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Frontier Culture: The Roots and Persistence of Rugged Individualism in the United States

Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein and Mesay Gebresilasse

No 12406, CEPR Discussion Papers from C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers

Abstract: In a classic 1893 essay, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American frontier promoted individualism. We revisit the Frontier Thesis and examine its relevance at the subnational level. Using Census data and GIS techniques, we track the frontier throughout the 1790--1890 period and construct a novel, county-level measure of historical frontier experience. We document skewed sex ratios and other distinctive demographics of frontier locations, as well as their greater individualism (proxied by infrequent children names). Many decades after the closing of the frontier, counties with longer historical frontier experience exhibit more prevalent individualism and opposition to redistribution and regulation. We take several steps towards a causal interpretation, including an instrumental variables approach that exploits variation in the speed of westward expansion induced by national immigration inflows. Using linked historical Census data, we identify mechanisms giving rise to a persistent frontier culture. Selective migration contributed to greater individualism, and frontier conditions may have further shaped behavior and values. We provide evidence suggesting that rugged individualism may be rooted in its adaptive advantage on the frontier and the opportunities for upward mobility through effort.

Keywords: American Frontier; Culture; Individualism; Persistence; Preferences for Redistribution (search for similar items in EconPapers)
JEL-codes: D72 H2 J11 N31 N91 P16 R11 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
New Economics Papers: this item is included in nep-gro and nep-his
Date: 2017-10
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