In cowboy country, inequality is not a bug. It’s a uniquely American strategy.

My family lives in a university-owned apartment complex whose population consists mainly of people from abroad, living in the United States for a graduate program or a postdoc. Those of us who are from this country, therefore, find ourselves conscripted into the service of having to explain the mysteries of Americanism to intelligent internationals. Such duties have become especially frequent since the election of Donald J. Trump.

The questions go something like this: Why does the latest Republican tax proposal target low-income graduate students and help rich corporations? Why is there suddenly a travel ban against my country, when our people have never caused trouble here? What is with all the guns and mass shootings? Where is the efficient, universal health care I have been used to in all the other countries I’ve lived in? Why are there so many homeless people? And, seriously, climate change?

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What is with all the guns and mass shootings? Why are there so many homeless people? And, seriously, climate change?

A part of me simply wants to apologize for it all, roll my eyes and change the subject. But I think these questions deserve better answers. There is a logic at play or at least a mythology, and visitors should understand it.

First, I will say, this is part of why you are here. You came to the United States because we have a lot of very good, well-funded universities where you can do work that would be harder to do where you come from. One reason for this is we charge students enormous sums of money to access higher education. Even those who can afford to go may spend most of their lives paying off the debt, if they ever do. Because we refuse to acknowledge university education as a right, the privilege of it becomes all the more attractive—not just to us but to you.

The universities that brought you here are just one of the ways this country optimizes for inequality. And it is not just a cruel mistake. It is a strategy for winning.

If our forbearers had respected treaties and human rights, few of us would be here.

This strategy has deep roots. This is cowboy country. This country would not exist the way it does if our predecessors had not been willing to exterminate whole civilizations, settle in, dig up minerals and enslave each other. If our forbearers had respected treaties and human rights, few of us would be here.

Ruthlessness is not the only feature of U.S. history; it has also included a great deal of cooperation, solidarity and community. But it is the part we celebrate in our schoolbooks and our movies. It is why Mr. Trump could win the presidency by calling immigrants rapists, boasting about sexual assault and bullying the competition. We have elected people like this before. No-drama Obama, not President Trump, was the exception. This is why Mr. Trump could borrow rhetoric for the campaign trail from one criminal former president, then hang a portrait of the genocidal onetime leader of his opponent’s party in the Oval Office. Both those guys won reelection in their day.

In cowboy country, the goal is not to make sure everyone is safe and secure. It is to enable a few people to do really, really well, without being dragged down by everyone else. If you focus too much on being safe and secure, there is less room for greatness.

In cowboy country, the goal is not to make sure everyone is safe and secure. It is to enable a few people to do really, really well.

Hence the guns; deep down we know we would be safer without them, but in cowboy country we are used to keeping death and killing close. Hence the lack of health care, also; if people know they will be taken care of no matter what, what will motivate them to scramble to the top of the heap? These suppositions work. Keeping fear in our midst has built us the most powerful military on the planet. And while millions of people here go without any medical insurance coverage at all, those who do have it pay for research and invention that the rest of the better-covered world benefits from.

You might point out that the country’s entrepreneurial spirit is not what we imagine it to be. We have fewer startups and less innovation than many countries worth comparing ourselves to, and our economic mobility is pretty lousy, too. But nearly all the most valuable companies in the world started here. The exceptions prove the rule. The exceptions are the point.

If people know they will be taken care of no matter what, what will motivate them to scramble to the top of the heap?

So-called American exceptionalism is not just for the sake of being different from other countries—on health care, on guns, on climate change. It is a strategy, and it is a social contract we are taught to accept all our lives here. It has been a winning strategy, too, if economic, military and cultural dominance over much of the world counts as winning, as it arguably does.

That does not mean everyone in the country accepts this deal or that we should. The U.S. Constitution requires the government to “promote the general welfare,” and there is reason to believe that this is inconsistent with sacrificing the welfare of millions so as to revel in the achievements of an exceptional few. The Bible, which allegedly inspired that founding document, has something to say about “the least of these.” This country has produced pioneers not just in extraction and extermination but in struggles for justice and rights, especially among the poor, women and those who cannot claim the privileges of whiteness. But they were never supposed to be protagonists in the cowboy mythology anyway.

