Hoosier Profs Explicate Custer’s Last Stand

September 17, 2007

Indiana Writers Group column
For release Sept. 19 and thereafter
672 words

Color digital mug shot available on request

By Craig Ladwig

Oops, we missed it again, the anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. So we’ll have to stretch a bit and use as our peg the governor’s call for a more accurate county assessment of taxable property.

No, stick with us and you’ll see that all of this has to do with tallying things correctly — the difference between a small tax bill and a large one or between chasing Native Americans and being surrounded by them.

Two Ball State University professors, James McClure and T. Norman Van Cott, may not or may not have an answer to the governor’s property-tax predicament but they likely have solved the mystery of Custer’s Last Stand. And they did it without leaving their offices in the economics department.

Writing in the Journal of Economic Education, the two note that a primary source of military intelligence for the U.S. Army in 1876 was the count of Native Americans on reservations. (1) Logically, the more warriors on the reservations should have meant fewer out on warpaths.

“But who counted the Indians?” the professors wanted to know.

The answer, according to a respected historian of the battle, Evan Connell, was government agents — agents paid by the number of Native Americans they counted, a systemic error that would cost General Custer and his men their scalps:

“Connell reports that reservation agents’ salaries varied directly with reservation populations. This provided an incentive for the agents to overstate the count. In Connell’s words, ‘ . . . an agent foolish enough to report a decrease in population was taking a bite out of his own paycheck.’” (2)

The agents reported 37,391 Native Americans on reservations before the battle but a count afterward could find only 11,660. It is reasonable to believe, therefore, that Custer thought he was running to ground a relatively small party of warriors when in fact he was about to be surrounded by what may have been three times as many.

You believe what you wish, but it this opinion that George Armstrong Custer was not done in by the white man’s arrogance or even incompetent or jealous senior officers, two of the more popular explanations. He was killed by a self-serving bureaucracy.

Yes, he was killed by frontier “assessors.”

Why We Don’t Vote

The Indianapolis Star asked an important and disturbing question recently: Why are Hoosiers, even when faced with mounting government failure, not  showing up on election day? Economists have an answer, and the problem is more serious than apathy or the frustration of gerrymandered incumbency.

As odd as it may seem, low voter turn out and government failure go hand in hand in certain historical situations. And the phenomenon has an equally odd name, “rational ignorance.”

It occurs when government becomes so complex and detached that the citizenry loses faith in its ability to influence it, when people make a rational decision that to become informed (and eventually vote) would be a waste of their time. It is why the old Soviet Union had to make not voting a capital offense.

“Voter knowledge and control of government will be much greater under a regime of strictly limited government power,” writes Ilya Somin of the Cato Institute. “It also leads to the counter-intuitive suggestion that the extension of government power to new areas of social life undercuts democratization rather than furthers it.”

In other words, to make democracy work better, i.e., ensure a larger number of informed voters, its scope must be narrowed.

Dr. Cecil Bohanon, an economist at Ball State University, made the point in an article for the Indiana Policy Review entitled, “The Nov. 7 Election: Don’t Get Your Hopes up.” He organized his argument around Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote, “that the government that governs least governs best.”

“This is often taken, not without merit, as a libertarian motto for government to keep its hands off private choices,” Dr. Bohanon argues. “But it also can be seen as a prescription for government to do a few tasks quite well.”

It all fits on a bumper sticker: “Fire a Bureaucrat, Create a Voter.”


1. James McClure and T. Norman Van Cott. “Public Choice at the Little Bighorn.” The Journal of Economic Education, pp. 135-136. Spring 1994.

2. Evan Connell. Son of the Morning Star. Harper Collins, New York. 1984.


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