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Give Me Liberty, and Forgive My Threats

As I was studying Microsoft’s support for XML Paper Specification last week, for some reason I choose the Gettysburg address as lorem ipsum source material. Lincoln’s great address begins:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

It was not the first time that the proposition had been tested. In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, Europe brought financial pressure on the new nation by refusing to extend credit to its merchants. That class also held a great deal of the debt for the war, and sought to avoid bankruptcy by passing hard credit terms on to subsistence farmers that previously settled their debt in goods. In Massachusetts, the farmers gathered together against the state militia in 1891 in an action known as Shay’s Rebellion, eventually forcing the merchants to relent. Similarly, grain farmers in the western territories rose in the Whiskey Rebellion in an attempt to force the repeal of a tax on whiskey, which served popularly as a means of concentrating grain for transport. It was repeated in the early 1900’s, when the coal mine owners brought in armed guards on rail cars to gun down striking workers.

The central question in all of these cases was how to balance personal property rights against the obligations of the nation to foster the security and survival of its citizens. Over time, the problem of survival has expanded from immediate threat to specific individuals or populations to include sustainability of the social system as a whole. Environmental legislation, financial regulation, immunization laws and social security taxes are all part of that expanded scope.

The appeal of liberty, however, is central to us as a people. Survival is not enough if it comes at the cost of leading lives without hope of meaningful personal accomplishment, and that requires the freedom to make our lives unique. Rules and regulations constraint our latitude. They force our lives into patterned molds.

At my current place of employment, during a cash crunch, the owner complained about the expense of “government” regulations that set minimum landscaping requirements. Walking later in the parking lot, I looked up at the hills, lined with high-end housing, and thought, “Well, that’s your ‘government’ – it’s your neighbors trying to protect the value of their housing.”

There is an essential difference between those that decry government regulation that frustrates their ambitions and those that face poverty and death due to regressive policies that sustain a privileged elite.

Among that elite are families that have title to use federal lands for private commerce. They pay fees to the Bureau of Land Management that monitors their usage to ensure that the land is not damaged or misused – for example, for gold mining rather than the allowed ranching.

We have in the news today two stories of ranchers facing governmental sanctions for misuse of their land rights. In Washington, the Hammond family set a fire to clear invasive brush that was impeding their cattle grazing. The fire spread to federal land, damaging the forest. The Hammonds, known for their support of charity, were given light sentences. Unfortunately, the terms did not meet minimum sentencing guidelines, and they are voluntarily surrendering themselves to serve up to four more years. The elder Hammond “hopes” that he still has a ranch upon his release.

In Nevada, the Bundy family runs a ranch on federal land, owing more than a million dollars in unpaid land use fees. Their response to Land Management actions to settle the arrears was to claim that federal ownership of the land was unconstitutional, and to call upon a posse of extremists from across the West to help them prevent the seizure of their cattle. Faced with a gang toting military assault-style weapons, the BLM backed off.

Emboldened by their victory, the Bundy family has intervened in the Hammond case, gathering a portion of their posse to seize a tourist center on federal land in Washington State.

The Bundy clan justifies its constitutional claims on a specific interpretation of the process used by the Western states to gain statehood. In that era, much of the West’s population was concentrated in cities. The states ceded control of the wild areas to federal control. The Bundy interpretation is that the federal government coerced the transfer of land. The rational interpretation is that the states did not have means to police the wild places, often occupied by hostile natives and outlaws, and so chose to ensure that management of the land was in federal hands, and so financed by the Eastern elites that were interested in securing the continent.

In the intervening years, the civilized West entered an epoch of regulated access sustained by usage fees. The cavalry forts were replaced by tourist centers and ranger stations. Perhaps too soon: the Bundy clan and their ilk are outlaws with modern weapons. Rather than threatened patriots seeking to ensure their voices are not forgotten in the halls of power, they are failed businessmen using the threat of violence to force others to support their privilege.

They should not be forgiven, and as Lincoln said, if they are not brought to heel, the very basis of our system of government is called into doubt.

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