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 [email protected].

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