Whether or not one likes the logic of cowboy country, one should understand how it works and that it does work, at least by its own standards. It works very well, in fact, so it is not merely idiocy that makes people get behind it in elections. For those of us who call the United States home, articulating this logic can help us understand each other and clarify the question of whether this is really what we want.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Henry George
3 weeks 2 days ago

How odd that Professor Schneider refers to America as
"Cowboy Country" given he lives in Boulder which is in the very
heart of the Old West which began a few hundred miles east in
Dodge City, Kansas.

Out here in Western Wyoming, we are more Cowboy than
New York Elite, but out here we care for each other. I know
all my neighbours for ten miles around.

But who in Washington, D.C. knows all their neighbours in Dupont Circle,
or in New York City - those on the Avenue of the Americas ?

It is greed Professor Schneider, just plain old greedy greed.
Has nothing to do with Cowboys, of which you seem to actually know
very little of or about.

Stanley Kopacz
3 weeks 2 days ago

And how many neighbors do you have in a 10 mile radius, Longmire?

LuAnn O'Connell
3 weeks 2 days ago

I believe Prof. Schneider's intent is not to draw on current geographic American cultures, but to use the term cowboy for a broad concept of America since cowboys are uniquely associated with our country. For better or worse, most people's concept of cowboy comes from a limited knowledge of history and movies and television. Lack of concern for those outside their circle or for the equality of all, such as Native Americans, makes the historic/literary/moving image concept cowboy seem an appropriate choice.

Dionys Murphy
3 weeks ago

Agreed, LuAnn. It is sad that Prof Schneider's using "Cowboy Culture" as a generalized term to express the culture of the old west, genocide of the Natives and the myth of the "rugged individual" also unintentionally insults those who consider themselves to be "cowboys." I think it came across as pithy when he wrote it, but doesn't accurately capture what he was trying to convey. Likely what the professor was targeting was the surface, caricatured version of the 'Cowboy' so often captured in American film which makes heroes of genocidal "rugged individualists" while downplaying the reality of people having to work together in community as they actually do.

Stanley Kopacz
2 weeks 6 days ago

If anything, I would say singling out cowboy hats distracts from the puritan hats, coonskin hats etc. involved in ongoing genocide and treaty abrogation with respect to the indigenous, exemplified by the $20 bill guy. There's also the institution of slavery. Genocide and slavery were cruel but instrumental in building the economic success of the country. Of course, when doing gigatons of nasty "stuff", we have to wrap it in science and religion to justify it to others and, more importantly, ourselves.

Michael McDermott
3 weeks 2 days ago

Wow – reading the rabidly radical leftist / gender feminist / homosex (aka GILBERT Gaystapo) rantings of this tin pot in a lightning storm banging ‘Perfesser’ from the pathetic farce of Academentia, is like picking up an old soiled copy of the ‘Daily Californian’ (UC Berzerkeley campus newspaper) at the Far Far East / Left Gate; Or perhaps finding a recycled edition of PRAVDA, the official organ of Truthiness of the Old Soviet Union of Socialist Republics.

Just perusing the volumes of ‘Hate Amerika First’ propaganda published in this allegedly Jesuit forum, shows the reality behind the observation that if you really want your Children to leave the Catholic Faith, send them to a Catholic ‘university’; and if you want your Kids to become active bitter enemies of the Church and its Wise Moral Teachings, send them to a Jesuit Institution.

I will forego a more thorough de-bunking of this author’s pseudo academic drivel as not worth the effort, and simply comment on the fawning nostalgic yearning for the Worst Poseur to inhabit the Oval Office since Woodie Wilson and his Demi-Krat Klan Klowns held it; meaning of course the Community Organizer in Chief – Barry ‘on the down low’ Soetoro (former head stall stallion at Chicago’s notorious “Man Country” bathhouse / buggery barn) and his Abomination.

While TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome) is all the rage amongst the self anointed elites of Academentia & ‘our’ bought and paid for free press; the recent attempts to connect the spots between Charlie Manson and the ‘POTUS who wasn’t supposed to be’ highlight the willful blindness about Barry and his ObamAcorn Mentors / Spiritual Advisors and their frothy mix of Pogroms to Destroy America.

Although permissible Viewpoints Must emanate from a purely atheistic, leftist, politically correct, self involved, narcissistic egoism (aka the Boulder Commune Mindset); as pre-requisite to have any Valid part in the Public Debate. It is beyond chutzpah for anyone who dare claims a Judaeo Christian Foundation for their Moral Compass, pretend to have a Moral Compass independent of ‘down low’ Soetoro.
Such things Must by their very nature point to the True North of Political Correctness; meaning of course the Only Seat of True Knowledge... Which those in the know - know to be what former POTUS Barry 'on the down low' Soetoro actually Sits Upon.

Hence, does even stevie wonder why is it that the bought and paid for ‘free press’ – So ruthlessly Suppressed the facts about the Murdering Terrorist ‘weather-bombers' / Charlie Manson Fans who helped Barry Organize the Demi-Krat Machine?
SEE
"Bernardine Dohrn, later a friend of Barack and Michelle Obama, feverishly told Weatherman followers: “Dig it: first they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into the victim’s stomach. Wild!” – capoliticalreview
Who else could have escaped the consequences of intimate connections to such deeply Evil Butchers as Barry’s Weather Underground Mentors and Supporters?
But then when your ‘pseudo father’ is notorious Communist Activist Frank Marshall Davis, and decades long ‘spiritual leader’ Jerry ‘G.D.A.’ Wright – You just gotta feel the love, from the lamesteam media.

BTW – Pale Male Pork Byproduct Dan Quayle was skewered for years because he added and ‘e’ to potato; while the same bunchabannanaz heavily censored mention of CIC Barry’s reference to Navy / Marine Medics (Corpsmen, pronounced ‘Kore-Men’) as “Corpse Men”, in case it might have highlighted his massive ignorance about an office that at least didn’t used to Hate America First, back when. Ahem

Dionys Murphy
3 weeks ago

When you copy and paste right wing rants that have nothing to do with an article posted, it's plain that you want to put your dementia on proud display for all to see. Thus you exemplify the perfect Trump voter. Ignorant of history, in denial of reality, and ranting against that which you fear of yourself most of all.

Michael McDermott
3 weeks ago

Thanks for sharing.
The only thing copied was the article about the Sadistic Murdering 'weather bomber' Terrorist Dorn, who along with Ayers were a big part of Barry 'on the down low' Soetoros Mentor / Sponsor Coven in the Chicago Commune. The rest is mine and I proudly own it. As for your SSAD case of TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome), I was never a supporter of the Donald and voted against him in the Primary. Like so many others, when it came to the General Election, the choice of the deeply Corrupt MIsandrist - Hitlary of Rodham, was no choice at all.

Linda Vincent
3 weeks 1 day ago

How I wish I could possess Mr. Schneider's mindset. It would make my life so much easier. Comfortable self-righteousness is a gift indeed.

LuAnn O'Connell
3 weeks 1 day ago

I think this is an interesting theory that does explain to some degree the successes of our country as the survival of the fittest, richest and/or most powerful contrary to the message of the Gospel of Jesus and Church teaching.

Beth Cioffoletti
3 weeks ago

And the underlying belief of cowboy inequality is: I AM MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOU ARE. Yes, we profess to be the nation where all men [sic] are created equal, but our history and the news clearly show that the bullies get to the top of the heap.

Lisa Weber
2 weeks 6 days ago

Interesting article, and it brings out a valuable point. I would call the "cowboy country" ethic "rugged individualism" and it is a problem in the USA. We glorify a frontier mentality though few of us live in a frontier. When a society's guiding myth does not match its daily reality, the mismatch causes problems. Professor Schneider has accurately pointed out some of the problems.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 5 days ago

Nathan
Here you are again using an all too neat, story telling device...the pseudo questions of foreign students striving to understand America. You of course then answer your pseudo question with the packaged commentary you have just been bursting to share!
Very academic....and very obvious....even to a poor schlep cowboy.

