Friday, April 25, 2014

Kelley's Zeros: Musings on the American Libertarian Mind...

We now live in a bizarre surreal world, a bizarre surreal world where American history can be wiped out with the stroke of a few keys on a computer, cell phone, or pad keyboard much like how many of the old Bolsheviks were literally scratched out of history after they had fallen out of Stalin's graces in the USSR.

Recently I came across a number of statements on Facebook, statements stimulated by the rather bizarre standoff between one Cliven Bundy, a Nevada Mormon rancher who owes the US government over a million dollars in grazing rights fees that go back some twenty years but who, not surprisingly, doesn't want to pay it, which reflect this right wing tendency to ignore American history when it conflicts with their ideologically driven socially and culturally constructed reality. A classic case of cognitive dissonance. A post I saw recently which arose out of the debates over l'affaire Bundy on Facebook and which reflects this right wing tendency to ahistoricism is this one. According to poster David Kelley "[t]here is no such thing as "the public" nor "public lands". Land can only legitimately be claimed as property by those who homesteaded it or purchased it from someone who did. In no case does the federal government have a legitimate claim to this land (except that Harry Reid is trying to confiscate if for a Chinese solar firm). I am not a constitutionalist, but even so, Article 1, Section 8 makes it clear that there is no legitimate legal claim of the federal government to this land. No, no legal claim and no moral claim. Seems Bundy has the high ground here. What is lacking is superior fire power for him to defend his rights against an invading army."

Mr. Kelley's views, of course, aren't peculiar to Mr. Kelley. Most of them are shared by right libertarians and many on the right in general as Mr. Kelley acknowledges in a later post when he notes that he shares many of these views with a right wing "philosopher" named Larry Barnhart. Mr. Kelley, in other words, has clearly been socialised into public cultural forms. The prevalence of these common right wing notions are unfortunate because most of the claims they contain are simply empirically false as is their method, namely a tendency to make assertions which are not backed up with any empirical evidence whatsoever, a method also practised with perfect imperfection by fundamentalists of all stripes.

The reason why Mr. Kelley's, Mr. Barnhart's, and others who share their views claims are false and why the United States government owns so much territory in the American West, 84.5% of Nevada, 69.1% of Alaska, 57.5% of Utah, for example, is, simple. It is because all of the what are now states in the West were once territories "owned" by the US federal government. The American West, putting aside the fact that it was once home to a number of indigenous groups and that it was colonised by Westerners in the 19th and 20th centuries, was acquired by the United States government via the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, via the Mexican-US war of 1846 through 1848, via the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 and 1854, via Seward's purchase of Alaska in 1867, and via the Indian Wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries. After acquiring territory in the West the US government, as it did earlier when, thanks to Thomas Jefferson's Ordinance of 1784 and the the Ordinances of 1785, and 1787, stimulated the settlement and economic development of the "Old Northwest" of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota, sold land to settlers (a type of government welfare if you will) and private settlement companies who often bought the land cheap and sold it to settlers at a higher price making profits in the process on the back of the settlers (a type of government welfare for the rich and powerful) stimulating, in the process, the settlement and economic development of the Great Plains and the West. The US government also sold land to railroad companies allowing them, over time, to link the US together unifying, for the first time, the United States and creating, for the first time in US history, a unified US economy. The US government as creator of economic growth and of jobs. Lands that were not sold after these public sales remained in government hands. Some of this land, land like that at Yellowstone, which was deemed "useless" by those who explored and surveyed it because it was seen as "unproductive", it couldn't, in other words, be ranched or farmed, eventually remained public lands. The federal government acquired marginal lands in the Great Plains during the New Deal era when over-farming and over-ranching led to the ravages of the Dust Bowl. The federal government acquired further lands in the West through land given to it as a gift as when John D. Rockefeller Jnr. purchased lands around Jackson Hole, Wyoming and gave them to the federal government for a national park, Grand Teton National Park. The wealthy Rockefeller's had a sense of citizenship and noblesse oblige that seems to be sadly lacking in the oligarchs of today, like the libertarian Koch's and Adelson's, who seem to use their money for little other than their personal financial benefit and glory. Federal government lands in the West, by the way, serve many purposes and functions including military (military bases), tourist (national parks and national monuments that are visited by millions of Americans annually), bringing water and electricity to the West (Lake Powell, Lake Mead, and the Grand Coulee Dam along the Columbia, all of which brought urban growth and economic development, including increased agricultural production, to the West), for grazing, for logging, and for oil extraction (Bureau of Land Management lands which operate or are supposed to operate on conservation principles set in place by Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot) amongst them.

