In Defense of the Sagebrush States

WHEN King David, from the roof of his house in Jerusalem, first beheld Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, the desire that burned in his breast doubtless seemed to him so entirely natural and right that he did not stay to question what he should do. Uriah should be set in the forefront of the hottest battle, and his comrades should retire from him so that he might be smitten and die. And as the king ordered, so it was.

When, soon afterward, King David fetched Bathsheba to his house and she became his wife, we may infer that David still thought his possession of Bathsheba no more than his due, the just spoil of his exalted position. True enough, when Nathan, the prophet, told his story of the rich man who had exceeding many flocks and herds, but who robbed the poor man of his one ewe lamb, David had a brief season of discomfort. But David did not, on that account, give up Bathsheba. He eased his heart in an eloquent psalm of repentance, and kept Bathsheba as his favorite wife until the end of his days.


In the March Atlantic, Mr. Bernhard Knollenberg of New York, in an article entitled ‘Sagebrush Rule,’expresses a desire to possess for his great and populous East certain small beginnings of a transcontinental highway system in our Rocky Mountain states which recalls King David’s celebrated temptation. Mr. Knollenberg recently journeyed from the king’s mansion in New York City out into the far and lonely sagebrush spaces of Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Oregon. ‘Surely,’you will say, ‘ there is no Bathsheba hidden in those desert stretches, that a New Yorker should desire her.’ But you do not know Mr. Knollenberg. He has a keen eye for a Bathsheba, and he will find her in the most unlikely places.

As his swiftly moving motor car sped safely along the main highway connecting these states, Mr. Knollenberg observed, first, that the road lacked somewhat of the density of traffic for which Broadway and Fifth Avenue are justly admired, and, second, that the highway was surprisingly good — when you consider what these ‘sagebrush states’ are. In Mr. Knollenberg’s eyes they are guilty not only of having more sagebrush than population, but of being no better than ‘ rotten boroughs.’ How they could afford the good things of life, such as a good highway, was naturally a matter of wonder. A word of inquiry developed the interesting answer from his host that the money which built this particular link in the national highway system came ‘largely’ from the Federal treasury. Accordingly, Mr. Knollenberg ‘wondered why this money had not been spent in the populous East.’

When one realizes how inadequate the roads of most of these ‘sagebrush states’ are to the needs of their people, how strenuously their people sacrifice and how valiantly they tax themselves to build better roads, and then contrasts their small beginnings with the thousands of miles of splendidly and expensively built highways of Mr. Knollenberg’s home state, we can but wonder how anyone could begrudge to these Far Western states their small beginnings.

In spite of their slender resources, these states have one interstate highway connecting Idaho with Oregon and Wyoming, known as the ‘Oregon Trail,’ of which they are proud; undoubtedly it is the highway that Mr. Knollenberg envies them. On this highway, since it is their ‘show window’ to all their thousands of visitors, they have lavished a disproportionate share of their comparatively small road funds, helped substantially by Federal aid.

For the use of their visitors from other states, as well as for their own use, this Oregon Trail has been laid out to connect with the great National Parks of the Rockies and the Cascades, such as Yellowstone and Glacier to the north, Crater Lake and Rainier to the west, and the beautiful park areas of Colorado and Utah to the south. Over this national highway travel motor cars carrying annually hundreds of thousands of visitors from every state in the Union to these picturesque regions. If there were no other justification for Federal aid to such highways, surely this generous national use of them might well plead in their defense.

The people of Idaho have strained their resources to fit this highway to meet the demands for comfortable travel of their Eastern guests, to whom, with Western hospitality, they desire to give of their best. Their reward is, from this visitor, to be greeted with his disdainful wonder why they should not be required to give it up to the more populous East, as a trifling addition to Eastern abundance.


Just how well supplied with paved roads of excellence is the East, and how inadequately the West, is perhaps better shown if we enlarge our inquiry beyond the scope of the roads over which the author of ‘Sagebrush Rule’ happened to travel to the entire road system of some one of these states, when compared with that of typical Eastern states. Idaho is here selected because the writer, though it is not his fortune to incur the reproach of living within any one of these ‘rotten boroughs,’ does live closest to Idaho, and is more familiar with her energetic efforts to build up her highway system.

From the latest official publication covering highway costs for the year 1929 (U. S. Statistical Abstract, 1931), we learn that in that year Idaho raised from her own people and spent for road purposes alone $9,434,000, or in excess of twenty-one dollars for every man, woman, and child within her borders.

