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Cowboy ethics

When Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter was running for governor last year, and before that, his campaign office had in the window a “Code of the West” – “live each day with courage,” “take pride in your work,” “be tough but fair,” “when you make a promise, keep it,” “ride for the brand” (aka, Be True to Your School, or loyal to your community and country). Concepts that, doubtless, you’ve never heard of before. It came up during the campaign and Otter has pushed them as governor, even reciting then when talking to school kids.

Nothing particularly wrong with them, either. But what wasn’t clear then, seeing the “Code” posted on a campaign window or website, was that it wasn’t the idea of Otter, or of some Idahoan.

It’s popped up again this session at the Oregon Legislature, in the form of House Concurrent Resolution 14 (a hearing is set for Monday), to approve of the “Code” (because, remember, it has to do with the mythical Old West, not the real one) as a sort moral guideline for the state.

It has also appeared, the Oregonian noted in writing about this, in other places: Wyoming has adopted it as state policy (to accomplish what exactly is unclear), and the Montana legislature is considering it.

So it didn’t just pop up as one local lonesome cowboy’s thought.

It came from one James P. Owen, who has made substantial bucks from a series of books. The first one was Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West, and when it sold well, was quickly followed by two sequels. Getting a marketing boost for his book from governors and legislators surely didn’t hurt. And he set up a non-profit corporation as well, The Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership. The approach of the New West wrapped in the mythology of the old: Quite a mashup.

If you’re wondering where that reference to Wall Street came in, you need to know something about Owen. He is not a cowboy (though the fringe-sleeved jacket he wears on his non-profit’s web page conveys the impression). Owen’s background is on Wall Street, as an investment professional; he has even been linked to investor Bernie Madoff’s operations (though he has said the financial connection occurred after his left his firm). The cowboy principles do not come from any study of the old west, or life on a ranch, but – he has said – from recollections of his childhood, watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

A 21st century philosopher of the American West. Truly.

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2 Comments

  1. freetrusty freetrusty March 21, 2011

    An addition on the sources of James Owen’s writing, he states in his books that he poured over stacks of books and articles about the American West, and the working cowboy. And if you ask most men & women from that way of life, Owen’s ten principles are right on.

    It’s pretty awesome that political figures and everyday folks can refer to these ten principles for some sense of core belief. It seems better than doing whatever “feels right at the time”.

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