Market Justice

The standoff between ranchers and the federal government at a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service building in Harney County, Oregon can be distilled down to one core issue: property rights. The Hammond’s land abuts Federal lands and due to their past less than neighborly management practices (setting containment fires that got out of hand) their neighbors (the Feds) believed they had the right to throw their neighbor (the Hammonds) in a cage for one year. Which they did. Then they decided to give it a different name (terrorism) and throw them in a cage for another 4 years. That’s when the Hammonds objected and said enough is enough. Just imagine if your next-door neighbor could lock you up in a cage at their whim for any perceived transgression. That would surely be quite frustrating and dare I say terrorizing? To know that any minor misstep could result in your freedom and liberties being ripped away from you is indeed terror inducing. Welcome to the world of the American Indian.

The federal government has been terrorizing the American Indian for the past 200 years. They’ve had a lot of practice. They’ve become quite adept at it. The modern western rancher is simply the latest recipient of this unilateral wielding of overwhelming violent force.  So to the ranchers I say this: your ownership and the related benefits of your land and abutting federal lands is the result of prior violence by the Federal government on behalf of your ancestors or predecessors. The Feds stole it from the Indians and made it available at a fraction of its value to millions of homesteaders. That is not homesteading, that is theft and redistribution.

While it is true that the Federal government has wrought numerous distortions into the fabric of society and the economy and some have benefited while others have been harmed, these past transgressions are so complex, intertwined and convoluted as to make it impossible to untie such a Gordian knot and make amends. But, presently the Federal government owns approximately 28% of the land in the United States – the vast majority of having belonged to one Indian tribe or another.  There is no chain of a multitude of prior owners; there is a direct link of ownership of Indians->Federal Government. In virtually all cases the transfer was illegitimately obtained through acts of violence. If the current presidential administration is so concerned with righting past wrongs and the redistribution of wealth then it should immediately hand over all property rights in federally owned lands to those tribes (still in existence) with the strongest past territorial claim.

Such a transfer would instantly transform many of the impoverished Indian reservations, who rely on a constant influx of Federal money to maintain their citizenry, into powerhouses of wealth. A $1 billion lotto jackpot pales in comparison to a $1 trillion jackpot! In other words the land would be taken from “public” use to “private” use. The new private owners could do with the land as they see fit relative to all economically demanded uses coming from the market. That is, those uses that people most want to see would have the most money behind them and enable the highest bid to prevail. People vote for what they want with their dollars and those with the most votes wins. Some tribes might maintain their land as a natural preserve. Some might sell portions to farmers, ranchers or those wishing to develop them commercially. Some might buy the land and build high rises, new factories, or wind farms. Others (like the Sierra Club) might buy land and create their own “private” nature reserve, where they, and not the federal government, is in control of its (seeing as how the Feds often allow mining or logging in “protected” regions).

In short, in one fell swoop a big chunk of the past wrongs against the American Indian could be rectified (nothing of course could ever undo all the damage) while simultaneously releasing nearly 1/3 of the land mass of this country into the most efficient system the world has ever known for optimizing the use of scarce and rivalrous resources: the market.