Land-as-Growth (1): A Large Part of What Made the U.S. Special

“Land,” as an idea and a reality made  America special from the beginning.  In the late 1700’s, virtually no other country could (or did) claim it was designed to encourage and accommodate significant growth in land and people.


As the U.S. grew in geographic size and in population, no one spoke about “economic growth.”  (Indeed, the idea that such entities as the “economy” and “economic growth” exist did not fully emerge until the 1940s and 1950s.) Throughout the often-dramatic growth of the U.S. during its first century—the Louisiana Purchase; domination of a continent; railroads; gold rushes; and industrialization—America’s leaders and thinkers focused on land and the number of immigrants.


The edge of land settlement by people under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government  was called, of course, the “frontier.” Other stories told in Book II  will describe how the eventual “end of” the frontier became only the first of an “end of” phenomena that began to permeate American society in the late 1960s, and served as a prelude for arguments (still underway today) that we are seeing “end of growth” itself! It is interesting to note that no one now mourns the “end of the frontier” and that we simply adopted (after numerous decades and many linguistic dead-ends) “new frontiers.”  Maybe (as we will examine in a future story) an “end of economic growth,” could be similarly unmourned, leading to the pursuit of “new growth.”

But for the moment, our focus in on land. It is a thesis of A Larger Pie, part II, though not generally argued by economists or historians, that:

  • until around  the end of the 1800s “land” (and to a lesser degree, the number of people who lived on it) worked well as the nation’s (and society’s)  prime measure of wealth, success and “growth;”
  •  by the early 1900s (to choose a relatively arbitrary time), land had become outdated and misleading as a measure (and as a concept);
  • few (if any) people seemed to recognize this loss of significance until the 1940’s and 1950’s (a long lag that carries us close to modern times);
  • this lag distorted the thinking and action of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the New Deal; and
  • such problems, misguided policies and lost opportunities resultant from this  lag are instructive to us today because we, too, now pursue an outdated and misleading measure of “growth” (GNP)

The Founders did anticipate two forms of growth which are closely related to each other: the physical size of the U.S. and the size of the population. They obviously knew vast areas of unsettled and resource-filled land lay to the south, west, and even to the north of the thirteen colonies. Thus, the U.S. Constitution, in Article IV, Section 3 prepares the way for the U.S. to embrace more land. The tool: a simple and straightforward, “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union….”




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