo worked better.

Cliff May 2, 2011 at 9:46 am

There are over 500,000 American Bison. Although there was a genetic bottleneck, the populations do not seem to be having any genetics-related issues. Yes, many bison have some cattle genes, in part because it seems pure bison are more vulnerable to Brucellosis. Yet there are maybe 15,000 pure-bred bison, if that matters. The U.S. government officially sanctioned the slaughters as a way to starve the native population, as well as clear land for cattle and railroads. A law to protect the bison population was vetoed in 1875.

Daniel Kuehn April 30, 2011 at 1:15 pm

The American West is a great place to look for empirical fodder on institutional emergence, precisely because we have such a clear record of the institutions as they form. Westerners were far more literate when they formed their institutions, they formed them far more recently, and they did not have these institutions imposed on them to a great extent – these factors distinguish the West from a lot of other historical examples.

I assume you are aware of Liebcap (1978) on the emergence property rights in mine camps in the West. That is a good one as well.

I never thought of this before, but a LOT of institutional economists: Veblen, Ayres, Mitchell, Commons, etc. came from the mid-West or the West. It makes you wonder if their proximity to these emerging institutions had anything to do with their disposition towards thinking in these terms.

Ken April 30, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Isn’t it also true that the enormous slaughter is an example of the tragedy of the commons? Since no one owned the huge herds of bison, no one had any incentive to save the bison.


Ryan Vann April 30, 2011 at 1:36 pm

It was a government mandate, and a proxy war, not so much a economic happening.

Chucklehead April 30, 2011 at 2:33 pm

My thoughts went to tragedy of the commons too. Ryan can you point to sources for your assertion? I am not disputing it, but being a chucklehead, it is news to me.

Ryan Vann April 30, 2011 at 5:50 pm

I might have been a bit hyperbolic, but government policies really played a part in all of this, and the kill off of Plains Buffalo made subjugating the difficult Crow tribes possible. There are plenty of sources that indicate the military and government’s position on the buffalo


Are just a couple examples.

There were other factors at play of course, but when you add a nationalistic attitude that ostensibly says “subjugate the savages by an means” the numbers of Buffalo killings go way up. Adding to this, Plains Buffalo were kind of a pestilent menace, but a valuable one (they had thick hides that made great leather.) Anyway, these things could cause a lot of property damage, and eliminating them was seen as a good for settlers and train developers. So, to recap, a government policy that encouraged hunting + the fact that they were a nuisance + money = dead

carlsoane April 30, 2011 at 6:03 pm

From what I’ve read, the government at worst failed to enforce treaties and gladly looked away while commercial hunters devastated the buffalo herds, but they didn’t mandate it.

carlsoane April 30, 2011 at 6:16 pm

By the way, my source is “The Destruction of the Bison” by Andrew Isenberg.

Gil April 30, 2011 at 11:47 pm

That sounds like a government open to free trade. Had the government created and enforce laws against hunting buffalo on unowned land then there would have been an outcry of free people not be able to exercise their rights.

Eric Hammer May 1, 2011 at 5:00 pm

The real issue is that no one owned the property rights to the buffalo herds, and thus everyone using them had no incentive to not over hunt. The government being open or opposed had no bearing on the matter because there was no one to press a claim to be enforced.
Free trade doesn’t work well without property rights. The government could claim ownership and restrict hunting, but given the nature of the situation, large herds in very open and unpopulated areas, it would be terrifically hard to enforce. Better to let individuals own the lands and enforce their own smaller areas while being able to farm the skins and meat.

Gil May 3, 2011 at 4:51 am

If the people of the day wanted to build farms and raise buffalo herds for their meat then they could have – but they didn’t want to, period. They wanted to hunt buffalo but farm cattle likewise they hunted passenger pigeons but farmed chickens hence the former two species depopulated while the latter two thrived. There’s a big difference between no one had property rights because the government forbade it versus because next to no one was interested in private ownership of buffalo. The first would make Libertarians’ blood boil while the second wouldn’t. You might as well be arguing lack of private property rights in smallpox caused its extinction.

Stone Glasgow April 30, 2011 at 7:17 pm


I know the government offered bounties on the scalps of natives, but were bounties also offered on buffalo?

