The First of Two Parts
So Uncle Sam has crushed the Oregon ranchers. Federal forces, spearheaded by the FBI, have done their job, and the rule of law has been upheld. But what law? And whose law?
We’ll get to those questions in a moment. But first we can note that one man, one of the ranchers, is dead—and some will say he is a martyr.
That would be LaVoy Finicum, a father of 11, some of them adopted, who, on January 26, in snowy southeast Oregon, was shot and killed in a confrontation with the FBI. Whatever one thinks of Finicum and his actions, he stands in a long tradition of popular protests—most of them tragically ineffectual—against the determined might of a money-dominated state.
Indeed, as we think of Finicum, we can see, in the grey mist, the sad ghosts of many others who fought unjust laws—only to find that the law won. Yes, many of us—that is, those whose ancestors came from England, Wales, Scotland, or Ireland—are here today because, in centuries past, they were ruthlessly driven out of their native homeland. Like the Oregon ranchers of today, our forefathers of yesterday were exiled, their lives broken on the wheel of state power.
In fact, we can further see something else: Over the past three centuries, a sinister pattern has appeared and reappeared. It’s a simple pattern, really: Impose scarcity, divide and conquer, reap the exploitative benefits of triumph.
It’s true that the composition of the elite, from the 18th century to today, has changed enormously, but the tactics of the elite have stayed remarkably similar:
The first tactic: Drive as many ordinary people as possible off the land—the land that the elite covet for their own idle amusement.
The second tactic: Pit the “lower orders,” the little people, against each other—that is, have them at each other’s throats. That way, they will never look up and see who their real enemy is.
And as a result, the elite enjoy the good life, untroubled by the unwanted rabble.
In 18th century England, it was the land-owning gentry that implemented this strategy, manipulating the power of the state to push the yeomanry off the land—the land that people had long relied on for survival. The elite, you see, wanted that land for themselves—for vital purposes, such as fox hunting, horse racing, and landscape portraiture.
In 21st century America, the elite do not themselves own much land; their assets are tied up in trust funds and hedge funds. Still, they make plenteous use of state power; the difference is that they use that power in a different way than three centuries ago. Today, the United States government owns the land and will retain ownership, and yet the elite set the terms of that ownership. So while the form is different, the impact is the same: The rich win, and the rabble is kept away.
As we shall see, it’s possible to support the rule of law and yet, at the same time, wonder why the law is the way it is. Must the law be so unfair? Must the muscle of state power always be the plaything of the elite?
Let’s start with the Oregon rancher saga: the illegal occupation of federal land that began last month. Here’s how one Oregon rancher, Keith Nantz, explains the matter: “While I don’t agree with the occupiers’ tactics, I sympathize with their position.” He continues:
The federal government controls a huge amount of land in the west (more than 50 percent in some states, like Oregon), and many ranchers must lease that space to create a sustainable operation.
So we might ask: Why does the federal government own all that land? A look at this map shows the enormity of federal real estate holdings: Uncle Sam owns more than a quarter of all the land in the US, but the percentages skew higher in the West. The feds own more than 53 percent of the land in Oregon, more than 57 percent in Utah, more than 84 percent in Nevada, and so on. By contrast, the federal government owns less than 2 percent of the land in Illinois, and less than 1 percent in Iowa and New York.
Meanwhile, Nantz explains, Uncle Sam is a hard landlord, and getting harder:
Utilizing federal land requires ranchers to follow an unfair, complicated and constantly evolving set of rules. For example, a federal government agency might decide that it wants to limit the number of days a rancher can graze their cattle to protect a certain endangered plant or animal species, or they might unilaterally decide that ranchers can’t use as much water as they need because of a fight over water rights. Or they might take over land that once belonged to the state or private individuals, imposing an entirely new set of restrictions.
As we read through Nantz’s litany of troubles, we should ask ourselves: Are any of these concerns in the national conversation? On the national radar? Is the chattering class chattering, even a little, about the water rights of ranchers? And the answer, obviously, “No.” The Main Stream Media, and the elite that it serves, have plenty of gripes and complaints, but the plight of the ranchers in rural Oregon is not one of them. The ranchers, after all, are far away—and besides, they are white.
We can ask an even broader question: Is anyone in the permanent culture of New York City, or DC, worried about the concentration of power in federal hands? Dumb question, I realize. Yet we might note the paradox: We have anti-trust laws to deal with excess concentrations of private power, but we have no legal mechanism in place to put a check on public power.
Once upon a time, things were different. Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, worked continuously to achieve the “widespread distribution of property”; his idea was that sturdy yeomen farmers would form a natural bulwark against tyranny.
