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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 23997, NBER Working Papers from National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc

Abstract: The presence of a westward-moving frontier of settlement shaped early U.S. history. In 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously argued that the American frontier fostered individualism. We investigate the Frontier Thesis and identify its long-run implications for culture and politics. We track the frontier throughout the 1790–1890 period and construct a novel, county-level measure of total frontier experience (TFE). Historically, frontier locations had distinctive demographics and greater individualism. Long after the closing of the frontier, counties with greater TFE exhibit more pervasive individualism and opposition to redistribution. This pattern cuts across known divides in the U.S., including urban–rural and north–south. We provide suggestive evidence on the roots of frontier culture: selective migration, an adaptive advantage of self-reliance, and perceived opportunities for upward mobility through effort. Overall, our findings shed new light on the frontier’s persistent legacy of rugged individualism.

JEL-codes: D72 H2 N31 N91 P16 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
New Economics Papers: this item is included in nep-evo, nep-gro and nep-mig
Date: 2017-11
Note: DAE POL
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