Let’s say you lived in a town where Harry was the biggest landowner. Harry’s family founded the town a hundred years ago, and Harry is the mayor. He owns the shopping center, the medical plaza, and every other major piece of land he hasn’t sold off yet. Harry’s brother is the chief of police. Of Harry’s two sons, one works as a real estate agent, managing his dad’s properties, and the other works for his brother at the police department.
The question that keeps raising its head must be properly framed as “should the U.S. government be the biggest landowner, e.g. the Sovereign, in at least 12 western states, and in aggregate, in the entire country?”
Now, living in Harry’s town, you are either on Harry’s side, or you’re screwed. Sure, you can oppose him, but you’re likely to end up homeless, in court, destitute, or potentially jailed. If you want to do business in Harry-ville, you have to go through Harry. That’s just the way it is.
Let’s say Harry decides, since he’s getting older, to bequeath a large part of his most valuable land to the Cult of Zorg. His sons may not agree with him, but what can they do? They still get their portion of the family wealth. And let’s say you own a business in Harry’s town selling chicken eggs. You lovingly feed, care for, and protect your free-range hens, and they return a good profit to you in eggs. You give eggs to the poor, you even sell your eggs at a discount to Harry and his friends to keep them happy. Everything is great.
Then the Zorg people decide they are going to breed foxes and let them roam free around the town, because foxes are their holy animal. Now you’ve got a problem.
This is the essence of what’s happening in Oregon.
Fast-forward from 1787 to 2016 in the American West. The Northwest Ordinance “provided for the survey and settlement of the lands that the original 13 colonies ceded to the Federal government after the War of Independence.” The colonies, under land grants dating back to King James I in 1606, ceded their land to the United States. Instead of a sovereign king, the U.S. had a sovereign citizenship, with a government serving at the pleasure of the people it represents.
But in reality, the U.S. government outside the 13 original colonies is Harry. The United States is the largest landowner in America, with a rich history of owning, managing and disposing land. The Supreme Court has upheld that right time after time as settlers, ranchers, and other private owners have challenged its sovereignty, writing in Camfield v. United States in 1897:
In Nevada alone, Harry the government owns enough land to incorporate everything from Lake City to Key West in Florida. Almost half of Oregon is federal land.
So in the early 70’s, Harry the government decided to bequeath a whole lot of land to the Zorg followers EPA and their trusty environmental sidekicks, the Sierra Club. At first, everyone went along to get along, then it started to get harder as the EPA’s foxes started eating the ranchers’ hens, so to speak.
This is the issue the Bundy family faced for years, and the issue the Hammond family faces now in Oregon. Harry not playing nice, and attracting certain pissed-off people to play the home version of “Walking Tall.” It’s a big gamble for the naive would-be rebels who occupy a few deserted buildings in Burns, Oregon. And now that they’ve done this deed, someone’s got to go to prison (the Hammonds are already there, albeit for a different reason).
Yet the question that keeps raising its head must be properly framed as “should the U.S. government be the biggest landowner, e.g. the Sovereign, in at least 12 western states, and in aggregate, in the entire country?”
In feudal Europe, the Sovereign—the Lord—owned all the land, and everyone else was a serf or peasant. The system of land, water, mineral, and grazing rights that’s been in use in the American west for literally hundreds of years has maintained the federal government as the Sovereign and the minor land owners as serfs, bowing to the Lord for every indulgence. When the feds mostly stayed out of the way, the conflicts were few, but now, with California in a self-inflicted water crisis, the EPA assuming Kingly powers, and the BLM acting as Harry’s sons—sympathetic in many ways to the ranchers but beholden to Harry, we’ve got a problem.
As much as the press might focus what’s going on in Oregon around a small band of rifle-toting “militiamen” who are prepared to die on this hill, painting it as some kind of terrorist act, it’s really nothing more than the serfs rebelling against the Sovereign, or you or me taking a baseball bat to city hall when Harry has gone too far.
We should look at the symptoms and deal with them, but we should not ignore the disease. It would be useful to hear from our Republican candidates on this issue, as it’s sure to come up again (we already know how the Democrats would respond).