New Frontier? Hardly

Today in the Washington Examiner, James Jay Carafano of The Heritage Foundation makes a strange case for what he describes as the opening of a new American frontier — where it was once closed. The column is highly unconvincing for two main reasons.

First, and most importantly, Carafano seems to imply that there is some direct correlation between food production levels and the number of people working in agriculture:

A report prepared for the G8 in April concluded that global food production would need to double by 2050 to keep the world fed. U.S. agriculture will have to be an important part of that increase. Likewise, strong, vibrant rural communities are needed to build sustainable agriculture and protect water, wildlife and other natural resources.

America’s vanishing middle should be of concern to all Americans. Though agricultural workers comprise only about 2 percent of the work force and account for less than 1 percent of GDP, they are at the start of a vast and vital assembly line. American farms are part of a complex industry that processes and distributes food, energy (biofuels) and other products — by some estimates about 20 percent of the economy.

This is a non-sequitur in regard to agricultural production. Fewer people work on farms today because increases in productivity allow fewer workers to produce more. As the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service notes:

American agriculture and rural life underwent a tremendous transformation in the 20th century. Early 20th century agriculture was labor intensive, and it took place on a large number of small, diversified farms in rural areas where more than half of the U.S. population lived. These farms employed close to half of the U.S. workforce, along with 22 million work animals, and produced an average of five different commodities. The agricultural sector of the 21st century, on the other hand, is concentrated on a small number of large, specialized farms in rural areas where less than a fourth of the U.S. population lives. These highly productive and mechanized farms employ a tiny share of U.S. workers and use 5 million tractors in place of the horses and mules of earlier days.

Second, Carafano’s definition of “frontier” seems to rely entirely on population density:

Today, hundreds of counties in the Plains states house fewer than six people per square mile. By 19th-century standards, that was frontier territory.

But Frederick Jackson Turner, whose famous 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Carafano cites at the beginning of his column, didn’t settle on population density alone as a definition:

What is the frontier? It is not the European frontier — a fortified boundary line running through dense populations. The most significant thing about it is that it lies at the hither edge of free land. In the census reports it is treated as the margin of that settlement which has a density of two or more to the square mile. The term is an elastic one, and for our purposes does not need sharp definition. We shall consider the whole frontier belt, including the Indian country and the outer margin of the “settled area” of the census reports.

Much of that “free land” was available in previously unsettled areas, where legal and political institutions were weak, when they were present at all. I would propose such a lack of strong central authority as part of  any sensible definition of “frontier” — a criterion that no part of the U.S. meets today.