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The Best Route to Prosperity

Essay by Jim Ludwig

The West – August 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine


I watched a PBS documentary from the Colorado Historical Society Thursday night in which Duane Smith, the Fort Lewis historian, pointed out, while viewing abandoned homes in ghost towns, “Keep in mind that each shack or shaft represents a dream, often unfulfilled, of some person who helped to make the West what it is today.” The quote may not be exact, but the thought was his, and parallels mine.

I do not feel competent to comment to the Post on so complex an issue. Thanks for your suggestion, but I would rather argue with you, who hopefully will forgive my faults of logic and lack of documented facts, and counter with your own.

I intended to use my Native Species Nursery as an example only of a free choice of development; I did not expect you to object to it. Suppose I had chosen to build a thousand sow hog farm, would you feel the same way? As it is, my evaluation for taxes is based on its highest, best use, residential development. The use as a nursery is grandfathered in, by permit, as a continuance of past practice. A careful study of tax law shows that I am actually penalized for not developing the vacant portions of my land.

I disagree that overpopulation is a major problem. As an old farmer, I follow the Ag markets and Ag news. The prices of wheat, corn and soybeans are way down this year as the government has quit supporting prices and allowed free choice for planting acreage. Wheat is so low that Northern Plains and Canadian farmers are going out of business and screaming to high heaven for a return of price supports. Wisconsin dairy farmers have set about a new way of determining milk prices, the old government backed system has proven very unfair in a free market, and overproduction is the problem. Locally, the cattle market is very bad because of oversupply, with prices fifteen percent below ten years ago. The subsidy for ethanol props up the corn industry.

Dateline: May 13, Associated Press: “Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman called for changes in the free-market 1996 farm law to help farmers through rough times. His comments Tuesday followed release of an Agriculture Department forecast indicating prices for America’s top three crops will be lower this year because of lagging exports and huge worldwide stocks in storage.”

Wow, a free market for only two years!

IF ONLY A PORTION of our farming efficiencies are spread throughout the world, as they have to Argentina and other temperate climates of South America, there will be no food shortage for the foreseeable future. Most of Europe uses tariffs and various restrictive laws to prop up a very inefficient agricultural industry. Wine and goat cheese are hard to come by efficiently.

Russia and China have yet to overcome the disastrous effects of centralized agricultural decision-making and communal ownership degraded to political power by control of land.

The shortage of land for development as living space is a political decision, exacerbated by current public policy which tends to have governmental or non-taxable entities acquire private land.

I believe it was possible for an individual to acquire federal land until the fifties, other than by the 1872 Mining Law. At the present time, a process known as forest exchange allows a private individual to trade land that the forest service desires for land of like value that the individual desires when approved by act of congress. The cost and invested capital necessary preclude this action except for those individuals and corporations with deep pockets. It does not allow for a net reduction of federal land.

I believe Government entities should routinely dispose of land they hold, whether it be BLM, Forest or Wilderness, as it becomes economically desirable. True, to restart a process long discontinued would be difficult, but not impossible. The major obstacle is everyone screaming, “Greed, exploitation and profit!”

The mining, homestead and railroad acts proved to be a very efficient way to move the land into private hands. Consider by comparison the Spanish system of land grants based on political or religious connections, or the Russian and Chinese system of continued federal ownership. All political considerations aside, there is no way the Few can make better decisions than the Many when it comes to the economic and social well being of the populous. Government land, controlled by politicians and bureaucrats will never be used as well as land controlled by individuals or a group of individuals known as a corporation.

Nations throughout Eastern Europe and most of Asia are struggling to equitably move property into private hands, and by our tarnished standards, are not doing well. Yet we as a nation seem to believe that a move in the direction they were forced to abandon is desirable. Not so, my friend! We need less land controlled by bureaucrats, not more. We need more land on the tax roles, not less. We need a true policy of economically calculated environmental protection, not the mish-mash of pseudo-scientific, semi-religious media spin that sways public opinion today, miseducates our kids, and provides a power base for bureaucrats that is awesome to behold.

I do not believe what is happening to the West is necessarily right, nor do I believe that what happened in the past is necessarily right. I only believe that no one in history has found a better way to accomplish such a gargantuan task of settling a huge land. I refuse to believe the motives of prospectors, cattleman, sodbusters and railroad men were as morally dishonest as your page long diatribe describes.It is not fair to judge past practice by today’s standards, particularly when our current political leadership is so ethically challenged. All this aside, an historical perspective provides some insight.

