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The Federal Landscape: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century West

Author(s):Nash, Gerald D.
Reviewer(s):Hill, Peter J.

Published by EH.NET (January 2000)

Gerald D. Nash, The Federal Landscape: An Economic History of the Twentieth

Century West. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1999. xvi

+ 214 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8165-1863-7; $17.95 (paper), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by P. J. Hill, Department of Economics, Wheaton


Gerald D. Nash, Professor of History at the University of New Mexico, has

written a survey of the influence of the federal government on the economic

growth of the American West. Nash hypothesizes that the federal government was


dominant force that shaped the western economy throughout the twentieth

century and his monograph details that role. The author also fits the region’s

economic history into a larger framework of Kondratieff cycles, arguing that

these cycles explain the successive waves of growth in the western United


Nash provides a useful compendium of the different ways that the national

government influenced the West. He discusses transportation, moving through

railroads, West Coast harbors and rivers, and en ding with automobiles. The

national government also had a substantial impact on agriculture through the

Reclamation Act of 1902 and the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. The fact that it

retained ownership of much of the land also affected how agriculture was

organized and the path that agricultural production took.

During World War II, considerable industrial production moved to the West Coast

and after the war urbanization was sped up by housing subsidies and government

investment in city infrastructure. Finally, the increased demand for

recreation and other environmental amenities starting in the 1970s had a

substantial impact upon the western economy.

If one wants a cataloguing of the federal government involvement in the West,

Nash’s book may be an appropriate place to start. However, it is not

particularly useful beyond its descriptive details and even there it is not an

especially strong source. Nash does not have a felicitous writing style and the

overall tone is one of simplistic triumphalism. An appropriate subtitle might

be “How the Federal Government Won the West.” Also, the book is flawed in

several important ways. The use of Kondratieff cycles as the major form of

analysis is not particularly helpful. The author presents no evidence that such

cycles really do exist or that they have any substantial influence upon the

western economy. They are primarily used as a descriptive tool to explain

whatever events Nash wants to describe. It is unfortunate that, in his attempts

to provide a theoretical structure for his work, he drew upon a concept that

plays an insignificant role in most American economic history accounts of the


Second, Nash does not understand comparative advantage and the fact that

through much of its early history it was appropriate for the West to be a

resource intensive economy. He makes repeated references to the colonial status

of the West and finds the move to industrial production advantageous in that it

removed the West’s dependency upon the rest of the economy.

Certainly the scope of the economy widened during the twentieth century,

but it is not accurate to view this as the federal government rescuing the

region from its colonial status.

Finally, Nash assumes that the West was a capital scarce area and that the

investment by the national government was an appropriate response to capital

shortages. He presents no theories as to why private capital was inadequate or

why capital markets were not functioning well in the region.

The federal government is seen primarily as

an agent of positive change in capital markets and little attention is given

to special interests or rent seeking.

The book, while presenting some interesting details about the role of the

federal government in the region, is probably not of great interest to

economic historians. At the most, it can serve as a marginally useful reference

for someone looking for a catalog of federal government projects and influences

in the region.

Peter J. Hill is George F. Bennett Professor of Economics at Wheaton College

and Senior Associate at the Political Economy Research Center. His research

focuses on the evolution of property rights in the American West.

He has published articles in the Southern Economic Journal, the

Journal of Law and Economics, Economic

Inquiry, the Independent Review and other journals. Among his books

is Growth and Welfare in the American Past with Terry Anderson and

Douglass North.

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII