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Volume 13, Number 10
My aunt in Massachusetts, who's never had much interest in politics, is now a land-rights activist. Bureaucrats hounded her for months, insisting that her small plot is a wetland "protected" under federal law, and demanding that she repent of the high crime of planting a garden on her own property. Now the swelling anti-government citizens' army has another soldier.
In the years since the greens gained prominence in government, the cause of property rights has become a genuine populist issue. The activists are not corporate lobbyists but average people who believe that they are being stripped of the right to use their property as they see fit. For the people harmed by environmental laws, the issue means war: us (the property-owning citizens) vs. them (the elites in environmental organizations and government).
In every region, hard knocks from the feds are pushing people into active resistance. The West, in particular, has been the site of a virtual state of war between citizens and federal regulators. The government claims ownership rights for itself that it refuses to grant to those who actually use the land. People in rural counties hadn't had to think much about the federal government. Now they know it and hate it.
When California Republican Congressman Richard Pombo held hearings earlier this year to discuss the effects of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on ordinary Westerners, he found a citizenry furious at the environmental police. Like landowners in 1776, these rebels are determined to resist further encroachments on the rights of property.
Freshman Republicans tend to sympathize with these victims of government regulations. Many of the freshmen entered public life for the purpose of curbing and repealing federal laws, and restoring some sense of privacy from government on the home and land. Beating back the greens wasn't in the trifling Contract with America, but it was central to many House elections.
The Republican leadership in both houses of Congress has a different view. These guys have been in Washington during the period when passage and enforcement of eco-regulations grew sharply. They voted for the legislation that caused the most conflict, but as beltway bandits, they have shielded themselves from the effects.
The result could be explosive. Chuck Cushman, national coordinator of the Grassroots ESA Coalition, has argued that "grassroots and property rights activists actually had more influence in the Senate when the Democrats were in control."
Can it be true? The ESA hearings of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works actively excluded testimony from landowners who have seen their property values reduced or zeroed out by regulations. "Not a single victim of the ESA was allowed to testify," said Cushman. "Out of 14 witnesses today on three different panels, not one of them has been personally harmed by the ESA's onerous land-use regulations."
The most fervent environmentalist among the Republican leadership turns out to be Newt Gingrich himself. At the final session of Pombo's Congressional hearings earlier this year, Gingrich appeared unsympathetic to the plight of those testifying. He even turned the tables on them by intoning: "there are enormous interests that we have as human beings in maintaining biological diversity."
In a familiar routine, Gingrich thus thwarted a worthy effort by freshmen, many of whom still believed that a "Republican Revolution" should include an honest effort to restore land rights and shrink Leviathan. At the very minimum, it was supposed to unseat the eco-crazies that Clinton had elevated to top posts.
Gingrich repeated his performance this summer when he opposed Republican efforts to eliminate the functions of the National Biological Survey (NBS). To its proponents, the program is a non-partisan exercise in species identification and classification. But we know that government never gathers statistics without a reason. The program's scope is unprecedented, and its upshot could easily be a tripling of the number of species on the endangered list. It's anyone's guess as to how many more millions of acres the federal government will thereby be able to grab.
The Speaker is not shedding any tears for the victims of the NBS. Gingrich, whose boyhood dream was to be a zookeeper, has been described by left-wing Harvard ant expert E.O. Wilson as "intensely interested in animals." According to U.S. News & World Report, Gingrich has held informal meetings with prominent green scientists for months, including entomologist Thomas Eisner and Marxist paleontologist Steven Jay Gould, but no meetings with land rights groups.
The Speaker's green side, incidentally, is nothing new. Last year, he co-sponsored a measure by Rep. Gerry Studds (D-MA) that would double spending on endangered species and give additional powers to environmental regulators. In the past, Gingrich's support for environmental measures has ranged from the 1979 Alaska Lands Bill, which closed off 68 million acres, to the Clean Air Act of 1990, whose cost has been estimated at over $40 billion annually.
There's no real private property in Washington, D.C., and its residents are the biggest enemies of property rights, rivaling even the vandals and looters in a New York blackout. It takes guts for any member of Congress to stand up to this green establishment. Even when their own constituents are calling, it's easier for the leaders to go along with Washington's status quo, however tyrannical it may be.
But they should remember--and the freshmen should continue to remind them--what they are there to do. They are not supposed to side with the Beltway establishment; they are supposed to oppose it and dismantle it. Truth is, what's good for landowners is good for the country at large. To paraphrase a remark attributed to Mises, government is the only entity that can take over a perfectly good piece of land and render it totally useless.
They should also remember that people like my aunt have far more loyalty to their land than to any particular political party, much less the present leadership of Congress.
Thomas E. Woods, a summer fellow of the Mises Institute, is a doctoral candidate in History at Columbia University