Later in the 19th century, under another empowerment-minded president, Abraham Lincoln, America took bold action to ensure Jefferson’s dream. The Homestead Act of 1862 promised landownership of up to 160 acres to all those willing to work the soil.
The Homestead Act was a huge success, not only for America, but also for the Republican Party. The hard-working farmers of the Great Plains, for example, knew that it was the Party of Lincoln that had chosen to parcel out small pieces of land to actual workers, as opposed to selling it off in vast tracts to absentee speculators.
Unfortunately, the benefits of the Homestead Act did not extend to most of the West. There, the land was drier, rockier, or more mountainous, and so nobody claimed it. Thus ownership of the land remained with the feds, specifically, the Department of the Interior (DOI). Still, that was okay, because units of DOI, such as the Bureau of Reclamation, created in 1902, focused on developing irrigation and hydropower, so that more land could be put to productive use.
Yet over the course of the last five decades, the emphasis of DOI has shifted, as the environmentalists have taken over: What was once a pro-development agency is now an anti-development agency. And thus DOI is no longer a friend to Oregon ranchers; it’s an enemy.
Yes, the Greens run DOI. With a few exceptions here and there, DOI sees human beings—American citizens—as so much clutter on its landscape. DOI’s new “Strategic Plan,” for example, includes a whole section on enlarging its acquisition process—that is, growing its territorial empire. Increasingly, those who might wish to graze, grow, drill, or mine on federal land need not apply. Indeed, the DOI Strategic Plan includes no fewer than 46 references to “climate change”—and you know what that means.
Returning to the subject of the ranchers, we might recall that before Oregon, there was Nevada. Then, as now, we have seen that the elite close ranks—against the ranchers of any state.
In November 2014, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada declared that some of his ranching constituents, led by one Cliven Bundy, were “domestic terrorists.” (If using the “t” word, “terrorist,” strikes you as extreme, well, be resigned to the fact that you are never going to be invited to billionaire Tom Steyer’s San Francisco mansion for a Democratic Party fundraiser.)
The dispute in Nevada two years ago, of course, was over land-use, and to Reid and his friends, the rich Greens, the protection of the desert tortoise came first, and people, well, were a distant second.
As an aside, we can observe that it never seems to occur to the Greens that tortoises, and other fauna and flora, could be preserved in zoos or perhaps relocated to other patches of land; instead, Green logic insists that all endangered species must be preserved in situ—in their habitat. One wonders how such liberal enclaves as Manhattan or Beverly Hills would have developed in past centuries if today’s laws had then been in place.
We might also note that as public land becomes increasingly off limits, private land, too, is subject to ever-stricter federal control; in years past, the government has invoked the Endangered Species Act to protect the spotted owl. That action shut down much of the logging in Oregon and, of course, cost many lumberjacks their jobs. Needless to say, this economic dislocation also hasn’t merited much attention from the MSM.
Now in this year, 2016, we have seen yet another flareup; interestingly, one of the Oregon protestors was Cliven Bundy’s son, Ammon.
The details of the Oregon incident might be slightly different, but the song remains the same: The feds own the land, and they are in a slow-but-steady process of making sure that the locals don’t use it—for anything.
Needless to say, as this latest argument festered, the MSM lined up behind Sen. Reid’s anti-rancher slur.
Rolling Stone, that bastion of journalistic righteousness, simply recycled Reid’s jibe that they were “terrorists.” Salon, also too lazy to write its own story, chose simply to publish defamatory tweets; one described Ammon Bundy as a “blithering s__pickle.”
Others outlets worked at least a little bit harder to come up with their own insults. Gawker called the ranchers “racist.” For its part, The New Republic went further; the magazine not only declared all the Bundys to be racist, but also volunteered that America itself was “structurally racist.”
In addition, allies of the MSM jumped in with both feet. Snopes.com, a self-styled fact-checking outfit, dismissed the ranchers’ claims as, simply, “false.” And at least one liberal think tank, too, decided to give it to the Bundys with both barrels.
In such a strongly negative media environment, who would doubt that regulators in a Democratic administration, if there is one in 2017, will move in to finish off the ranchers’ way of life, once and for all?
Indeed, as we think about the January 26 incident that took the life of LaVoy Finicum, we are reminded that the one kind of gun violence which the left approves of is gun-violence against the white working class.
Moreover, from the elite point of view, if working-class law enforcers—one rather doubts that the FBI agent who fired the fatal shot is a “trustafarian”—are killing working-class ranchers, what’s not to like? That’s the divide-and-conquer strategy, bold as blood.
