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The Myth of the Frontier


  • Camilo García-Jimeno
  • James A. Robinson


One of the most salient explanations for the distinctive path of economic and political development of the United States is captured by the 'Frontier (or Turner) thesis'. Turner argued that it was the presence of the open frontier which explained why the United States became democratic and, at least implicitly, prosperous. In this paper we provide a simple test of this idea. We begin with the contradictory observation that almost every Latin American country had a frontier in the 19th century as well. We show that while the data does not support the Frontier thesis, it is consistent with a more complex 'conditional Frontier thesis.' In this view, the effect of the frontier is conditional on the way that the frontier was allocated and this in turn depends on political institutions at the time of frontier expansion. We show that for countries with the worst political institutions, there is a negative correlation between the historical extent of the frontier and contemporary income per-capita. For countries with better political institutions this correlation is positive. Though the effect of the frontier on democracy is positive irrespective of initial political institutions, it is larger the better were these institutions. In essence, Turner saw the frontier as having positive effects on development because he already lived in a country with good institutions.

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  • Camilo García-Jimeno & James A. Robinson, 2009. "The Myth of the Frontier," NBER Working Papers 14774, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:14774
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    • Camilo García-Jimeno & James A. Robinson, 2008. "The Myth of the Frontier," NBER Chapters,in: Understanding Long-Run Economic Growth: Geography, Institutions, and the Knowledge Economy, pages 49-88 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Halvor Mehlum & Karl Moene & Ragnar Torvik, 2006. "Institutions and the Resource Curse," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 116(508), pages 1-20, January.
    2. Daron Acemoglu & Simon Johnson & James A. Robinson & Pierre Yared, 2008. "Income and Democracy," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 98(3), pages 808-842, June.
    3. Daron Acemoglu & Simon Johnson & James A. Robinson, 2002. "Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 117(4), pages 1231-1294.
    4. Daron Acemoglu & Simon Johnson & James A. Robinson, 2001. "The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(5), pages 1369-1401, December.
    5. repec:cup:apsrev:v:53:y:1959:i:01:p:69-105_00 is not listed on IDEAS
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    Cited by:

    1. Fenske, James, 2010. "Institutions in African history and development: A review essay," MPRA Paper 23120, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    2. Laura Montenegro Helfer, 2017. "Forming State through Land Reform Policy: The Dynamics of Baldío Allocation in Peripheral Colombia," DOCUMENTOS CEDE 015433, UNIVERSIDAD DE LOS ANDES-CEDE.

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    JEL classification:

    • N0 - Economic History - - General

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