23 October 2006

Anti-Government Sentiment And The West

The joke geography map on display at Mapsco give the name "China" to Massachusetts in recognition of its history of political liberalism and imply that it strongly embraces state ownership of property. The Rocky Mountain West has long been viewed as a collection of Republican leaning red states, with one of the core issues being the perception that Republicans have favored smaller government.

Perhaps one reason for anti-government feeling in the West, is that there is so much more of it there.

Higher Education

For example, in Massachusetts, fewer college students attending public institutions than any other state in the United States. Every state with less than 59% of college students attending public colleges is in the Northeast (according to Fall 2004 statistics complied by the U.S. Department of Education and reprinted in The Chronicle of Higher Education's 2006-2007 Almanac edition).

Massachusetts 43%
Rhode Island 50%
New York State 55%
Pennsylvania 56%
New Hampshire 58%
Vermont 59%
Connecticut 64%

In contrast, higher education in the Rocky Mountain West is overwhelmingly a government affair. Public institutions make up a large percentage of college students in each of these states:

Wyoming 93%
Montana 90%
New Mexico 92%
Colorado 80%
Idaho 80%
Utah 75%
Arizona 65%

In Alaska, whose politics share much with that of the Rocky Mountain States in the Continental U.S., 96% of college students attend public institutions. In Texas, it is 87%.

Public Lands

Similarly, I have a map of Federal and Indian Lands in my office. The only significant parcel of federal land in Massachussetts is the Cap Cod National Seashore. In contrast, the vast majority of the land from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas, the United State's Great Inland basin, is owned by either the federal government or an Indian Reservation.

In Massaschussetts, 1.87% of the land is federally owed (by acre).

In the West, the numbers are much higher:

Nevada 84.48%
Utah 57.45%
Idaho 50.19%
Arizona 48.06%
New Mexico 41.77%
Wyoming 42.33%
Colorado 36.63%
Montana 29.92%

In all of these states, the percentage of land owned by the federal government is higher than the percentage of land in the District of Columbia, the nation's capitol, owned by the federal government 24.67%.


Most of the land that is privately owned was given for free to homesteaders, who acquired their water rights when water was free for the taking under a first in time, first in right rule, and little agricultural land in the state would still be economic to farm without crop subsidies, property tax breaks and disproprotionately high per pupil state funding of rural schools.


In the East, water falls from the sky in amounts great enough for everyone. In the West, the use of eminent domain to store and move water, although it scares us, is a matter of life or death. We have no choice other than to use the power of government to manage this scarce resource. Cities like Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix would not be possible without government. Indeed, among our predecessors on this land, the ancient Anasazi, irrigation was the raison d'etre of government.


Toll roads, like the Pennsylvania Turnpike, are relatively common in the East. They are rare in the West. Denver, the part of the West most like the East Coast, is the only place in the Rocky Mountains that has them.

Bottom Line

The myth that the West was built on self-reliance and individualism is just that, a myth. The West was won with railroad subsidies, federally tax dollar supported troops providing security, and government handouts to new residents in the form of homestead grants and mining patents. The West, far more so than the East, has always been the home of big government, and so naturally, people in the West are more sensitive to it.

But, the West, with its federal oil and gas leases, its federal grazing permits, and its federally granted timber rights, is a place where the means of production are owned by the government, to a far greater extent than China/Massachusetts.

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