FROM EARLIEST HISTORY, civilized enclaves have defended themselves from the barbarians. Then in a turnabout, they sallied forth to conquer and civilize the lands held by barbarians. Greeks, Romans, Macedonians, Huns, Vandals, Vikings, Goths, Mongols and Arabs ebbed and flowed across the semi-civilized world. Religions and cultures became dominant, subordinate and dominant again.

Finally, in most of the world during the middle ages, many of the known ethnic groups gathered together into nations — when they could find the land to call their own. A homeland, as it were. Other ethnic groups were not so fortunate, but unwillingly became part of a nation in which they were not dominant.

The ambition to control other areas of the world defined the boundaries of nations which were not so clearly defined or socially advanced beforehand. But it also consumed the wealth and energy of such nations. By varying degrees, colonial extensions of the homeland were struggled over and defined. Our continent was desired by England, France, Russia and Spain, and partly because their sparring was so far from home, more important conflicts nearby held their attention — thereby assuring our revolution for independence was successful.

The United States was one of the first to cast off the colonial control and was even able to establish itself as a colonizer in its own right, even while defining its own borders. Wracked by a nearly disastrous civil war which impoverished many, it developed an unprecedented ability to assimilate multiple ethnic groups into an American culture. That struggle continues and sometimes appears to be reversing itself.

It really was not until the conclusion of the first world war that new nations were defined based on ethnic consideration instead of conquest. Czechoslovakia comes to mind. After the second World War, the yolk of colonization was lifted over most of the world, and continues as the Soviet Union dissolves.

New nations were and are being defined, some very controversially, and ethnic groups unfortunately vie for independence instead of agglomeration into nations as was the practice in the Americas and in early Europe.

Now place the development of the West as we know it within the context of my briefly and poorly defined historical framework. In a democracy there is no sharp change of direction because public opinion — and therefore public policy — changes rather slowly. Contrast this with the start or ending of Communist control of Russia.

Jefferson definitely was aggressive in expanding the United States, almost in a colonial manner which was the greater world policy of his time. This may have set the basic policies which continued through the wars with Spain, except that the Civil War defined a basic social issue, even beyond the question of slavery. This was a definition of how property held only under the flag was to be distributed for ownership among the people. The Government no longer would give grants of land for political consideration. The Homestead Act of 1862, the General Mining Law of 1872 and the various railroad laws and grazing acts encouraged aggressive settling and development of the west as a matter of public policy.

Somehow, our young democratic republic understood that if the west was not solidly occupied, it would someday slip away. It sensed that someday conventional colonialism would fail, as it has, and that would destine our new country to obscurity. Only Canada and Australia have come close to approaching the success achieved here.

Would you prefer to have the multi-ethnic political scramble that is Africa or the Middle East? The off and on oppression of the far East? The failed economics of Eastern Europe and western Asia or the Chinese struggle to enter the modern economic world? I think not.

TODAY WE HAVE become the undisputed leader of the world. Envied by all but the Liberal Elite, and struggling to determine whom we will allow to immigrate, because it seems everyone wants to share our problems and our opportunities.

I refuse to castigate those who were successful in an endeavor played out in a different time, under different morĂ©s, when communication was only as quick as a horse, or the dot-dash-dot of a telegraph. The basic concepts of individual opportunity under law survived, at a time in history when the world’s people were just becoming acquainted and knowledge was becoming available to all.

Nor do I feel guilty because my forebears actions cannot pass the scrutiny of today’s political correctness. Neither will our actions pass the scrutiny of political correctness a few short years from now.

Fifty years ago no one would have believed or predicted the unbelievable swirl of information that is available at our finger tips. We can document any position we choose to take. We can refute any position we choose not to take.

Yet few choose to even pay attention to the realities of the world, but live in a realm of fantasy fed by the same technical marvels that could bring true knowledge and deep thought. Can a democracy survive? I wonder.

Will the West survive? Of course it will. Maybe not the way you and I would choose to see it, but it will be here and thoughtful men will question its authenticity.

Maybe the technical marvels that provide the swirl of information about our heads is just a dust devil of the Mountains, which will grow into the tornado of the Plains, then the hurricane of the Seacoast and finally a black hole of the Heavens which will swallow all humanity into the nothingness of Space.