I can hear your wheels grinding now...."If only America had been organized as a big cooperative". "If only those unwashed guys and gals in the camps of Occupy Wall Street had been successful!"
I think I hear the stressful cries of an east coast elitist trapped in an academic atmosphere which is a bit too ordinary. You should really leave the cowboys alone and hightail it back to Manhattan.
But while you are out west you should first get in your car and join the locals in dinners, bars and churches outside Boulder and find out what makes them tick. Former NAtional Public Radio Executive Ken Stern found that process to be enlightening enough to write a book questioning the validity of his own east coast elitism. You might even learn to understand people not cut from so fine a cloth as you seem comfortable with.

Stanley Kopacz
2 weeks 5 days ago

I guess he could have a beer with the locals. Oh, I'm sorry, pass around a joint with the locals. We may be elitist out here in the east, but we ain't as wild as you Coloradans. EEEhah, podner.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 5 days ago

Stan
I suggested he get OUT OF BOULDER which has become a town of Eastern Wannabes...just more elitists drinking their appletinis!

Dionys Murphy
2 weeks 4 days ago

America was "organized as a big cooperative." The article is essentially criticizing the myth of the "rugged individualist," peddled by the neo-evangelicalists and right-wingers for decades, sadly. It's hard to tell if his opening was a story telling "device" (though kudos for trying to dismiss the message by attacking the method) as these are all questions I have heard foreign students ask at the grade/high-school and college level, and all valid questions.

As for which kind of elitist you think you "hear," it's sad that you don't hear the elitism of projection of your own perceived elitism as you attack someone for being who they are. The extraordinary nature of the ordinary is as tiresome as the extraordinary nature of the extraordinary that isn't.

Nathan Schneider
2 weeks 5 days ago

It is striking to me that the critical comments here deal primarily in ad hominem attacks that a) ridicule the fact that I teach at a university, and b) make mainly inaccurate assumptions about the nature of my relationship with Colorado, the West, and the cattle industry. Neither seems especially relevant to the article at hand, so I don't see value in responding to them on their own terms. I would, however, be interested in substantive responses to the actual content of the article, as at least some comments so far have done.

I should at least clarify, however, that when I speak of "cowboy country," I'm referring to a certain mythology promulgated in Western films and the like much more than people involved in actual ranch work today. Among such people, including members of my family, I've seen tremendous examples of the "cooperation, solidarity and community" referred to in the article.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 5 days ago

Nathan
Perhaps you would make your points more clearly if you did not cloak your position in an academic moral superiority. ......like a professor lecturing the freshmen who have no idea what life is like. Further the apparent point you are trying to make is cluttered with an anti Trump diatribe that has little if anything to do with that point.

But since you ask for a moment of substance consider the following : You base your whole argument on a contrast between what you refer to as the myth of rugged individualism..(......John Ford's cowboy ideal?) and the Constitution's Preamble reference to "the general welfare ".

1)In the process you interpret the phrase "general welfare" in a manner which would not be recognized by the Founders. General welfare in the 18th century meant 'good for all the people'...an item that benefited one and all, such as roads for commerce,ports for trade, the well being of all,etc. It certainly did not mean anything resembling the progressive welfare state of money payments, food stamps , health care. These may all be fine things but they are not encompassed by the phrase "general welfare" as used in the Constitution.

2)Further you then ignore the actual use of that phrase "general welfare" as used in Article 1 of the Constitution.
You state: "The U.S. Constitution REQUIRES the government to promote the general welfare"
In point of fact Article 1 of the Constitution does not "REQUIRE" such action, but rather it "ALLOWS" Congress to collect taxes for such a purpose. It is a power granted to the Congress. It is not a duty imposed upon it
In its proper context the general welfare reference allows Congress to collect taxes to be used for projects and items that benefit all citizens....not selected groups or subsets. It is of a piece with "equal opportunity" rather than "equal outcome" . It speaks to providing an even playing field, available to all. Not picking winners and losers, or making it up to one who has lost by taking a portion away from the winner.

