How Yellowstone depicts the American Creed

New Western series Yellowstone launched its fifth season with an astounding viewer rating of more than 12 million, which is quite a feat considering it didn’t start with much fanfare in 2018 and season four left some feeling offended in 2021.

According to Kevin Costner, executive producer and star of the show, Yellowstone’s popularity was made “on its own terms” — and the same can be said for its characters. There are several storylines that run through the series, with ties of blood and farm life holding them together, but each character is truly special even when closely interconnected. Brothers and lovers have no tug of war in the paths each person chooses to follow.

At its core, the series depicts how important it is for individuals to find their purpose and a place to belong. In Yellowstone, one’s job is seen as a privilege rather than a right, and living on the farm is a far cry from what many today expect from their chosen profession (certainly no HR company promotes work-life balance or a mentorship program that guarantees job fulfillment).

New recruits roam the farm needing work, with some choosing to become believers like Rip and Lloyd, while others, like Teeter, beg to belong despite terrible experiences. The farm is seen for what it is, a place of earning and learning, and no one understands this more than the character known as Jimmy.

Jimmy is challenged mentally and physically by Yellowstone, but the ability to gain experience on the job, and learn from the best, ends up being worth its weight in gold. After facing his own demons, discovering his unique talents, and developing grit beyond what he could have ever imagined, he is able to create a new life for himself. At first, Jimmy had little to give and suffered a lot, but as for his character, Thomas Sowell’s words certainly hold true: “Experience trumps brilliance.”

Before Yellowstone, Jimmy was a con. After that, he became what Ayn Rand calls an honest man. “The honest man is the one who knows that he cannot consume more than he has produced,” and he is someone who prides himself on being “the owner of his own mind and effort.”

Pride and purpose are strong themes throughout the series, and while hierarchy is present, status is not what is required. Farm owners, for example, increase the use of their core competencies and work in their areas of expertise. They never dismiss the fact that it is their work that enables Kevin Costner’s character, John Dutton, to maintain his lifestyle.

Dutton’s grand home and personal chef, compared to communal living quarters and meager meals, is nothing to worry about. Dutton built a life for himself and his family, and they were hired to help him maintain it. Rip and Lloyd do not envy him, and Dutton never underestimates them for the role they play.

Just like any founder growing an enterprise empire, we’re better off with the opportunities it brings, and we’ll be worse off with no choice. If useful alternatives arise, we should be free to pursue them, as Jimmy does, or look forward to building an empire of our own, as the Duttons did.

As the series develops, the success of the Dutton family depicts the best parts of capitalism (a system based on incentives, trade-offs, and transactions) and the worst parts of cronyism (a system based on rent-seeking for positions of power and political preferences in the political sphere). Perfectly illustrated in Season 4, and now in Season 5, Yellowstone illustrates the push and pull factors of a mixed economic system, and the perils of corporations and bureaucrats being buddies.

Capitalism and free markets generate “a system of natural liberty,” as Adam Smith put it, but nepotism breeds a system of sycophants and thugs. In Season 5, we may find the Duttons upping their political finesse not for the sake of fame, but to reduce their sense of captivity across the state. For John Dutton, his possessions are of the utmost importance to his person, which is why he will do whatever it takes to maintain control of it.

Overall, the Dutton family has an interesting charm. They are invulnerable and imperfect. They are loyal but far from dependent; They are relentless and conniving. And perhaps most importantly, they are aware of their weaknesses but would rather die than be seen as victims.

The reason Duttons attract us is not because they embody the American Dream, but rather because they remind us of the American creed.

I don’t choose to be an ordinary man.

I have the right to be uncommon – if I can.

I am looking for opportunity, not security. I do not desire to be a citizen kept, humbled and dulled by the state’s patronage of me.

I want a calculated risk; To dream, build, fail and succeed.

I refuse to trade stimulus for subsidy. I prefer life’s challenges to a content existence; The pleasure of fulfilling the calmness of a utopia that does not make sense.

I will not exchange freedom for goodness, nor my dignity for charity. I will never tremble before any master nor bow to any threat.

My heritage is standing [tall], proud and fearless. I think and work for myself, enjoy the benefits of my creations and face the world boldly and say, “I did this.”

“An American Ideology,” by Dean Alfang

Kimberly Josephson

Kimberly Josephson is Associate Professor of Business Administration at Lebanon Valley College and serves as an Assistant Research Fellow at the Center for Consumer Choice. She teaches courses on global sustainability, international marketing, and diversity in the workplace; Her research and opinion articles have appeared in numerous outlets.

She holds a PhD in Global Studies and Trade and a Master’s degree in International Politics from La Trobe University, a Master’s degree in Political Science from Temple University, and a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with a minor in Political Science from Bloomsburg University.

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