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Commentary: Cooperators of the Prairies

Few images loom larger in the American psyche than that of the Wild West, especially in the rightward political precincts. The implicit reference is to the cowboys of the West—the movie version at least.

It was not accidental that the man who embedded this version into the political vernacular, Ronald Reagan, was himself reprising a role from his “B” Westerns. The late ex-president didn't just memorize his scripts—he believed them. Not for the only time, he chose a congenial fiction over an inconvenient reality.

Start with the notion that wealthy Americans all have made their money through honest endeavor, and that taxes therefore are a form of theft.

History tells a different story. The first fortunes in the American West were made from cattle, which is to say, often from theft. “Cattle thieves turned respectable as soon as their herds got large enough,” observed William Shannon in his 1945 book, The Farmer's Last Frontier.

Not only that. The cattlemen literally took their land from the public domain, which itself was snatched from the original occupants. They paid no rent, and often contrived to take legal title. One favored gambit was to hire people to file homestead claims. When those came through, the ranchers “bought” the homesteads from their employees.

The railroads followed, thanks to sprawling land grants from the state and federal governments. The railroads turned Wall Street into Wall Street, which in turn created many of the fortunes that finance—and benefit from—cowboy politics today.

Another myth casts these early cattlemen as proto-libertarians, who pursued their fortunes without help from either government or one another. Actually they were cooperators of the first order. Society not only existed for them; it was crucial to their own success.

Some 30 years ago, a biologist by the name of Garrett Hardin popularized a theory called the “tragedy of the commons.” Hardin conjured up a hypothetical common pasture, and peopled it with hypothetical herdsmen dragooned from the economics texts—that is, selfish, myopic, and incapable of cooperation. Voilà, the pasture soon was depleted. Hardin's fable has justified the push to privatize the land and water ever since.

Yet on the actual commons of the western plains, the cattlemen showed more sense. They adopted the Mexican practice of branding cattle to keep their herds distinct. They enlisted state governments to ban the sale of cattle that did not have a registered brand. (Then as now, government wasn't “the problem” when it came in handy.)

Perhaps most importantly, the early cattlemen worked together to limit herds so as not to overwork the grazing land. This was not always pretty business. But it was cooperative business, in contrast to the myth; and it was of a piece with the house raisings and husking bees of the agrarian frontier.

The Clint Eastwood version makes better—or at least easier—drama. But it was cooperators who really made the West. The ultimate challenge of the storyteller is to make virtue interesting. Where is the filmmaker who will imprint that reality onto the political vernacular today?


Photo of Jonathan Rowe

Jonathan Rowe, a YES! contributing editor, is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, which recently published The Commons Rising, a report on the revival of commons-based economics throughout the United States. Rowe is a founder of the West Marin Commons Association and is host of America Offline, a weekly program on KWMR-FM in West Marin County, California.

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