Here we can pause to stipulate that the unnamed FBI agent who shot Finicum almost certainly did the only thing he could do: If one looks at this video from an FBI drone, at about 6:05, it certainly appears that Finicum was reaching into his coat for something, perhaps a gun; certainly, in that split-second moment, the FBI agent had to operate on that assumption.
So yes, the FBI did the right thing—the G-Man had no choice.
We can further assert that U.S. citizens ought not to take up arms against their own government; we have a Constitution to guide us in working out disputes. We should never resort to violence—and if we do, we should expect the worst.
Still, as this author reflects on his own ancestry in the British Isles, he can’t but feel a twinge. The name “Finicum” is Gaelic; out of the same clann comes such common names as “Finney” and “Feeney.”
Which is to say, the late LaVoy Finicum was probably related, somehow, to quite a few of the 80 million Americans who hail from the lands of today’s United Kingdom and Ireland. For many of us, whether we liked him or not, he was kin. And for all American citizens, he was a fellow citizen; sure, he was angry, and maybe he was crazy, but maybe he had his reasons—maybe the fact that the U.S. government thought that the spotted owl was more important than his 11 children drove him mad. And so, however faintly, the dolorous bell of his passing tolls for all of us.
Indeed, if we drill down a bit on the long-ago history that explains why so many English-speakers ended up in America, we start to see eerie similarities to what’s happening in today’s American West.
We can begin by noting that for every Briton who came to the New World seeking political or religious freedom, there were probably ten who came here looking for economic opportunity, or for life itself.
Let’s take a closer look at the forces that drove Britons to emigrate.
Once upon a time, much of the land in Britain had no active owner. Yes, it typically belonged to one nobleman or another, but beginning in the Middle Ages, the yeomanry had carved out its own rights to the land, including the right to hunt and fish. It was an informal system, guided by a thousand years of tradition and watched over by clerics who were usually resolved to protect the well-being of everyone in their parish, from high to low.
For the most part, this casual informality about the land wasn’t a big deal, because, well, there was plenty of land, and not many people. In 1600, the population of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland was around five million (today it’s 69 million). Thus the nobility could own the land, and the peasantry could roam the land—and nobody was worse off.
So folks with names such as “Bundy” and “Finicum” would rely on the local fields and forests—the commons—for hunting and fishing. Such activities, we might note, weren’t done for fun, they were done for survival. Back then, the wolf of hunger was at the door of just about everyone, except, of course, for the royals and aristos in their castles.
An economic libertarian, of course, would say that land held in common is a big mistake. Why? Because if nobody owns the land, then nobody takes proper care of it. And that’s a fair point. However, at the time, the problems associated with an overused commons weren’t a big deal, because there were so few people and so much land.
Yet as the English population grew—up 60 percent, to eight million, in the 17th century—the elite began to worry that the commons was, in fact, being ravaged by the riffraff. That is, the swelling population was starting to impinge on the elite as they sought to enjoy their land. Thus the issue of the commons grew more acute.
Indeed, the powerful English aristocrats of that era found themselves anticipating the libertarian private-property argument. Yes, they said, the solution to the problems of the commons is private property—and they themselves should own it.
And as always, money talks. In 1723, Parliament in London passed the Black Act, which established firm aristocratic control over the commons. We might note that in this instance, “Black” had nothing to do with race: It referred to the peasants’ practice of blackening their faces so they would be less visible to the sheriffs at night. Thanks to the new law, face-blackening was one of many newly stipulated crimes, most of them punishable by death.
Indeed, no other British statute in the 18th century equalled the Black Act in its severity, in its dizzying cumulation of death-penalty offenses, from poaching to trespassing. As the English historian Leon Radzinowicz has written:
There is hardly a criminal act which did not come within the provisions of the Black Act; offenses against public order . . . against property of varying degree—all came under the statute and all were punishable by death.
For sure, English officialdom, the tool of the elite, didn’t kid around. Almost immediately, the English government started hanging convicted Blacks in large numbers. Over the next century, hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women were executed.
Yes, the English elite was made of stern stuff; it was sternly determined to have its way. Once the royal and the rich decided on a course of action—highly resolving that the land was theirs and theirs alone—they showed a remarkable degree of class-conscious solidarity; it was, one might say, their own kind of crony capitalism.
The British historian E.P. Thompson records an incident that underscores the iron will of the elite to win. In 1732, an eccentric member of the gentry, Richard Norton, Warden of Bere Forest, passed away, and because he had no heirs, he bequeathed his land to the aid of his less-privileged neighbors. As Norton wrote in his will, he was leaving his land to “the poor, hungry, thirsty… [the] sick, wounded… to the end of the world.”