This claim that there is no such things as public lands is thus patently false. Mr. Kelley's claim is an ideologically driven one rather than an empirical one as Mr. Kelley himself makes clear when he uses a value laden term, "legitimate" to justify his positions. Historically speaking libertarian ideologies have been built on the foundation of ahistorical notions of private property. Apologetics and polemics over "private property" became prominent during the era when the West was transitioning from traditional to modern forms. This transition, which led to the development of the modern world, didn't, by the way, create "public" property for the first time in human history. Monarchs, who arose in the Ancient Near East and in China parallel with the rise of agriculture, used their power and their control of a military, to acquire wealth by mandating that their subjects give a portion of their produce and their labour to them and acquired their own land, land that can be said to be public since they were the government. Monarchs also, of course, supported religious institutions which had their own public property such as temples, religious institutions which demanded goods and sacrifices and sometimes pilgrimages from their subjects, their publics, because they legitimated and justified the authority and power of monarchs.

In the Western world monarchs, of course, often, in some places, fought battles, hot and cold, with others of wealth, a wealth also grounded in the control of land, aristocrats. Aristocratic politics, economics, and culture, often mimicked, if generally on a smaller scale, that of the monarchs. Those who lived on aristocratic land, serfs, owed goods and labour to aristocrats, a "reality" that was justified and legitimised by religious ideologies. The land the serfs farmed was often communally or publicly organised.

The rise of the modern world, which was accompanied by the rise of middle classes all around the Western World and the decline of communal public property thanks to enclosures, led inevitably to new philosophical justifications for a changed state of affairs. One of the most prominent was that of John Locke. Locke argued that private property was created when humans mixed their labour with the land. Locke, in other words, provided a justification and legitimation for those who owned property. Locke also provided, if perhaps unintentionally, a justification and legitimation for those taking land from indigenous peoples all around the world on the basis of the argument that those they were taking land from, the aboriginals in various places who generally held communal notions of land, weren't using their land "productively", weren't, in other words, farming their land like Westerners. Locke's notions about the origins of private property, by the way, are inherently ahistorical because, as we know from archaeological studies of early humans and ethnographic studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers, the earliest form of human social organisation, the earliest humans had communal notions of land ownership even if this communalism was soon cross-cut by tribal notions of identity and territoriality.

By the way, what many libertarians forget is that the Locke on whom they draw whether consciously or unconsciously, also argued, in both religious and secular terms, that property, along with liberty and life, were "inalienable". Property, in other words, a property created by the labour of specific individuals, could not be transferred from one person to another since private property was created by the labour of specific individuals interacting with the land and who, as a result, could not alienate it. This, of course, would make the transfer of property, usually from the less wealthy to the more wealthy since the rise of "civilisation", a central component of mass capitalism, unacceptable. By the way, Karl Marx made a similar argument about the creation of property in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and Thomas Jefferson, of course, borrowed Locke's formulation enshrining it within the American "Declaration of Independence" in a somewhat changed trinitarian formulation: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Historical amnesia, of course, is not the monopoly of Messrs Kelley and Barnhart or of libertarians in general. It has become increasingly and especially prominent within a Republican Party that has changed dramatically since its origins. What was once called the radical right by historians and political scientists, has, since the rise to prominence of the Barry Goldwater wing of the Republican Party, increasingly become Republican mainstream. And unfortunately, such anti-empirical intellectualism has negative consequences whether it comes in the form of denying historical reality or denying the empirical reality of climate change all in the, if you dig deep enough into right wing polemics and apologetics, name of increasing the wealth and power of the one percent.

Theoretical and Methodological Note: There is a difference between is and ought, two things many libertarians confuse. There are and have been public lands. That is a descriptive, empirical, and historical fact. Whether there ought to be public lands is a different and more philosophical, theological, abstract, and normative issue that can be debated.

Full Disclosure Statement: Once upon a time I lived in the American Southwest, specifically Texas, and in the American West, specifically in Utah. In the 1990s I visited many of the national parks of the American and Canadian Rockies, most of the national monuments of the American West, and many of the state parks of the American and Canadian Wests. The American West, of course, is the area of the United States that has most benefited from American government welfare in the form of things like reservoirs, national parks and monuments, interstate highways, and military bases. All of these have brought people, jobs, and money into the US West helping to make it, in the process, a place where people can live and work. It has also helped make the American West one of the most urban regions of the United States. This makes it rather ironic that many in the West, an area largely made habitable because of American government actions, have imagined themselves as the standard bearers of that good old time American "religion" of I did it myself individualism. LOL.

A Dragnety Disclaimer: I am going to agree with Mr. Kelley on one thing, there is no such thing as a "public" cyberspace. This blog is thus not to be construed as something which is "public" since there is no such thing as a "public" at least according to Mr. Kelley.

Further Viewing:
For an excellent and interesting exploration of Enlightenment thought including that of Locke and the libertarians see Michael Sandmel's superb PBS television programme, Justice. Historical reality welcomely intrudes on Sandmel's Harvard course on occasion. Locke's thought, by the way, is at the heart of episode four.

For an exploration of what a true lone individualist would look and be like without social and cultural socialisation and enculturation (rather than the mythical ideological ones imagined by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes) see Fran├žois Truffaut's wonderful 1970 film L'enfant sauvage/The Wild Child, a film based on the real life story of Victor of Aveyron, The Wild Boy of Aveyron, in the early 19th century.

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