Short Essay On The Commons



Several times since 2011 I have referenced my doctoral dissertation, which addressed the “tragedy of the commons,” in these pages. Seth, during his study on the history of environmentalism movements, has also posted on this concept. Now, , excellent writer of one page essays explaining complex economic issues, takes a recent odd news item and helps us understand the role of government in regulating the use of the commons:

Ammon Bundy, the leader of the armed militia that stormed the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in Oregon, has a simple solution for fixing the economy of the West: get the federal government out of the way. His group’s chief demand is that the federal government hand over all of Malheur to local control. The ultimate goal, he says, is “to get the logger back to logging, to get the rancher back to ranching, to get the miner back to mining.” Bundy’s tactics make him easy to dismiss as a kook, but his ideology is squarely in the mainstream of Western conservatism, with its hostility to government ownership, skepticism about environmental rules, and conviction that individual enterprise is being strangled by government regulations.

Such thinking has a long history in the region. At the turn of the last century, there was vehement opposition to the creation of national parks, which were seen as a waste of land that could be used for logging, mining, and ranching. Malheur itself, founded in 1908, was the site of serious political conflict in the nineteen-twenties: Oregonians wanted it closed down, so that Lake Malheur could be drained and the land sold off to farmers. In the seventies, during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, states across the region attempted to seize control of land from the federal government, which owns close to half of all land in the West. The Sagebrush Rebellion ultimately fizzled, but it helped instill the idea that federal land ownership is an economic blight, an idea that’s become more and more popular with Republicans as environmental regulations and restrictions on land use have proliferated. Organizations like the Koch-funded American Lands Council are working to help local governments reclaim some control of public land. Senator Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, sponsored an amendment last March supporting the selling, trading, and transfer of federal land to the states. Ted Cruz has said that the U.S. should be prohibited from owning more than fifty per cent of the land in any state.

The libertarian appeal of the “take back the land” rhetoric masks a fundamental contradiction: the West has flourished because of the federal government’s help, not in spite of it. No region’s economy has depended more on subsidies and taxpayer-funded investment. In the nineteenth century, the Homestead Act handed out free land to settlers, and the transcontinental railroad was built thanks to cheap land grants and huge government outlays. The federal government has played a vital role in managing the Western watershed, while investing billions of dollars in dams and other public infrastructure. As the historian Gerald Nash has shown, the West’s postwar boom was jump-started by money the government poured into the region during the Second World War.

Furthermore, Bundy’s beloved ranching, mining, and logging industries have been some of the biggest beneficiaries of government largesse…

Read the whole short essay here.

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