If the reader of ‘Sagebrush Rule’ gained the impression that these ‘rotten boroughs’ rely ‘largely’ on Federal aid for their roads, it will come as a surprise to learn that to this sum the Federal Government added $478,000, or five cents for every dollar that Idaho herself spent. One might also be excused if he supposed, from reading that article, that New York and her sister states of the East had no Federal aid for their highways, while these unworthy sons of the sagebrush, who, according to Mr. Knollenberg, rule the more populous states of the East, took it all!

When we are looking for an effective contrast with Idaho’s Federal aid, let us not stop until we have gone east of New York. The State of Vermont, with its population of 360,000, is fairly comparable with Idaho, which has just under 450,000. In this same year of 1929, Vermont received from Federal aid for her roads the sum of $2,041,000, or more than four times as much as did Idaho, with its greater population and its vastly greater area. While Idaho was receiving in Federal aid five cents for every dollar that she spent on roads, Vermont was receiving seventeen cents for every dollar that she spent.

Perhaps there are exceptional reasons why Vermont does so well. Possibly her close association with the great and powerful State of New York has something to do with it. But, if this be not the case, if such a result follows from ‘sagebrush rule,’then the people of Vermont, at least, ought to be content, however sad and sorry Mr. Knollenberg may be.

Naturally the comparison of Idaho’s meagre tax income resources with the wealthiest of our states will be most to Idaho’s disadvantage. Just how does Federal aid treat New York State? From the same authority we learn that in 1929 New York spent on her roads the sum of $111,034,000, and received in addition as Federal aid for that purpose the sum of $3,630,000, or nearly eight times as much as did Idaho, although Idaho is nearly twice the size of New York.

The huge sum thus annually spent by New York on her roads does indeed dwarf the $9,434,000 per annum that Idaho can afford to spend. But so rich and populous is New York that it is enabled to raise this sum with only a two-cent gasoline tax, and without borrowing a dollar. To raise its $9,434,000, Idaho was obliged to impose a five-cent gasoline tax, and to borrow nearly a million dollars.

If New York so acutely needs more good roads that any citizen of hers must deplore the few crumbs of Federal aid that go to the roads of Idaho, would it not be in order for New York, in consideration of her great wealth, to come a little nearer to Idaho’s road-tax burdens? An extra cent on New York’s gas tax would annually give her many times the total of Federal aid for Idaho or any of her sister ‘sagebrush states.’

To the Westerner who observes the scanty population of Idaho struggling so manfully with the huge and manifold problems involved in the development of a new country that has not had time to inherit from earlier generations, as New York State does, a rich supply of educational institutions, public buildings, and improvements, it is a matter of wonder that anyone can be found to look with a critical eye upon their scanty Federal aid. To justify such an attitude, New York must indeed need very badly Idaho’s ‘one ewe lamb.’

That raises the question: Just how badly off is New York for good roads when compared with Idaho and her sisters of the ‘sagebrush’? Again, our Federal statistician has the answer. From this source we learn that New York’s state highway system comprises some 14,000 miles, and of this not less than five sixths is constructed of macadam or better, of which over 5000 miles is of the best and most expensive type of pavement.

Although Idaho must cover with her state highway system nearly twice New York’s territory, she is as yet able to include in that system only a third as much mileage, and of this so inadequate mileage only 225 miles are macadam or better. Nor is Idaho, among the ‘sagebrush states,’ peculiar in this lack of paved highways. Montana has but 47 miles of macadam or better, and Wyoming but 35 miles. In short, New York has fifty times as much paved highway as Idaho, two hundred times as much as Montana, and three hundred times as much as Wyoming.

After one has said so much about the lack of paved highways in these states, it is a pleasure to acknowledge that Idaho and her three or four sister states in the aggregate have hundreds of miles of connecting, interstate highways whose smooth and dustless surfaces might well create the illusion that they are such highways as would give New York satisfaction. These Far Western states, unable to afford the costly paved roads of the East, have been obliged to improvise an ingenious oil treatment of the surface of their gravel roads which, with their light volume of traffic, serves as a fair substitute for paved roads. Unfortunately, however, the life of such highways is short and the upkeep expensive, which will compel these states to burden unduly their future taxable road income with these repairs and replacement costs, thus forestalling a large measure of the further development of the intrastate roads they need so badly.

If Mr. Knollenberg had been able to put one of these ' magnificent highways ’ in his pocket and take it back East with him as a present to his home state, it cannot be doubted that New York’s highway engineers would smile indulgently upon his, to him, important gift, much as parents do when their children bring home to them badly faded wild flowers. ‘ Why,’they would inquire of each other when the giver had departed, ‘should we trouble our people with this inferior substitute, good only for the “sagebrush states,” when we can afford permanent highways?'


