Recently, several state legislatures and the U.S. Senate considered legislation that would transfer millions of acres of federal land to the states or privatize them. Some of our elected officials supported this effort, touting the banner of local control.
While objecting to local control may seem like taking a stand against baseball, motherhood and apple pie, a persuasive case can be made with help from our founding fathers. In a 2007 book published by Hill and Wang titled “Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution,” Woody Holton describes the tumultuous period near the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 and the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
During the war, the states and the Continental Congress ran out of money. State militias and the continental army threatened to mutiny because they had not been paid. Providers of war materials were also not getting paid. In response, state governments and Congress issued a large number of interest-paying bonds (IOUs).
After the war, when the states tried to raise taxes to pay the debt, the public became “unruly.” There were massive protests and calls for state governments to cancel the debts. Numerous riots punctuated the point. Many state legislatures, responding to extreme local pressure, passed various forms of debt relief legislation. Some of these measures reduced previously promised interest rates. Some actually reduced the face value of the bonds.
The bond holders and many prominent citizens were appalled by the debt relief legislation. Bond holders pointed out that changing the conditions of the bonds after the fact was not fair to the soldiers who had risked so much during the war. Prominent citizens were against debt relief fearing it would undermine the country’s credit standing. How would a new United States be able to get loans from foreign countries if the loan conditions could later be altered by tax payer protest? They believed the state legislatures suffered from “too much democracy” and were too responsive to public opinion. Convinced that the state legislatures were undermining the credit standing of the country, a Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia in 1787. The primary purpose of the convention was to create a stronger federal government that could deal with the war debt issue.
Having witnessed the disruptive results of too much local influence on the state legislatures most of the constitutional delegates, our founding fathers, went out of their way to create a constitution that would insulate decision making from self-interest. One delegate to the convention, Gen. George Washington, exasperated by taxpayer selfishness, proclaimed: “Mankind left to themselves are unfit for their own government.” Many delegates, including James Madison, believed that self-interest could be minimized by establishing a larger electorate for each elected official under the assumption that a voice from a larger group would be more selfless. A number of somewhat radical proposals were considered including a proposal that the president serve a life-term to reduce chances of being too heavily influenced by public opinion. Today this seems absurd, but our founding fathers were considering all options to thwart the self-serving results of local control.
So what does this have to do with transferring federal lands to state and local control? History strongly suggests that state and local control would result in more self-serving land management decisions. Profitable activities like oil and gas drilling, timber harvest and cattle grazing would likely proliferate at the expensive of less profitable activities such as recreation.
In addition to the increased for-profit activities, land sales would likely spike. Many transfer proponents assert that privatization is not their main goal. They ask the public to “trust” them on this. History portends a different outcome. For example, the State of Nevada has sold almost all of the 2.7 million acres of state lands it was granted at statehood. Also, most public land in the eastern United States has been sold. With many state and local governments under pressure to produce additional revenue, it is hard to “trust” that significant acreage would not be privatized.
With the combination of more for-profit activities and an unstoppable trend toward privatization, recreational opportunities for millions of Americans would be lost forever. If you don’t agree with this outlook, just ask our founding fathers. They were pioneers in understanding the dangers of self-serving decision making at a time when our fledgling nation was teetering on the brink of financial disaster. Too much local control almost did what the British were unable to do.