Finally, I understand from your other essays that you personally decry the accumulation of wealth by the Gates, the Zuckerbergs, the Bezos etc and you believe that decisions on how to spend such monies should be made by larger groups than the actual owners. This current essay is just an extension of that position by suggesting that the Constitution's "general welfare clause" permits/requires a correction of the wrongs you perceive through congressional action.

Chuck Kotlarz
2 weeks 5 days ago

“…(the constitution) allows Congress to collect taxes to be used for projects and items that benefit all citizens…”

Stuart, are you suggesting a 91% federal income tax rate on the .01%ers? A 91% tax rate could kill multimillion dollar campaign contributions and Congress might again work for all citizens, not just the donor class. A 91% tax on the .01%ers could restore the free speech of 95% of America that has been perniciously stolen from them since 1981.

Corporate tax rates should be raised for the same reason. Author Louis Auchincloss’ notes President Theodore Roosevelt would speak of his shuddering “when I read Senator Platt's testimony…in which (Platt)…recognized it as a moral obligation to take care of the interests of corporations that contributed to the campaigns.” Today’s Congress works for 10,000 corporate lobbyists that are indirectly employed by the .01%ers.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 5 days ago

Chuck
With all respect you post is entirely off the topic of Mr Schneider's article. I suggest you take this piece of bait back to an article on the Tax Bills.

Chuck Kotlarz
2 weeks 5 days ago

Stuart, my post possibly went off topic. Republicans, however, also have had differences with “cowboys”. Mark Hanna, 14th Chairman of the Republican National Committee, was upset over “that cowboy” (Teddy Roosevelt) becoming president and TR’s distressing tendency to call for taxes on corporations.

Roosevelt’s Elkhorn ranch, established during his cattle raising days, lies a days drive east of Henry George from Wyoming (see Henry's comment above).

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 5 days ago

Chuck
You are cluttering up this comment section with irrelevant nonsense.

Chuck Kotlarz
2 weeks 5 days ago

I have replaced my original comment with the following:

I was not aware America's "cowboy" president was off topic.

Dionys Murphy
2 weeks 4 days ago

"In its proper context the general welfare reference allows Congress to collect taxes to be used for projects and items that benefit all citizens....not selected groups or subsets." I do love it when people kill their own arguments within their own arguments. By your interpretation, we should not be building roads for cars as that targets elite "selected groups or subsets." As you argue, the government should not be paying for things that necessitate "picking and choosing winners and losers, or making it up to one who has lost by taking a portion away from the winner" (though your idea of winner/loser in this are reversed). How amusing.

Dionys Murphy
2 weeks 4 days ago

Perhaps even more amusing is your continuing targeting of "elites" while praising the "winners" as clearly those who have the most money. Ironic.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 4 days ago

Dionys
You might consider that I never tagged " the winners" as those who have the most money...that is a revealing fillip of your own thought process.
Nor did I praise the concept of " winners" .....If you bother to read Nathan's essay again you will quickly find that he objects to the idea that rugged individualism produces what are recognized in the U.S. as "winners" and appeals to the "general welfare clause " as a basis for refusing to accept that analysis. My comment on that was that the Constitutions "general welfare clause" is not a basis for taking from the "winners" (recall Nathan said the Constitution REQUIRES the promotion of the general welfare)

Despite your attempt at a gleeful repost I referenced "roads" in particular because at the time of the Constitution's passage they were needed/built for a generic commerce which benefited all. Similarly my reference to "ports" concerned commerce. You seem to think that because roads can also be used for cars and ports for yachts that some how they weren't/couldn't/shouldn't be constructed for the general welfare.
The Elites I reference are those who believe that they possess a superior moral ethic as well as a singular ability to determine what is best for others. Strike a note?

