How the Mississippi River made capitalists out of us

In looking at another of the endless “best of 2009″ lists, I came across this fascinating article about geography as a nation’s destiny. The author, Peter Zeihan, notes that (as of the time he was writing, June 2009) the U.S. was not as hard-hit during this recessi0n as a number of other countries, if you can imagine that. He then describes the geography of North America, Russia, China and the European continent in terms of farmland and the navigability of its rivers and ports.

Zeihan comes to some conclusions about why various countries tend toward different political and economic systems, which in turn make them apt to suffer more or less in a global recession, relative to other nations.

A sample:

Taken together, the integrated transport network, large tracts of usable land and lack of a need for a standing military have one critical implication: The U.S. government tends to take a hands-off approach to economic management, because geography has not cursed the United States with any endemic problems. This may mean that the United States — and especially its government — comes across as disorganized, but it shifts massive amounts of labor and capital to the private sector, which for the most part allows resources to flow to wherever they will achieve the most efficient and productive results.

And another:

Between the lack of ports and the relatively low population densities, little of Russia’s transport system beyond the St. Petersburg/Moscow corridor approaches anything that hints of economic rationality. Russia also has no meaningful external borders….These endemic problems force Russia toward central planning; the full harnessing of all economic resources available is required if Russia is to achieve even a modicum of security and stability. One of the many results of this is severe economic inefficiency and a general dearth of an internal consumer market.

If you have some inter-holiday time on your hands, the whole thing is worth reading.

14 comments Add your comment

The Snark

December 30th, 2009
5:02 pm

Interesting stuff. The African continent has little in the way of navigable coast and almost nothing in the way of cross-continental rail and highways, which many point to when pondering its endemic economic failures.

The national work ethic plays a big role, too. Folks from other countries, especially Europe, are often amazed at how hard Americans work.

Political leadership is also big. As much as some like the think that Democrat/blue/liberal is completely different from Republican/red/conservative, to outsiders the differences between the two are paper thin, and our country has pursued an economic hands-off policy far more consistent than that of any other nation.

Chris Broe

December 30th, 2009
6:10 pm

So Peter Zeihan is saying that History follows Geography. That makes sense because Science followed English, and lunch followed PE, except on Fridays when we had Home Ec.


December 30th, 2009
6:30 pm

Ok, if I wear a KKK outfit to a white policeman’s funeral and get denied, laughed at, and humiliated I can sue the city of Atlanta and get money? I mean without profiling which I think is a very necessary tool to protect Americans, a woman wants to wear a hajib to a funeral and does not see the hurtful implications that have on other Americans. Oh thats right only Christains are bad! You know they had leaders that killed people for their personal benefits and the rest of the believers got blamed too. I hope she wins! Atlanta deserves it.


December 30th, 2009
6:35 pm

Kyle, if you like this article by Zeihan, you might like the book “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond.

Real American

December 30th, 2009
6:48 pm

wow….willibkind, does your head hurt?


December 30th, 2009
7:13 pm

Real American:



December 30th, 2009
7:55 pm

Kyle, this was interesting and made very good sense. I do think the American work-ethic has also made a difference in our country. People came here to improve their lives from old countries. And for the most part they have.


December 30th, 2009
10:51 pm

What we are starting to see in this country, more and more, is dilution. As each generation has it easier, in terms of physically demanding work, there is less appreciation for the effort that brought us to this (economic) point. The bulk of the wealth in the U.S. is a result of the working, middle-class. Without the middle-class (created by our manufacturing base and work ethic), we are no different than any European country. Britain has had its day, France never really did, and Germany lost theirs.


December 31st, 2009
12:49 pm

Kyle, to honestly believe that geography has that much of an impact is to ignore the greatness of the people that founded this country and their intellectual heritage from the Renaissance. The influence of men like John Locke and others on great men like Jefferson, Madison, and Paine helped pave the way for the tremendously educating discussions (all captured in the Federalist Papers (and the Anti-Federalist writings)) that surrounded the ratification of the constitution. Combine that with a population that was highly literate (thanks to a complete absence of any government run education system) and you had a culture of free market capitalism, respect for individual liberty (yes, aside from slavery), and tremendously non-invasive and limited government that permeated the very fabric of this country. All of this sprung quite organically from the Judeo-Christian foundations of the european renaissance that brought the continent out of the dark ages. Of course the printing press helped by bringing these ideas to the masses. The Magna Carta from 1260 (whose basic principles Bush and Obama have utterly destroyed) further secured the foundations of due process and property rights.

These folks then came to a continent that was not ruled by tribal barbarism, feudal lords, Czars (now a mainstay of our failed federal system) or other kind of oppressive system of government. Once the growing menace of imperial rule was thrown off during the revolutionary war, this spirit of freedom and capitalism was free to roam the continent bringing the benefits of this economic principle to everyone (except the indians whose property rights were obviously not respected).

Yes, the Mississippi was certainly an great engine of the capitalist culture in this country, but so was the invention of the steam engine and its exploitation of the waterway, and its use in rail transit which opened up a new steel “Mississippi” and steel waterway system that criss-crossed this country in the other direction and beyond. All of this the product of a capitalist system and philosophy that helped america prosper well before Jefferson purchased the Lousiana territory and made the Mississippi available to american commerce.

We once benefitted from the great expanse of ocean that kept us out of “foreign entanglements” and the other ravages of europe. That geography hasn’t changed a bit, yet the wonderful philosophy of non-interventionism has been brainwashed out of our culture and we suffer trillions in costs and thousands of lost lives as a result.

It is the philosophy that made this country great once, not its geography. We were just fortunate to have the combination of both wonderful things once.

Hillbilly Deluxe

December 31st, 2009
12:52 pm

Interesting article. It doesn”t address the fact that we’ve exported our manufacturing base, though.

Hillbilly Deluxe

December 31st, 2009
12:57 pm

The railroads were heavily subsidized from, at least, the time of the Trans-Continental Railroad in the 1860’s.

Kyle Wingfield

December 31st, 2009
1:05 pm

Mr. Liberty: I don’t think the article about geography was meant to be exhaustive…


December 31st, 2009
1:39 pm

Kyle, Fair enough, but to give credit to an author that actually blames Russia’s problems on their geography and not on their system of government, internal societal philosophy, or other factors is to undermine the real reasons why this country embraced and benefitted from capitalism. Its the philosophy dude, not the geography.

Oh, and for anyone that thinks that I actually believe that the growth of this country, from the railroads to the exploitation of the indians in any way followed fully laissez faire capitalism rules, please know that I know the difference. I was just trying to make the point that any geography would have been embraced and put to productive use due to the mindset and the philosophy that american’s embraced.


January 1st, 2010
12:33 pm

The bottom line when looking at the unparalleled sucess of america is that the philosophy mattered more than anything. Today so called conservatives wish to diminish the importance of priniciples because they no longer wish to adhere to any. They seem to think that force over others can achieve anything and that upholding principles like non-interventionism, small government, personal liberty and the like is unnecessary to future prosperity “because we are americans and we can achieve anything.” To give undeserved credit to a giant water-filled gash running through the country is tantamount to the same kind of thinking. Sorry to be so harsh, but it is very frustrating to listen to so many so-called educated folks blowing off the very foundations of this country when it suits their new found philosophy of destruction and corporatism. We didn’t become great because we are “america”, we became great because we followed certain principles. And our downward decline since the election of Lincoln has be accompanied by our rejection of those principles. The human contribution to the greatness of a country far exceeds the geographical contribution.