“Between 1835 and the 1880s, the Mexican authorities paid private armies to hunt Native Americans, paying per kill and using scalps as receipts. The practice began when the Mexican government could no longer provide adequate protection to its citizens from the marauding Apaches and Comanches.”

Gil April 30, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Really? I thought most American farmers of the time wanted to own cattle ranches not buffalo raches

vikingvista April 30, 2011 at 1:29 pm

“Established property rights on their own”??

But how can that be? I’ve been told property rights are merely stipulated legalistic rules created by and managed by the state. Could it be that property rights are “natural rights”–organizational structures that emerge as a consequence of human nature, and not as an imposition by a more powerful authority? Could it be that property rights are more fundamental than, and even distinguishable from, anything having to do with the state?

Ken April 30, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Of course that can’t be right. Naturally we need a government to define for us what we can own and how we own it.

vikingvista April 30, 2011 at 7:52 pm

Oh of course. Otherwise folks like you and I would be forever at each others’ throats.

On the first day, Thor created the wild beasts of the earth. On the second day, Thor created Leviathan to mold human beings out of the wild beasts.
–excerpted from _The Holy Book of Statism_

Dan April 30, 2011 at 7:57 pm



The same? Yes yes

Gil April 30, 2011 at 11:48 pm

You into the new “Thor” movie, eh?

vikingvista May 2, 2011 at 4:05 am

Hey, I never mocked your god, did I?

Well, actually, I probably did.

Ryan Vann April 30, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Buffalo kill offs were a government policy to get rid of plains indians; so, I’m a bit confused by this specious argument about free trade.

Sam Grove April 30, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Among other species, such as wolves.

Bill April 30, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Here’s my letter to the editor of Wyoming Wildlife that appeared in the 12/09 issue.

In his interesting article, “Back to Bison” (WW, October 2009), author Bruce Gill asserts that near-extermination of bison during the 19th century was due to “… The unregulated free-market frontier economy …” (page 21.) But wasn’t the principal factor contributing to the decline in numbers a lack of ownership rights to live bison? That is, these animals were “common property,” and no individual hunter/harvester felt he had much to gain from independently saving some for the future. (To quote Aristotle, ” … that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it …”) Hence, in this mid-to-late 1800s open-access setting, we see the quintessential illustration of the “Tragedy of the Commons.” So, rather than attributing the near-extinction of these beasts to an unregulated market – after all, privately-owned cattle, horses, and other livestock were not exterminated during this era – the most likely explanation seems to be the absence of property rights to the bison.

Dan April 30, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Had their been an individual or group who owned the bison, yhet would have protected their investment/property from ‘near kill off’.
Agreed! Settled! Next issue.

dan April 30, 2011 at 5:27 pm

typing on I-Pad is not easy.

Had ‘their’………… Had there been an…….

Gil April 30, 2011 at 11:54 pm

History seems to show the White people of the day had no interest in owning bison and therefore and no interest as to whether to whether the bison went extinct or not. Ted Turner’s herd is primarily an act of philanthropy than business.

Cliff May 2, 2011 at 9:50 am

Are you joking? There are over 500,000 commercial bison. The price of bison meat has soared in recent years to double the cost of comparably lean beef as the meat is prized for its nutritional qualities.

justin April 30, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Don, could you write something about how the Bison did become extinct if not by hunting? I don’t know much about it, but I haven’t heard any explanations other than over-hunting.

Don Boudreaux April 30, 2011 at 1:41 pm

The bison didn’t become extinct. They still exist.

jjoxman April 30, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Right – the Walmart near me sells bison meat right next to the beef. Ground bison, bison steak, whatever you want. It’s good – less fatty than cow because they are grass fed, which is optimal for bison since they digest grass 25% more efficiently than cows.

Justin P April 30, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Here in localvoire land (Syracuse) they serve locally raised and humanely slaughtered bison burgers at a local pub.

jjoxman May 1, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Nice. Which one? I lived there for a while.

Eric Hammer May 1, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Yea, there is a farm with bison just over the ridge from my folk’s place in central PA.

