Wayne Schow

H. Wayne Schow

On May 16, a column by Brian Parsons, “Political refugees welcome,” appeared in these pages. Parsons identifies himself as an “unabashed paleoconservative.” I looked it up. Nuanced definitions vary, but basically it shakes down to “hardcore fiscal and social conservative.” I dislike oversimplifying political labels, but if pressed I’d describe myself as a left-of-center moderate, socially liberal to some degree, but with much sympathy for fiscal responsibility. I’m one who thinks democracy works best for the greatest number of us when our representatives find centrist solutions through compromise.

Notwithstanding this implicit comparison, Parsons and I do agree surprisingly on one thing: We both like living in Idaho — and for some of the same reasons. It’s less crowded, the pace of life is slower here, it’s family friendly, with low crime; it’s a beautiful state with easy recreational access to abundant public lands. The cost of living is moderate (or was until the startling recent housing inflation).

Parsons urges us to protect the good things in this state — which he believes derive from political conservatism. In his view that means lower taxes and less regulation — and FREEDOM! Hence the title of his column, “Political refugees welcome.” Subtext: “More paleoconservative émigrés wanted.” That’s his protection strategy. Be assured he is not hoping to encourage an influx of liberals fleeing from red states.

(“Freedom” is a word paleoconservatives love to conjure with — except when they’re not in favor of freedom, as for example with gay marriage or a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices.)

Can anyone seriously believe that Idaho’s lopsided politics won’t suffer even more if we veer yet farther into right wing extremism? Just consider the lunacies of our 2021 Legislature.

I think Parsons’ superficial political subtext misses more influential factors in what makes Idaho Idaho. He doesn’t sufficiently consider the shaping forces of geography, population and the nature of our economy.

Unlike Parsons, I didn’t immigrate to Idaho; I’m a native son. Back in 1940, when I was just a small boy, the state’s population was 522,000. (There was decidedly more elbow room back then. One breadwinner in a family was the norm, and the pace of life was considerably more relaxed. Back then Idahoans were less taxed, less regulated.) Today, at 1,839,000 strong, our numbers have nearly quadrupled — and the difference in what surrounds us and the way we live is striking.

And yet we remain one of the least densely populated states. Only six of the others are humanly sparser. New Jersey at No. 1 has 1,200 citizens per square mile; Arizona at No. 39 has 60, three times as many as the Gem State. That measure says so much about our Idaho quality of life.

If comparatively our state seems to be growing rapidly of late (adding complications and pressures) it’s only by percentage based on our small population base. California, with a present population of nearly 40,000,000 but twice as large in area, added more than eight times as many citizens as Idaho over the past decade. In the same period, Washington added nearly four times as many citizens as did Idaho. Recall that we still will have only four members of Congress.

Why are people so relatively scarce here? We were slow to be settled. We were farther out on the frontier; ruggedly mountainous, arid in much of the state, rural rather than industrial, far distant from coastal markets — these real conditions greatly retarded our growth. Until relatively recently, Idaho was not widely regarded as a desirable business or living destination. In hindsight, our geographical challenges, scant population and unspectacular, primarily rural economy can be seen as strokes of good luck in terms of what we’re left with today.

Here’s the truth. When conservatives say that liberal politics in blue states like California and Washington and Massachusetts elevate taxation and regulation, they’re missing the biggest reason — they’ve got cause and effect backwards. Population density is the main driver, regardless of who’s in the statehouse.

More people pushing up against each other create more problems, requiring more intervention to insure fairness, to keep people from stepping on each others’ toes, to keep the powerful from exploiting the weak. The more humans you have tromping up and down, consuming the earth’s finite resources, fouling the environment and threatening ecosystems, the more you must regulate, — that is if you care at all about what you will leave for those who follow us.

I lived in England back when John Major was succeeding Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady who was Reagan’s buddy. That was a period of very conservative government there. With virtually the same land area as Idaho, the UK at that point was 57 times more densely populated. I’ve never lived in a more regulated, taxed environment in my life than in that then-conservative country. The Brits had no reasonable alternatives — didn’t matter who was running the country.

Projected world population growth figures are alarming. Same for the U.S. That will push people from densely populated areas to places where there is a lot more elbow room, like Idaho. Global warming will continue, luring people to places with less weather disruption, like Idaho. The world economy will continue to change, allowing businesses and workers to operate efficiently from remote locations, like Idaho.

Ultimately, these forces will be more decisive than the influence of any political ideology du jour.

Face it! We’re going to get more crowded in this state. The population will become more heavily urban, less rural, as will the economy. Idaho Republicans — many Democrats as well — and business people generally want economic growth which they link with population growth. Just think about all the local hoopla attending the coming of the Northgate addition. But note, too, what has been happening to your property taxes in this conservative Idaho — and consider the reasons why.

Such expansion will almost certainly mean the further loss by degree of some of what has been so appealing about Idaho, and the increase of some other things we wish would not.

Sadly, we won’t be able to have our cake and eat it, too.

H. Wayne Schow, a native Idahoan, is a professor of English emeritus at Idaho State University. Schow lives in Pocatello.