Norton’s generosity was all very Christian, but his aristocratic peers were horrified; they wanted the rabble gone, not finding food and comfort in Bere Forest. So the aristos took Norton’s will to court and broke it. In complete contravention of Norton’s wishes, the land went to a distant relative; the poor got nothing.
And so what did the rich do with the land they had cordoned off from the peasants? As noted, in the early 18th century, the big idea was fancier recreation. Here’s Thompson’s description of the planning made so that King George II could more enjoy country life:
By this time great progress had been made in making the forest more congenial for the sport of kings [hunting]. There had been expenditures on the repair and improvement of Swinley Lodge . . . On the “preserved grounds,” new plantations of oak and underwood had been set as covert for the red deer; corn had been planted for their fattening; pheasants were being bred for the guns.
This contrast between the conspicuous consumption of the few and the conspicuous privation for the many horrified some onlookers. The 18th century poet Alexander Pope, moved by the plight of his fellow Britons, described this brutal process in a poem, Windsor Forest:
To savage Beasts and Savage Laws a Prey
And Kings More Furious and severe than they:
Who claim’d the Skies, dispeopled Air and Floods
The lonely Lords of empty Wilds and Woods
In other words, the lords were nastier than any four-legged predator, and happier when they had dispensed with their fellow Englanders.
As Pope wrote later in the same work, “While the subject starv’d, the beast was fed.” That is, the people went hungry, but the game-animals were plump.
Yes, that was the aristocratic vision: Improve the land by getting rid of the population. And so the landless English got the message: Leave.
Oh, sure, there were a few peasant rebellions back then, but they were crushed. And Dick Turpin, the notorious poacher and highway-robber, became a perversely popular folk hero; his legend survived even his hanging in 1739.
Yet most folks, cut off from the commons and thus confronting a drastic decline in their standard of living, chose flight, not fight. Many moved to the big cities, such as London or Bristol or Manchester, where they might find work in the shops or the mills. Others went to America, financing their trip by submitting themselves to long terms of indentured servitude in the Colonies.
And of course, once the Englishfolk were in America, they often found, to their delight, that they could resume their old ways in the un-policed wilderness: hunting, fishing, and wood-gathering. Yes, America was a big place, far bigger than England—and thus it was a huge and bountiful commons.
Indeed, a big part of the history of the American frontier is the story of English-stock pioneers—from Daniel Boone to Lewis and Clark—making their way west, living off the land. Their ancestors had once done it in the Old World, and so they would do it now in the New World.
These epic journeys made for a happy, growing population. Indeed, in many ways, the journeying has continued for two centuries, as farmers and ranchers staked their claims, busted the sod, and grazed their critters.
But of course, in the minds of some, this growth and expansion was ultimately to be seen as a calamity; as they saw it, all this economic activity was bad—bad for the environment.
After all, in the mind of the Greens, a constructive and productive population is much less important than, say, the desert tortoise or the spotted owl. And as we all know, the Greens have won most of their fights over the last half century. As we have seen, if the name of the game is using state power to get one’s way, it helps to be rich and connected.
To illustrate this point, here’s how The New York Times’ described the power players in the Oregon dispute:
Ranchers, environmentalists, birders, Native Americans and federal officials have long tussled over the use of public land in Harney County, just as people have in other communities across the West.
Note the presence, in the above passage, not only of environmentalists, but also of birders—that is, bird-watchers. Yes, in today’s America, the environmentalists and their close allies, the birders, both get a seat at the table. And so we can see, right there, that the ranchers are outnumbered.
Thus the ranchers get the shaft. And when they get ornery, well, the Greens are ready—with an iron fist.
To be sure, the Greens don’t smash anyone in person; they have people to do that. Just as the royal aristocrats had sheriffs and bailiffs to do their dirty work three centuries ago, so, today, the eco-aristocrats have their own police forces—including the FBI—to do their bidding. The FBI follows the law, of course; the issue is, who writes the law?
So it wasn’t some to-the-manor-born Greenpeacer who pulled the trigger on LaVoy Finicum; it was an FBI agent, probably himself the product of a middle- or working-class background.
Meanwhile, in the elite sanctums of Darien and Malibu, you can be sure that Green plutocrats are thinking to themselves: It’s a good thing that some schmoe did the killing; we in the right-thinking upper crust don’t need that sort of hassle.
Yes, it’s a proven tactic, then and now: Get the workers to kill each other. Not only has that divide-and-conquer method been a winner for the elite, but it also makes for fewer peasants messing up the vistas—in Windsor Forest then, in southeastern Oregon today.
Next in Part Two: From the Enclosure Acts of Eminent Domain