For at least a century, American historians have been trying to throw cold water on a myth about the West: namely, that it was won by ruggedly independent pioneers who had no need or use for the federal government. This narrative has suffused the rhetoric of Western politicians from Barry Goldwater to Sarah Palin. The trouble, scholars say, is that it obscures how heavily those self-made pioneers depended on Washington’s largesse.
“The inhabitants [of the West] boasted of their autonomy, even as the government did the dirty work, took the risks, and offered sweet deals to settlers, so they could expand the borders of the United States,” wrote Katherine Roberts in the New York Times in 2008. “Without this help ... the waves of Western pioneers wouldn’t have had the luxury of hating Washington bureaucrats.”
For ages the West was an economic fiefdom of the East, dependent on capital from Wall Street and funding from Washington. Westerners understandably resented the wealth that was being extracted out from under them, and they bridled at the regulations that slowed them down from getting theirs. In 1947, the historian Bernard DeVoto summed up the Western attitude toward the federal government this way: “Get out and give us more money.”
Even today, for certain Western entrepreneurs with grand ambitions, the government remains a source of vast opportunity and of maddening frustration.
At the beginning of this year, the Western billionaire Philip Anschutz—owner of several oil and mining companies, a number of sports complexes, and the conservative Washington Examiner and Weekly Standard publications, among other properties—co-authored a book called Out Where the West Begins. During a rare public appearance to promote the book in Denver early this year, Anschutz presented it, in part, as a paean to what people can do when they aren’t tripped up by an invasive government. In his book, he profiles the lives of 50 businessmen who made their fortunes in the West between 1800 and 1920, when the transcontinental railroads were built, mines and oil were prospected, great cities were carved out of the landscape, and water and energy were harnessed to supply them. “It was a period of empire building and empire builders. The risks were high, but then too, the opportunities and rewards were high as well,” he writes.
Nearly a decade ago, Anschutz took on a project almost as monumental in scale as the construction of the Hoover Dam or the Western railroads. He set out to construct the nation’s largest wind farm, which could one day generate enough clean, green power to supply all the homes in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The project could make Anschutz the most unlikely of environmental heroes. And as Gabriel Kahn describes in his cover story, Anschutz’s plan is enabled by government regulations—in this case, energy mandates in California that guarantee a market for wind energy. But at the same time, the federal government has set up an almost farcical multi-year odyssey of red tape for Anschutz’s teams to navigate (which they have done thus far with, it must be admitted, perfect Western rugged determination).
This isn’t the first time Anschutz has dealt in markets that are either wholly created or mediated by the government. (One small example: his company Xanterra Resorts is the government contractor for most of the hotels and resorts in U.S. National Parks.) And it will not be the last time that such an entrepreneur rankles at government interference.
Kahn, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, teaches a master’s writing class on the business of the environment at the University of Southern California's Annenberg journalism school in Los Angeles. This year, his class focused on the enormous shifts in the energy markets in California. Along with Kahn’s feature story, to round out the tale, we are publishing a number of his students’ stories and information graphics at PSmag.com.
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