True, Mr. Knollenberg offers what, to his mind, is a convincing reason why unto him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away even the little that he hath. The real reason why Mr. Knollenberg can afford to depend on roadside information for his statistics concerning Federal aid is found in his statement that the great State of New York, in the last taxable period, paid to the Federal Government in income tax alone the sum of $614,000,000, while these twelve ‘sagebrush states’ paid only $34,000,000. Clearly, if Federal aid is to be distributed, as Mr. Knollenberg implies, on the basis of the amounts respectively paid as income tax, then whatever the ‘sagebrush states’ get is too much, and, however much New York gets, it is too little.

But Mr. Knollenberg is here entertaining us with the shiny surfaces of facts, without probing them for their true significance. If it were really the fact that the distribution of wealth was so lopsided that these twelve ‘sagebrush states’ could pay only one twentieth as much of the national income tax as the State of New York, the tepid liberalism of our‘agricultural bloc’ would be far more militant than it is.

The people of the ‘ sagebrush states ’ may not know as much or have as much as the astute gentlemen in New York who take credit to themselves for the payment of the whole of $614,000,000 of annual income tax, but they know better than to suppose that New York actually pays the whole or the major part of that amount. Whenever the citizens of these ‘rotten boroughs’ pay for telephones, telegrams, electric lights, gas, railway or express service, insurance premiums, or for any other of the great national utilities that extend themselves all over the nation, they realize that they are paying their fair share of that $614,000,000 of income tax reported from New York. Whenever they pay for purchases in any of the various national chain stores that tend more and more to monopolize the field of merchandising, again they realize that they are contributing their fair share of that more than six hundred millions of income tax. And when they see the vast mineral wealth of their mountains and much of their other great national resources gathered in to the profit of corporations whose home offices are in New York, they realize that their section is once more contributing to that six hundred million.

These great national corporations whose headquarters are in New York, and who therefore report their income tax from that state, make their profits in every part of this nation, and it is on these profits thus earned that the income tax imposes its burden.

But if we were to ignore the incidence of the tax, and were to assume that only those who pay the tax in the last instance, instead of those who contribute to it in the first instance, are burdened by it, Mr. Knollenberg’s imposing total of tax paid from New York would still be highly deceptive; for, quite generally, the ownership of the securities of those great corporations is almost as widely scattered throughout the nation as are their profit-earning agencies.

The truth of it is that the myriad strands of our vast economic fabric of national wealth are so interwoven that it would be impossible, if it were important, to ascertain what amount is paid by any section or state. But it would be in the highest degree unwise and unjust to undertake, even if it were known, to measure Federal aid for roads by the amount of taxes received by the Federal Government from each state or section. To New York, in particular, as the receiving point for the wealth and commerce of the whole nation, it is especially important that the country’s highway system in all its sections should be so developed that traffic can move over it at low costs to the nation’s metropolis, there to pay its share of tribute.

Poor roads are expensive to use. Such roads lay heavy burdens on trade and commerce. The bad roads of the sparsely settled sections hinder the development of those regions to the cost of the rest of the nation. By imposing unnecessarily heavy costs of transportation on their products, there is levied a waste tax upon the consumers of those products, which means the people of every part of the nation.

We do not escape the cost of good roads by refusing to build them. By such refusal we pay heavily for them, yet do not have them. That is why the people of the ‘sagebrush states’ tax themselves gallantly, almost unbearably, to build these roads. And that, too, is the reason why majorities of both houses of Congress have again and again seen fit to deal more liberally with the more sparsely settled states in the matter of road money than with the older, more thickly settled states which are already so much better supplied with road facilities.

The motorist who drives for recreation is also deeply interested in a nation-wide programme of road building that will raise the road standards of our thinly settled mountain regions. Texas, of all our states the fifth in population, is separated from California, which is sixth, by Arizona and New Mexico, respectively forty-fourth and forty-fifth in population. Many thousands of cars annually travel back and forth between Texas and California. How would these motorists fare if they were obliged to depend exclusively on such poor roads through long, hot, dusty desert stretches as New Mexico and Arizona could afford? Hundreds of thousands of cars annually travel from east of the Mississippi into the National Parks of the Rockies, and thence on to the Pacific Coast. Are not their drivers deeply interested in seeing interstate highways built better by Federal aid, that these otherwise perilous high mountain stretches may be made safe and convenient? These states of least population have the costliest highways to build through the mountains. Is it fair to expect them alone to bear the burden, when the residents of other states so largely profit by these highways?


We need to remember that we are something more than sovereign communities, bound only by political ties. We are not merely citizens of New York, or of Nevada. First and foremost, we are citizens of a great nation. If we choose, we can build up local feeling to a point where it rivals the destructive jealousies of the nations of Europe. But our nation has not grown great by that route. It is regrettably true that many of the members of both houses of Congress spend more time than they should in fighting for local advantages when their duty is rather to labor for the welfare of the nation as a whole. But not even the author of ‘Sagebrush Rule’ will contend that this is peculiar to the Senators of the ‘sagebrush states.’ Emphatically, the answer to localism wherever it appears is not more emphasis upon our division into localities, but rather upon the unity and the welfare of the whole.

