Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Western Libertarian Ideology

In 1981, Joel Garreau wrote a book about the Nine Nations of North America, regions separated by settlement patterns, language, political outlook, density of population, etc.  Out where I live, in the intermountain plateau of the West, we were labeled the Empty Quarter because of our sparse population density.  Characterized by romantic images of the Old West, we were said to be an independent minded collection of folks a tad on the contrarian side.

A more recent author, Colin Woodard, made a few minor headlines not long ago with his take on the Eleven Nations of North America.  My region is now called The Far West, which, he asserted, is intensely libertarian.  Voting patterns seem to point in that direction.  Our congressional district has lived up to that label in recent elections, and even more on the editorial pages of local papers, but Tom Foley came from here, and the voices of those who are not of the far right are growing louder, so there may be more political diversity than some imagine.  

It is a fascinating contradiction to me that those holding the dominant libertarian view are unwilling to recongize that they can exist at all in this region because government largesse (read taxpayers somewhere else) paid for it, and yet they distrust government, especially the federal government, confident in their  assertion that everyone needs to stand on their own two feet, like they do, without expecting a handout from the nanny state. 

Let’s review.

The Indians who inhabited our part of the Far West were relatively peaceable and prosperous until European settlement began to push them out of the way.  Assuring a future for continued European settlement and development required federal armed forces to build forts and conduct wars of attrition to make the region safe for white settlers.  Who paid the cost?  Well, apart from Indians who paid in disease, lives and land, Eastern taxpayers did.  And let us not forget the Homestead Act of 1862 and its successors.

The 19th century towns that arose, especially those bustling with gold rush fever, were rough places of saloons, brothels, and greed.  Rough places required rough justice, vigilante justice, and it didn’t take long for the good people of our communities to demand strict gun control, hire legitimate law enforcement officers, establish fair courts, all to make towns safe for good church going families.  It took a while, but local governments leaned hard on those who felt free to shoot the place up.  They also leaned hard on would be settlers who were not white Europeans, but that’s another story.

Bringing transportation to the region required generous federal incentives to railroad companies; direct federal investment in river navigation; and federal, state and local investment in roads and highways.  Among other things, government investment in transportation opened up global markets for Western grain, most of which is exported.  The local population’s share of those costs was not much.  The greater burden was carried by taxpayers from other parts of the country.

Rural electrification didn’t come until the 20th century as one of those dastardly socialist FDR New Deal programs.  Those same programs began the process of damming the Columbia and Snake rivers to prevent floods, create cheap hydropower electricity, enable the irrigation of the high desert, and opening barge traffic to Pacific coast ports.  It transformed our area into one of the nation's most productive agricultural regions.  Who paid for all of that?  

In each case, the cost to the national taxpayer was seen by legislators as an investment in the future of the nation as a whole.  No individual person in Ohio, Virginia, or New York would see any direct benefit, but they were required to pay their share just the same.  It was an investment that paid off handsomely.  Local folks who took advantage of all this government largesse became prosperous, if not rich.  The nation’s Gross Domestic Product soared.  I’m sure that most Easterners didn't recognized that their return on the investment came on grocery store shelves, lumber for houses, gold in their teeth, etc.

It helps, of course, that various farm bills have been enacted to underwrite, subsidize, and promote farms not only as an investment in food self sufficiency and export opportunity, but also to prop up a treasured American way of life that few enjoy but many revere.

Westerners like their wide open spaces with easy (local) public access.  They have it through national forests, national parks, national monuments, national wilderness areas, BLM lands, and more.  They especially like that, even though the rest of the country owns it, they can treat it as their private domain and not worry too much about the cost of maintaining it.  

None of this is bad, and none of it takes away from the grit, determination, and courage that it took, and takes, to make it out here.  It can be a hard life.  Not many are up to it, but it’s foolish to hang that grit, determination, and courage on the fiction that it was all done by pulling one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps through the self sufficiency of rugged individualism that had no need of government help or interference.

The extreme libertarian ethos is a mirage that, perhaps, will dissolve away.  I hope so.

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