Chuck Kotlarz
2 weeks 4 days ago

Which elites decided a living wage was not best for others?

Nathan Schneider
2 weeks 4 days ago

Thanks for clarifying.

1) As the article makes clear, the premise is explaining how this country works to temporary residents from abroad, so a fairly simplistic tone is appropriate. Sometimes even the rest of us can benefit from a simple story to notice unnoticed assumptions.

1b) The Trump references are not at all irrelevant. For foreigners living in this country, especially my neighbors from Muslim-majority countries, Trump's presidency represents a major uptick in anxiety and confusion.

2) This seems a matter of interpretation. But to me the preamble makes quite clear that, were the government not to do any of the things listed there, it would be failing in its purpose. And of course the meaning of "general welfare" is going to be a matter of contention. This article presents one admittedly caricatured version of what that might mean and invites us to consider others.

3) Informed by the Catholic doctrine of the universal destination of goods, I hold it to be uncontroversial that how people steward their wealth is, at least to some degree, a matter of general concern -- especially in the case of the super-wealthy. This is all the more the case for philanthropists, who seek not just private good but public good. Shouldn't the public have a say in what constitutes its own good?

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 4 days ago

Nathan
Your point 2): The Preamble of the Constitution sets forth broad goals. The Articles of the Constitution define and limit how those goals are to be met. The only operative language is in the Articles. I emphasize that Article 1 "permits or allows"the imposition of taxes for stated purposes. Your use of the Preamble language would require/compel Congress to tax. Your use of the Preamble obviates the need for the Articles of the Constitution that follow.

In short the means of obtaining the purposes of the Constitution are sharply limited by the limited grants of authority.in the Articles that follow the Preamble. The Founders understood that unconstrained general purposes can be used to justify just about any means to their fulfillment.
It is well to keep in mind that the entire underpinning of the Constitution was the grant of very limited powers to the Federal Government,..... limits reinforced by the passage of the Bill of Rights. It is this very concept of strict Federal limits that in turn generated "the rugged individual" (especially in the Western Territories) whose subsequent social influence you seem to critique.

You point 3): I believe that the Universal Determination of Goods is a teaching where you consider it a dogmatic doctrine of the Church. I readily grant that such teaching as exemplified by the Sermon on the Mount exhorts the sharing of wealth. But I think it is important to note that the Church teachings and the Sermon on the Mount are directed to the individual and not to political governments. In short one cannot outsource his obligations and response to the Sermon on the Mount to government or government agencies. There is no grace or merit in claiming that you have responded to the exhortation of The Beatitudes by paying taxes. Your argument/syllogism States that: a)disposition of wealth by an individual under church teachings should/ involves the public good and therefore b) the public should have a say in such disposition. This argument suffers from a mixing of political theory and a misstatement of Church teachings.
Church teachings involve the morality of the exercise of the great gift of free will. There is no Church teaching that provides that the acceptable morality of a particular exercise of free will is to be judged or directed by a group., none the less by some public consensus.
The exercise of free will in the disposition of goods is not suspended or outsourced if you are wealthy. The morality of such a decision is between the individual (informed by the Church's teachings) and God.
Your concept of a "consensus public good" is not coextensive with or necessarily in conformity with a moral good. I need only reference the issue of abortion where the church teaching on morality is in direct conflict with a series of laws passed for "the public good". Your position engages in a dangerous mix of personal morality and personal politics which has been proven over and over again to result in unintended deleterious consequences to both moral standards and political divides.
The Founders created a secular society with emphasis on private property and personal rights precisely because they had the benefit of considering the adverse results of the European experiments in mixing religious tenets, property ownership and politics. This emphasis on personal liberty is the essence of our Constitution and the "rugged individualism" you seem to deplore is a natural manifestation of this intent.

Stanley Kopacz
2 weeks 4 days ago

The writer stated up front he was using the mythological figure of the cowboy. Commenters then proceeded to claim he was disrespecting real westerners and smear him with the elitist label. Unfair. Irrelevant.

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