LARAMIE—Recently I had the chance to sit on a panel at the University of Wyoming with David Wrobel, the chairman of the history department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and California writer James P. Owen. We were there to discuss Owen’s book, Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West.
This book and its offshoot, the Denver-based Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership, and its sequel, Cowboy Values: Recapturing What America Once Stood For, are dedicated to the premise that everyone needs an Old West belief system in order to make good decisions.
Owen, friendly, folksy, and totally sincere, seemed taken aback by the skeptical audience we faced. I think he came expecting a love fest. Instead, he had to field a barrage of questions about why anyone would choose the cowboy and the cowboy lifestyle as examples of meritorious behavior.
Owen contends that America, especially Wall Street, is broken. The way to fix it is for everyone to adopt a Code, or as he has codified it, “ten principles to live by.”
These aphorisms include such advice as “Live each day with courage,” and “Be tough but fair,” as well as the morally ambiguous, “Ride for the brand.”
Wrobel, a former Brit endowed with the gift for understatement and diplomacy, pointed out the key flaw to Owen’s path to his noble goal: it’s based on nostalgia, and nostalgia, said Wrobel, “makes me nervous.”
As it should. The Code of the West credo is now taught in some public schools, like Denver’s Cherry Creek High School, for example. And in its most recent session, the Wyoming legislature presented our fair state with “Official State Code” based on Owen’s Code of the West.
Any child reading Owen’s book or looking at his website would be left with the impression that life was better four generations ago than it is now. Owens says as much in Code of the West, about how he yearns to get back to “simpler times, when right and wrong were as clear as black and white.”
The Greeks had a word for this projection: Epigoni, the concept that all of us are inferior descendants of greater ancestors and live in an era inferior to a vanished “Golden Age.”
In his 1997 The Idea of Decline in Western History, Arthur Herman wrote that “virtually every culture past or present has believed that men and women are not up to the standards of their parents and forbears.”
The problem is that people glom on to one-liners like a carbon atom to oxygen, and take them literally. This relieves citizens of the hard work of looking at the past, acknowledging the ugliness, and, with any luck, learning how to avoid a repeat performance.
Wall Street has always had its rogues and will have them tomorrow. A prime example is the 1872 Credit Mobilier scandal in which insiders bilked 23 million (about $417 million in today dollars) out of Union Pacific stockholders and nearly bankrupted the company.
Furthermore “codes” have been used for millennia to keep people in line. They invariably fall short of their goal.
Confucius’ thoughts were compiled 2500 years ago in a series of writings called the Analects. Like the Code of the West, Confucius stressed the simple virtues: charity, justice, propriety, wisdom, and loyalty. But these virtues were largely absent in bloody decades like the 1966-76 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
The example most familiar to us is, of course, the Old Testament’s ten commandments, penned by Moses, who personally struggled with the code (he fatally brained an Egyptian with a rock. Despite its dramatic publication party detailed in Exodus, the list has failed to quench man’s thirst for mayhem and violence, not to mention impertinence, adultery, and covetousness.
Rome had the Gregorian Code and the Theodosian Code. The empire still fell.
In modern polarized times fueled by 24/7 news, it’s easy to see the appeal of the Code of the West. For one thing, there are only ten entries and they all use short little words that everyone thinks he understands until he starts trying to define them. For example, define “courage.” Now, define “fair”.
The 2010 report from the Pew Project Excellence in Journalism pointed out that 70 percent of the people they interviewed “feel overwhelmed rather than informed by the amount of news and information they see. Quantitatively, argument rather than expanding information is the growing share of media people are exposed to today.”
This has created a bull market for easy and simple answers. Overwhelmed and unable– or unwilling– to navigate, people seize what seems to be the surest compass. What a fabulous time for new codes.
We don’t need them. Sorry. Instead, America needs to get away from hero worship or idealization of any era or anyone, be they cowboy, soldier, roughneck or rector.
People, as James Madison pointed out, are not angels. We’re all capable of making very bad choices. Codes, especially those created out of a sanitized past, do not help us differentiate between good choice and bad. Most people have a conscience and know what they ought to do. They, in the words of another Madison (Madison Avenue, sadly enough) need to just do it.
A regular contributor to WyoFile, Samuel Western just completed teaching the first-ever class in Wyoming Economic History at the University of Wyoming. He is finishing his third book, Tribal America.