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.

Samuel Western

Samuel Western of Sheridan is a university lecturer, poet and U.S. regional correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Pushed Off the Mountain Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its...

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  1. Tim,

    As to your other point, Nate Champion and Nick Ray were killed at the KC ranch not the TA. The TA was where the invaders surendered. My grandfather knew Dud Champion and was there when he told the newspaper reporter that he would kill Mike Shonsy (one of the invaders). Shonsy years later killed Dud Champion when they met on a roundup. Champion’s statement to the press was used in Shonsy’s defense and he was not convicted. A draw on my ranch is named for Shonsy, to commerate Shonsy having a fist fight with Jack Flag at the CY ranches branding corrals on Salt Creek. So the code of the West was suspened at least a few times back then.

  2. Well Tim, I can’t remember the name of the judge but his remarks were well recorded in accounts of the trial in the Casper newspapers. One of the remarkable things about Wyoming is that I also know desendents of people implicated in the same case. Do a little reasearch before you claim it’s a myth.

  3. Doug
    When you spin a yarn, a least show a smiley face. Quoting some mythic judge is a bit of a stretch…”When the Judge sentenced Tom O’day for stealing horse’s he advised Tom, “You should have quit when the rest of us did”. The first rule in any code of the West should be to not get caught.”
    What kind of code are you considering in your school?
    One of the compelling things about coincidences in Wyoming is the nature of the witnesses that keep turning up. Nate Champion and Nick Ray were in the process of getting killed when two people just happened by the TA ranch. The weather was cold and clammy, there was a lot of gunfire, and yet a guy on a buckboard and a man on horseback just “happened along,” and drove right into the midst of 50 members of a “death squad” intent upon malefaction and mayhem. For the story’s sake, what are the odds?

    I remember one fine day in May when I crossed over the Big Horns on the old stagecoach road, barely passable for the snow laying in drifts. I stopped the car and got out into the warm sun and thought how great it was to be somewhere where there wasn’t anyone else. That kind of euphoric moment, while fleeting, is sure a solace in a crowded world.

  4. I think for once ol’ Sam has a point. When the Judge sentenced Tom O’day for stealing horse’s he advised Tom, “You should have quit when the rest of us did”. The first rule in any code of the West should be to not get caught. I don’t know how Jim Owen would explain how it took a skilled cowboy to be an effective rustler, yet supposedly cowboys lived by the code of the West. It’s probably closer to truth to realize the old time cowboys came from a diverse background, sometimes married the madam who ran the whorehouse, and started a few ranches with a long rope and somebody else’s calves. In the old West there was also the sobering fact that it might be worth your life to cross the wrong people. Back then there were consequences to one’s behavior that didn’t require arrests, appeals or a long wait. A fact that bred some politeness where guns were common. Owen might want to read the tombstone of one of the ranchers from around here that states, “He set the pace with an outlaw crew”. It is a good idea to be ethical and I hope that Owen and the state of Wyoming is successful where so many have failed before.

  5. Nice story, Sam. “Ride for the brand” makes me nervous. See, for example how complicated that simple idea got for a cowboy named Clabe Young, in Carbon County in the 1880s.

    A Detective Gets His Man:

    The Capture of Rustler Clabe Young

    By TOM REA

    Clabe H. Young was one wild cowboy, his friends in Wyoming would have said. He was also a cattle thief. In his youth he killed a man in Texas, though he swore years later that he never meant to. In 1883, as he traveled in chains back to Texas to face a murder charge, he sometimes talked and sometimes wept. He told the detective who had captured him a great deal about cattle stealing in central Wyoming Territory. All the cowboys were doing it, Clabe said, and many stole because their bosses paid them to.

    See the rest at http://www.tomrea.net/Clabe%20Young.html.

  6. My brother used to say, “The only problem with nostalgia is that there isn’t enough of it around any more.”

  7. Well, said. Wyoming has been shackled to long by its mythic past.
    Jingles for better living have come and gone over the years. Marketing people have long used the American ideal of betterment to spur book sales, create foundations and lecture tours. In reality, codes of ethics like Mr. Owens are at best societal mood boosters, caffeine for our true natures, and at worst a call to passivity. Nothing takes the place of the individual making hard decision and paying attention to the consequences.
    The issues that face a place like Wyoming are nowhere near black and white. They pit employment against environment, development against preservation, and the old against the new. Codes of ethic promise an answer key, that will help us “get it right.” But I frankly would not trust our tough decisions to a filter like this. Long, sometimes difficult, and honest discussion, rooted in a realistic picture of who we are now, is the only way to come to the “right decision.”

  8. If James Owen came to a UW history conference expecting a love fest he was demonstrating abject ignorance. Anybody who’s come within a mile of academic historians knows they are something akin to a bunch of rattlesnakes emerging from their winter den. Those guys (and women) are all/only about “hard looks” at the past and “acknowledging the ugliness.” Woe unto anyone who might dare to find something worth appreciating in our past.

  9. Well, said. Wyoming has been shackled to long by its mythic past.
    Jingles for better living have come and gone over the years. Marketing people have long used the American ideal of betterment to spur book sales, create foundations and lecture tours. In reality, codes of ethics like Mr. Owens are at best societal mood boosters, caffeine for our true natures, and at worst a call to passivity. Nothing takes the place of the individual making hard decision and paying attention to the consequences.
    The issues that face a place like Wyoming are nowhere near black and white. They pit employment against environment, development against preservation, and the old against the new. Codes of ethic promise an answer key, that will help us “get it right.” But I frankly would not trust our tough decisions to a filter like this. Long, sometimes difficult, and honest discussion, rooted in a realistic picture of who we are now, is the only way to come to the “right decision.”

  10. Right on, Sam. People criticize revisionist history, wondering why we can’t just let the facts stand without changing our history all the time. Well, the Cowboy Ethic is just such a revision but the problem is that the revision is based upon writer James Owens’ nostalgic look backward which, in turn, is based upon movies he’s seen and perhaps even novels he’s read. Not everyone can be Owen Wister’s Virginian. If we were we wouldn’t be gambling on bad loans or dumping oil into the ocean. The Code of the West lives, but I suspect that it can be found just as easily in the hearts and minds of the working stiffs of this state, not just people who ride horses or love the Old West.

  11. I found Sam Western’s piece very interesting and thought-provoking, as I usually find his writing. I am of a Wyoming ranching background, 100 years or so, and could not imagine why our Legislature wasted time on a “code of the West”. Just my opinion.