Texas was the second state to pass an anti-trust law, in 1889, in response to the national railways and national banks. (Texans, not having had those things, were a little bit parochial about it.) Once oil was discovered in great quantities in 1901 at Spindletop—it was this big gusher—the state had already been using its anti-trust law to push back at Standard Oil, the big Rockefeller oil company based in Pennsylvania. It didn’t mean the wealth was shared equally, but it did keep a lot of the profits in the state, which is not how things usually work for resource-rich states and countries. Beyond that, Texans are pretty shrewd. The state realized how bad it would be to be heavily dependent on oil as the component of its economy, especially in the ’80s, when prices collapsed. Since then, you’ve seen the state diversify its economy away from oil.
Those efforts seem inconsistent with Texas’ laissez-faire approach.
It is an interesting wrinkle on the Texas narrative of being a very free-market state—having anti-trust protections isn’t a free-market move. But I think that Texans are above all pro-Texas, and as pro-business as they are, pro-Texas trumps that. I think Texans are able to arbitrate between idealism and reality. In a number of cases, when there’s been a difference between what the “philosophy” of the state is and what the best course of action is, we do the prudent thing.
What are the lessons here for the rest of the country?
Texas is a state with room to grow and a need to grow. States that are in a similar position might want to take some pages from the Texas playbook. The Texas model prioritizes growth. It has low taxes, low services, and it’s always been a very small-government state. We see a lot of southern states—Louisiana is the most obvious example, and Alabama is another—focusing on lowering taxes and increasing economic development initiatives. The idea is that if you can attract companies, you can bring jobs, and jobs bring money, much of which is spent or reinvested in the state itself.
Not all states are looking to grow like Texas has, but are there practices they could adopt without copying Texas entirely?
States that are in financial disorder—not naming any names—should take a look at Texas’ fiscal discipline. I don’t see how it does people any good to build a bigger safety net if you’re just going to yank it away a couple of years down the road because you can’t pay for it.
Secondly, some would say that one of the big problems right now with the national economy is that the private sector is in a defensive crouch. Businesses keep saying they don’t know what to expect from the federal government, the world markets and so on, which is why they don’t want to make investment decisions and are sitting on big cash reserves rather than spending and hiring. If you think that’s true, then one of Texas’ underrated advantages is that it’s managed to mitigate a lot of policy uncertainty. Regardless of what’s going on in national politics, or foreign affairs, or with the weather, it’s a pretty safe bet that Texas is going to stay on the low-tax, low-services side of the spectrum. That makes it easier for businesses and families to plan for the future.
So Texas has a booming economy and it’s a good place to start a business, but what is it like to live there?
I think it’s great. I like the space. As I get older, I’m more and more curmudgeonly about having lots of space around me. I like how down-to-earth it is, and I like the practical intelligence that people in Texas have. I think part of the national stereotype is that we’re really aggressive and kind of belligerent, but that means people will do things around here, they’ll start businesses, they’ll take on projects with enthusiasm. It’s not a very cerebral state, but people do get things done.
I think every state has its own virtues and flaws. We are certainly well supplied with virtues and flaws in Texas, but it’s a great place to visit—if nothing else, to have some stories to bring back. But then again, more and more people are coming, and everyone in Austin is always saying, “It’s getting too big, it’s getting too big!” So I think my next book might be called, Never Mind, Guys.