Ryan Vann April 30, 2011 at 5:56 pm

They are quite tasty too, and healthier than regular beef.

vikingvista April 30, 2011 at 7:56 pm

It is strange that writers, and their editors, would publish that bison are extinct.

Dan April 30, 2011 at 8:01 pm

Extinct in Florida and a couple of other states, where they would have migrated, if we had a benevolent govt writing rules and a man like Obama to rule….. Ahem…… Guide us, like do now.

SMV April 30, 2011 at 3:34 pm

“the global price of leather did not fall noticeably when the supply of bison leather became threatened by bison extinction.”

Think this should be the global price for leather did not INCREASE???

Don Boudreaux April 30, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Yep. Good catch. That’s what I meant. Thanks.

Already Been Tread On April 30, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Who is it that restrains men from their God given rights to live off herds of Buffalo? An acre of prairie can sustain multitudes, yet our property ownership system is a wooden, limited fiction, in no way approaching the land’s ability to sustain so much life.
In 1783 Virginia ceded vast land holdings to the Continental Congress, and gave herself as one of 13 brides to the Continental Congress. Later in 1861, she joined several other wives demanding a divorce from the increasingly abusive and intolerably cruel “Uncle” Sam.
Like Jennifer Lopez learned in the movie “Enough,” did Virginia and her sister-wives find out the terrible truth of a marriage gone wrong.
United We Stand – Divided We Fall: It’s another way of saying, if you disobey me or try to leave me, I’ll kill you, your sons & daughters, and destroy the very Earth beneath you, rather than let you end your contracted service and submission to me.
Continued survival suggests quietly amassing private wealth and building a new underground railroad to a natural life. The public sector is nothing more than a fort, set up for the benefit of soldiers and their families, not yours. You should find a way to stop contributing to its war crimes.

Dan April 30, 2011 at 4:31 pm

United we stand…….. Taken a bit out of context, dontchya think? The colonies were not likely to have defeated the Brits had they not stood together.

Already Been Tread On May 1, 2011 at 4:26 am

Quite the opposite, if I understand Hayek. The literate, ingenous, high birth rate America of the 1770s was already well suited to self-emancipate from the Brits, Spaniards, French, & Dutch kingdoms. Centralized fiat order has only weakened her and is now projected to make the U.S. economically inferior to China during the next presidential term.
The United We Stand concept comes from 4 buffalo being able to ward off tigers by backing up to each other and presenting a circle of horns to predators such as tigers.
I consider America a tiger, not some buffalo condemned to wear a yoke of slavery.

Dan May 3, 2011 at 2:04 am

Today, maybe…… But, back then, I do not agree that the statement meant anything more than the idea of ‘ breaking of sticks’. 4 sticks are easier to break than 13. Plus, when trying to convince others to stand up and declare yourself emancipated from a king, hyperbole is more effective.

Eric Hammer May 1, 2011 at 5:05 pm

I don’t think you have a good grasp on just how big an acre is. And acre of prairie would be hard pressed to support 5 people, much less a multitude.

Leonard Golub April 30, 2011 at 6:16 pm

It seems to me that the economic principal most observable in this despicable episode is a tragedy of the commons. The slaughter took place on land that was (recently) Native American, and Natives, while they may have fought among each other, managed the wild herds as a community resource, which they were.

No such management was visible with whites. The land was taken by the US government, it was therefore owned by the US commons, and marauding hunters abused the commons. Adherents of Hayek will say private property rights would have solved the buffalo problem, but the textbook economic solution would have been government protection of the commons. That did not happen.

Whites found the buffalo to be far more difficult to domesticate, if they could at all. Far easier to kill them and replace them with European breeds, which is what they did. The US government did not care enough to protect this resource. When it took Native American lands, it assumed the responsibility to protect the buffalo community asset. It failed.

Gil April 30, 2011 at 11:57 pm

What stopped White men of the day from farming the bison except from the fact they didn’t want to?

nailheadtom April 30, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Geez, you guys. Picture to yourselves millions of American bison migrating back forth over I-70 between Kansas City and Denver, bringing to a halt truck and car traffic for perhaps weeks at a time. Railroad trains would face the same issue. Farmers could stand and watch them trample their fields. The human habitation of the Great Plains as we know it would have been impossible and the breadbasket of the country wouldn’t exist.