Nor is the author of ‘Sagebrush Rule’ particularly happy in his comparison of these twelve ‘sagebrush states,’ the ‘rotten boroughs of our own national government,’ to ‘Old Sarum and the other “rotten” boroughs of England.’ At the time of the Reform Act of 1832, Old Sarum had not one house in it, while these twelve states, young, vigorous, and with a great future before them, have an average population of more than 600,000 apiece. If Mr. Knollenberg had not been journeying thousands of miles away from New York, he might have discovered at his own doorstep five states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Delaware) whose average of population is at least 100,000 under that of the ‘sagebrush states.’ If Nebraska with its 1,400,000, Colorado with its 1,000,000, and Oregon with its 950,000 inhabitants are to be stigmatized as ‘rotten boroughs,’ by what more opprobrious epithet should he denounce Delaware with 240,000 and Vermont with 360,000?

Furthermore, these five ‘rotten boroughs’ of the Atlantic Seaboard are far more compactly at one in economic and political interest than are the twelve ‘sagebrush states,’ which are united only in Mr. Knollenberg’s awkward gerrymander of them. It makes a Westerner smile to see him include from the far Southwest the mountains, mines, and irrigation ditches of Arizona and Nevada, while omitting their California neighbor only because her six millions of population would upset his figures, and then observe him, on a far journey across the Rockies to the Canadian border and thence down into the Mississippi Valley, arbitrarily yoke with them the Dakotas and Nebraska. These last states are far more at one in economic interest with their next-door neighbors, Minnesota and Iowa, than they are with Arizona and Nevada, but, unfortunately for Mr. Knollenberg’s purposes, Minnesota and Iowa, like California, are too far up in the scale of population to fit into his gerrymander, so the Dakotas and Nebraska are ‘sagebrush,’ and their neighbors are something else again.


Mr. Knollenberg finds a new menace in the fact that ‘ twenty-five states containing only one fifth of the total population elect fifty out of the Senate’s ninety-six members, and thus, in final analysis, have power to control our Federal government.’ Remembering that this list of twenty-five states comprises most of the New England states as well as several Southern and Western states, is anyone so credulous as to suppose that New Hampshire and Vermont will unite with Wyoming and Montana, merely because the four have substantially equal population, to defeat New York and Pennsylvania? Or that the two Dakotas will unite with Delaware and Rhode Island against Minnesota and Wisconsin, merely because these last are numbered among the first eighteen of our states in population?

The fact is that these twenty-five states are well scattered throughout the nation; and, while it is true that the West has a few more of them than the East and South, this is only because the West is much younger, with a great future in front of it instead of a glorious past behind it. Give the West but a few more decades, and the last Easterner will be more than glad to forget this epithet of ‘ rotten boroughs.’

But if ever these twenty-five lesser states, in a moment of anger at the great, were to unite their fifty Senators ‘to control our Federal government,’ what could they accomplish? If we read our Constitution aright, the Senate may harass and annoy by investigations, speeches, and other like vanities, but it can do little toward control without the free assent of both the President and the House of Representatives, and it can do nothing in that direction without the concurrence of at least one of them.

It is well to remember that this representation by states in the Senate was given primarily for protection to the smaller states, to allay the genuine fear that the greater states might use their power to oppress their weaker sisters. And when we of the West see how much is sometimes claimed by the unconscious arrogance of certain of the residents of these great states, absorbed in their own highly important affairs and often ignorant of the interests of the smaller states, we can only be grateful that these smaller states are not altogether helpless. Mr. Knollenberg, with his modest proposal to take back to New York with him the good road he found in the West because he has persuaded himself that New York pays such huge sums into the Federal treasury, is typical of an attitude the West has found more than once in the East.

But we have teased Mr. Knollenberg long enough. Let us close with the inquiry as to how Mr. Knollenberg, doubtless with the best of intentions, came to go so far astray. Dazzled by the splendor of what he has too credulously assumed to be New York’s magnificent contribution to the national treasury, and viewing rather slightingly the much smaller contributions of the less populous Western states, Mr. Knollenberg has apparently come to the conclusion that these ‘sagebrush states’ are greedy and unprofitable servants who deserve chastisement. Any club will do to punish them, and he has grasped at the first that offered. Unfortunately for him, it turns out to be that rather peculiar sort of club known as the boomerang, which when thrown, if it misses its aim, returns to the unwary thrower and smites him on the nose.