Review of Paul Sabin, Crude Politics: The California Oil Market
Karen R. Merrill
Department of History
Paul Sabin’s Crude Politics makes an important contribution to expanding our knowledge of the history of the American oil industry.
First and foremost, it fills in a much needed chapter on the place of California in early twentieth-century petroleum politics. Second, Sabin
makes a forceful case for focusing our attention on state-level policies regarding the political economy, and in this way, his volume should
be read in tandem with William R. Childs’s recent book, The Texas Railroad Commission: Understanding Regulation in America
to the Mid-twentieth Century (Texas A&M University Press, 2005). Finally, Sabin argues effectively that the notion of a “free” market
operating in the oil industry (or, for that matter, in the economy at large) must be put to rest. As he notes, “The common conceptual division
of government from market institutions . . . stems from a deeply flawed understanding of our economic history and the nature of American
capitalism. In fact, governments constructed the legal framework for the market, they enabled market institutions to shift with new
developments, and they bankrolled many of the newest, unexpected additions” (9).
Sabin’s book explores four themes that mark the development of the California oil market: property rights in land and oil; the
power of federalism; regulatory rules about conservation; and state tax policies regarding highways. Because of limited space, I will
only engage a set of questions having to do with the first three themes, which cover the politics shaping oil production, not consumption.
The great strength of Crude Politics is that it gives us a nuts-and-bolts view of the way that private interests molded public policy
around petroleum production. Too often this “molding” involved flagrant corruption, but more often it involved oil lobbyists’
virtually camping out, it would seem, outside politicians’ offices for days, week, and even years on end in order to get the legislation
they wanted. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes not, and sometimes the courts simply did their work for them.
But “crude” as these lobbyists were in acting on their economic self-interest, they were also operating within a larger –
and very significant –landscape of political discourse at the time. I’d be curious to hear more from Sabin about how he thinks that
landscape both opened up and set limits on the opportunities available to the different historical actors at work in the California oil market.
For instance, how important are the tensions in Progressive ideology to the political conflicts he describes, especially when it came
to the question of monopoly power? How does he read the anti-monopolistic language that seems to shape so much of the
political debate, especially that coming from small oil producers?
I’m curious, in other words, to know what happens to Sabin’s historical analysis if he were to pull up the camera a
bit and give us more context in his account. For instance, when discussing the federal government’s attempt during the 1910s
to change the terms of mineral leasing on public lands, Sabin’s lens is focused so tightly on California oil that the reader would
not know that raging debates were occurring nationally about the federal government’s role on the public lands. These debates
engaged timber and mining companies, ranchers, homesteaders, and politicians at every level, and they all involved questions
about how a more active federal presence would (or would not) rewrite property rights in the region. Not surprisingly, perhaps,
all of these struggles concerned whether federal policy was too biased in favor of corporations or large operators. Does Sabin
believe that the struggle over oil rights in California’s public lands follows or runs parallel to or falls outside those other debates?
Such contextual shading would have helped answer some very specific questions that arise from Sabin’s story, such as
why the Progressive-era Public Lands Committee both seems to serve the oil interests and yet does not produce the kind of
legislation that the majors wanted, because of the anti-monopoly rhetoric of the ‘teens. We would have also perhaps had a
deeper understanding of Democratic California governor Culbert Olson, who felt fine about sacrificing California beaches to
oil production, so long as small operators could get in on the deal and the state could receive higher royalties.
Certainly, Sabin succeeds in showing the many political forces that help produce the “free market,” and California
makes for a splendid case study. But I also want to hear him say more about oil’s place in American political history, particularly
in the pre-World War II period. Does Sabin believe that oil, because of the enormous profits involved, was primarily a force
that corrupted politics? Was it a force that re-shaped previously conceived boundaries between the government and “the market”?
Have California and Texas – both oil-rich and arguably the most important states in the modern political history of the
United States – provided distinct models for the nation on how to craft oil policy, and if so, what larger lessons have the
legislative and executive branches taken from those models? Given how richly informative Sabin’s book is, I’ll hope that he
continues to pursue topics in the history of oil, and I’ll look forward to hearing more from him.
Karen R. Merrill (Ph.D., University of Michigan) is associate professor of history at Williams College, where she also serves as
director of the Center for Environmental Studies. In 2002, Professor Merrill published Public Lands and Political Meaning:
Ranchers, the Government, and the Property between Them (University of California Press), which won the Robert G.
Athearn Book Award from the Western History Association. She is the author of the forthcoming book, The Oil Crisis of 1973-74:
A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press) and is currently working on a collection of essays about
western independent oilmen in national and international politics during the twentieth century.