Socialism and the West

This region was built on government subsidies and aid


During the national debate over health-care reform (as well as over the economy), we often hear warnings about "socialism." It's supposed to scare us, but the truth is that, in some ways, socialism has a decent track record in the West.

Socialism, among other things, "socializes" certain costs -- that is, some bills get paid by society (i.e., the government), instead of by individuals. For instance, the United States socializes the costs of aging with Social Security and Medicare.

Consider a bit of history in the American Southwest -- that part of the country claimed by Spain until Mexico gained independence in 1822, and then ruled by Mexico until it was conquered by the U.S. in 1848 in the Mexican-American War.

Colorado's oldest enduring town is San Luis, which was established near the New Mexico border in 1851 by colonists from Taos. It wasn't the first such effort: As early as 1833, colonists tried to establish settlements in that area.

Under the Mexican system for settling "la frontera del norte," the government granted land to an empresario, such as Stephen F. Austin in Texas, or, in San Luis' case, Carlos Beaubien.

Once the land grant was made, private enterprise took over. With no help from the government, the empresario had to attract settlers, build roads, maintain communications, patrol the boundaries, defend the settlers against Indian attacks, etc. Little wonder that, under the Mexican system, the Utes were able to beat back the San Luis Valley colonists.

But after this territory became part of the U.S. in 1848, a nearby military installation (Fort Massachusetts, followed by Fort Garland) was there to defend it. The United States maintained the postal service, and the government-built roads allowed safer commerce, along with reasonably reliable communication with the outside world. With that "socialized" assistance, San Luis was finally able to take root -- something it had lacked the resources to do under private enterprise.

Indeed, the whole "winning of the West" was a federal enterprise, with the government subsidizing railroads and silver mines and promoting settlement while maintaining an army to keep the Indians out of the way. America's socialized westward expansion was a success, while Mexico's northern expansion, which relied on private enterprise, never got much farther than Taos.

But "winning the West" was Manifest Destiny; nobody called it socialism. Outright socialism never caught on in the West, though it had its moments. The Populists, a third party that captured a few Western statehouses a century ago, were generally reformers, rather than revolutionaries. They did, however, call for government ownership of the railroads, as well as of telephone and telegraph systems.

The Populists got a lot of support from the biggest labor union in the mountains, the Western Federation of Miners. The union's founder and first president, Ed Boyce, was a socialist, as was his successor, Charles Moyer. The ashes of another socialist WFM officer, Big Bill Haywood, ended up buried in the Kremlin wall.

By 1912, socialists were doing pretty well in America. Their presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, received 6 percent of the vote that year. About 1,200 socialists held public office, including 79 mayors. Mayor Lewis Duncan even presided over a socialist city council in Butte, Mont.

The upsurge in "100 percent Americanism" during and after World War I -- often enforced by the military, and justified as a response to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia -- pretty well demolished that outbreak of American socialism.
But socialism has never gone away. Consider the modern West we live in, and remember that one definition of socialism is "government ownership of the means of production."

In my county, the major industry is tourism. The motels and restaurants are private, of course, and there are privately owned tourist attractions, like scenic railroads, hot-springs spas and ski resorts.
However, the main attraction is the mountains -- a dozen summits over 14,000 feet, along with hundreds of other peaks. And these "means of production" sit on U.S. Forest Service land and are owned by the government.

Although there are a few private campgrounds, most campers use public lands. They hike on government-owned trails, and fish in creeks that flow across government land.

Those fish, under Colorado law, are public property, as are the deer and elk that are hunted every fall. When tourists float down the Arkansas River or any other Colorado stream, they're on water that our state Constitution defines as "the property of the public."

To get here, tourists drive on public roads. If they fly into Denver, they land at an airport built with public funds that serves airlines subsidized with public dollars. Some of the visitors arrive on Amtrak -- a government-operated passenger rail service.

Beyond tourism, local agriculture receives a vast array of government subsidies ranging from cheap grazing leases on government land to export assistance. And oil and gas drilling usually exploits  government-owned resources.

Add it all up, and it's obvious that in the West, we've got an abundance of "government ownership of the means of production." In other words, we're already socialists, even if we don't dare use that word.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Socialism in the West
Patrick Hunter
Patrick Hunter
Oct 27, 2009 05:38 PM
To Ed Quillen,
Well said, comrad!
Government for the people
Cynthia Carlisi
Cynthia Carlisi
Oct 27, 2009 08:22 PM
For the People, by the People, Jefferson wrote for us, declaring independence from England. Americans formed a team to get free and create a government that allows us to travel freely on gov't highways, to hunt, fish, trap, hike, camp etc on property owned by us. I love that freedom! I hope we always have government owned beautiful places since most of us can't afford our own private ranch for recreation. This is a great nation, with opportunities for all. Support for our agriculture businesses is celebrated each year at National Finals Rodeo where hard working Americans come together and enjoy "Cowboy Christmas." Many businesses have cause for celebration at tax time, compared to individuals who work for minimum wage. I think our national team of citizens coming together to celebrate real health care for all, provided by the same gov't that provides for our recreation, will be welcomed by true Americans who love freedom. Freedom to be treated in a fight against disease is a constitutional right, "Life, Liberty, and the Persuit of Happiness." Let's practice it!
Beyond the Idea
Patrick Gocke
Patrick Gocke
Oct 28, 2009 12:25 AM
If you want to compare government health care to public lands then I guess it sounds like a great idea, but how about the ways that our public lands are managed by the government? I guess I hope they manage health care better then they manage forests.
socialism in the west
Rhys Roberts
Rhys Roberts
Oct 28, 2009 12:46 PM
Thanks Ed, for laying down a little bit of truth about the west. Every time I hear the age old mantra of "government off our backs" I have to chuckle at the ignorance of the idea. Truth be told, if it weren't for the dense population centers of the east and west coast, and the tax base they provide, the intermountain west simply couldn't afford highways, water projects, federal lands projects, and any amount of things we consider "ours." We just don't have the population density to generate those kind of tax dollars. Next time any of us in the west turns on our water tap, sets rubber to the interstate, or grazes cattle on federal land we have a socialized system of "tax and spend" to thank for the luxury.
Larry Hartzke
Larry Hartzke Subscriber
Oct 01, 2016 09:40 AM
The commentary is as relevant as ever. People in the West may certainly maintain antipathy toward government intrusion. But unless there is consistency in applying that antipathy, the antipathy seems less credible. If one is against government intrusion into their life, it seems consistent that one should also reject as many of government's benefits (intrusions) as possible, e.g., Social Security monthly payments, Medicare insurance, farm subsidies, etc., etc.