Dan April 30, 2011 at 7:55 pm

But, the narrative of the atrocities of man and his need for a panel to tell him how to live is far easier. Besides, control is the end game. Who gets it? The irrational, chaotic, uncontrolled individual or an all knowing, wise panel of Ivy League Grads taught by far left Utopians?

Gil April 30, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Indeed. Wild bisons would have been a pest that’s destroying private property and thus would have to be culled to bring it down to “manageable” levels.

Ryan Vann May 1, 2011 at 12:42 am

Yeah, that is another angle to the whole issue. It’s amazing the amount of damage a herd of Bison could due in a matter of seconds.

Ryan Vann May 1, 2011 at 12:43 am

*could do rather

nailheadtom May 1, 2011 at 8:50 am

Every aspect of the universe is dynamic, nothing stays the same. At some point in time there were no bison on the Great Plains. Their arrival displaced other organisms, whose disappearance is now ignored and unlamented. Many other less notable creatures inhabit the continent in greatly reduced numbers as well. We see comparatively fewer cowboys, farm hands, harness makers, square-rigger sailors, railroad firemen and peddlers than just a short time ago.

Acertainflorentine April 30, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Wow, a new asinine low, capitalism killed the buffalo, wow. These same people must certainly be scared that capitalism will sneak into their homes and eat their children.

Martin Brock May 1, 2011 at 3:58 am

The slave trade did not destroy privilege. It enacted privilege.

Gil May 1, 2011 at 5:05 am


Jeffersonian Constitutionalist May 1, 2011 at 11:03 am

The economics aside, a bit of history is in order. Plains Indian tribes relied on the American bison for meat, clothing and tools. They considered the animal sacred in the bounty it provided for their needs.

Bison slaughter by whites and the US Army was seen as a way of suppressing the tribes, and tens of thousands of bison were killed and left to rot on the plains, depring the tribes of their material benefits. Passengers on westbound trains would pass the time by shooting bison from the windows.

Indeed, it was private action that no doubt saved the American bison from being eliminated in the lower 48 states.

Bill May 1, 2011 at 2:15 pm

In their book, “The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier,” Terry Anderson and P.J. Hill offer an interesting account of the bison situation on the Great Plains during the 19th century. (The Anderson & Hill volume is available online at Google Books.) See the discussion beginning on page 94.

Bill No. 2 May 2, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Well, if you can make a profit off of selling something, like dead buffalo, then there is an incentive to kill buffalo, and if there is a commercially viable substitute, like cattle, then there is no financial incentive to preserve them. Buffalo survive today, but for a while they almost became extinct, for a number of reasons, sport, railroad, total war against the Indians, commercial hunters, etc.

While it is unfair to blame capitalism per se with endangering bufallo, so too is it unfair to somehow claim that the few people who preserved the buffalo equal capitalism, and therefore capitalism saved the buffalo. Why not admit the truth: “Capitalism” does nor care about buffalo (nor should it).

Don Boudreaux May 2, 2011 at 1:30 pm

You draw a distinction without a difference. Does capitalism “care” about chickens? Capitalist incentives preserve chickens precisely because lots of people want to consume dead chickens.

vikingvista May 2, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Capitalism is about what people care about. And it seems plenty of people, even then, cared about buffalo.

Bill May 3, 2011 at 8:27 am


Yes, but I don’t think (I could be wrong) there was a significant market for buffalo meat back then. It seems like it was more about sport hunting and hides, and cow hides were a substitute, taking away any significant incentive for cultivating commercial bison herds at that time.


Sure, some benevolent people cared about buffalo and preserved them, but from the (admittedly p.c. and main stream) history I remember from school, buffalo were saved by folks like Teddy Roosevelt and some other do-gooders. Yes, they did so by raising private herds, but that ignores the alternative scenario. Your argument seems to me to be: there was a (relatively) capitalist system in place, buffalo survived, therefore capitalism saved buffalo. If Teddy Roosevelt and the other preservationists were dukes/dictators/central planners, etc. they probably would have still saved buffalo, using whatever system was in place.

Previous post:

Next post: