The Wyoming State Legislature Is a Case Study in the Dangers of Libertarian Thinking

The Wyoming State Legislature Is a Case Study in the Dangers of Libertarian Thinking

You may have run into the story of the Wyoming state legislature’s latest failure; but then again, you may have been distracted. The seizing of dictatorial power by the president will do that. So allow me to educate you.

This week, the Wyoming State Senate shot down a bill that would have ended the death penalty in that state. Having passed in the House, the bill was promising for opponents of capital punishment, which made both the result of the Senate vote and the rhetoric surrounding it baffling to those who were watching.

“I think we’re becoming a lot like other states, and we have something to defend,” said Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne). He was referring, according to the Casper Star-Tribune article that quoted him, to the fact that the state of California allows its transgender prison inmates to transition. The reporter does not clarify how this fact is related to Wyoming’s identity or to the death penalty, possibly because Senator Bouchard did not, in turn, make it clear to him.

What is clear, however, is that the death penalty bill came across as an identity issue to several members of the Wyoming state legislature. “There’s a lot of different factors and, at the end of the day, everyone has to make their best determination based on the information they have,” said the bill’s co-sponsor, Republican Senator Brian Boner, also quoted by the Star-Tribune. That sort of individualism is something Wyoming citizens pride themselves on.

I lived in Laramie, Wyoming for some of the most formative years of my life, and I was there long enough to make some observations about Wyoming’s culture that I think are deeply relevant here.  First, some basics: Wyoming is both a wealthy and a sparsely populated state; it has vast reserves of oil, but also a 1:1 human to antelope ratio. The fact that the state is inhabited at all is an astonishing testament to humanity’s stubbornness and adaptability, given that it is by turns arid and mountainous, with winds that regularly overturn semi trucks, and altitudes that can cause flu-like symptoms in people not used to them. Those tough enough to stick it out and make a home there are rewarded with a well-funded school system, the supposed natural beauty of the land, and a purportedly free-spirited “live and let live” culture.

Of course, the “live and let live” culture is a bait and switch. Followers of politics have long had reason to be wary of the word “libertarian,” since its supposed broadness makes room for the worst excesses of bigoted conservatism. Similarly, the supposedly permissive culture on which Wyoming prides itself is, in practice, permissive only of one very specific excess: illogic.

Were you to visit Wyoming, any proud resident of the state (and permanent residents of the state tend to take great pride in it) will praise Wyoming’s surviving Wild West attitudes. They will inevitably cite having elected Nellie Tayloe Ross as the first woman governor in the United States as reflective of one aspect of the Wild West: a somewhat looser, or at least different, enforcement of gender roles. 

But Wyoming is also the state famous for the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, an anti-LGBTQ hate crime that shocked the nation and became the subject of the award-winning documentary play The Laramie Project. This is, in my experience, much more indicative of the character of the state than is the election of Governor Ross. Even more essential to the state’s character, however, is the trend that is revealed in The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, wherein the creators of the original play returned to the state and interviewed inhabitants about the legacy of the Shepard murder. We see in it that the narrative of the hate crime has, for the citizens of Laramie, been overwritten by a conspiracy theory that the murder was actually a drug deal gone bad. And, barring a few university professors, every single person I mentioned the murder to when I lived there believed this lie.

This is where the famous Wyoming libertarianism fails the test of logic.

Wyomanians will tell you that they value keeping politics and beliefs private, and that this is the lifeblood of their “live and let live” culture. In practice, this means that the airing of opinions and, importantly, the criticism of said opinions, are mortal sins against this libertarianism. Thus, when an issue such as the Shepard killing is forcibly aired, it tends to be transmuted into something “less political.” Of course we don’t kill gays. We live and let live. Must have been drugs.

Thus, Wyoming’s state senators have miraculously metamorphosed the issue of the death penalty–deeply rooted in the issue of public morality and ethics–into an issue of identity. Individual identity is sacred above all to Wyomanians, as long as it’s kept private. So when each Senator’s vote is first and foremost a personal choice based on personal beliefs, it is above criticism.

For another example of this tendency, look to the most-quoted and arguably craziest piece of reasoning for a no vote on this anti-death penalty bill. Cheyenne Senator Lynn Hutchings (Republican, obviously) stated with apparent sincerity that the death penalty must be upheld because, if it hadn’t existed in ancient Rome, Jesus could never have died for our sins.

No, really: “The greatest man who ever lived died via the death penalty for you and me,” she said. “I’m grateful to him for our future hope because of this. Governments were instituted to execute justice. If it wasn’t for Jesus dying via the death penalty, we would all have no hope.”

The overall culture of Wyoming is not overtly religious, but there is deep trouble beneath that facade of indifference. Because critical thinking and social censure are not to touch a Wyomanian’s rich inner life, violent religious logic of this sort is allowed to thrive unmolested. Not only that, but it gains cultural precedence. Look at her, a Wyoming voter might say, standing by her principles. Do I agree with her? Not necessarily. But live and let live. She stands for something, and that’s what we do here.

And that’s what I mean by bait and switch. The reality is almost the complete opposite: because the culture of Wyoming discourages its citizens from holding each other accountable, nobody is allowed to stand for anything. That’s how the state ends up maintaining a death penalty that is not only a gross human rights violation, but also costs the public $1 million a year despite not having been used in a quarter of a century.  

I’m not writing this just to mock crazy Wyomanians. There are a lot of good people in the state, and even a lot of the people who think this way are, in other parts of their lives, good friends and neighbors. There’s a lot to love about Wyoming, at least if the concept of ‘Annie Oakley in Wonderland’ appeals to you. But the false libertarianism that Wyoming is particularly vulnerable to exists throughout the country. Even you and your loved ones are not safe. So, please, help the citizens of Wyoming. They parse the ethics of wolf hunting and fight pine tree disease so you don’t have to. Return the favor and do some critical thinking on their behalf.

Evangeline Van Houten

Evangeline Van Houten

Daughter of a high school English teacher and an English professor, Evangeline is a survivor of Academia and an aspiring elegant person. She lives in St. Louis with her family and a lot of books.