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September 2000
Volume 18, Number 9

Democracy's Shrine?
William Anderson

Mt. Rushmore is famous because 60 years ago, someone carved the faces of four dead presidents into its lofty Harney Peak granite cliffs. The mountain itself is located in the Black Hills, a somewhat obscure mountain range in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming that resembles the Southern Appalachians, which are located a couple of miles from my home. It is an inauspicious locale for this "Shrine to Democracy" that nicely illustrates what's right and wrong with our understanding of history.

While the Black Hills, with 18 peaks topping 7,000 feet, are lovely and even spectacular in places, if it were not for Mt. Rushmore, few people would ever visit the region. That would make one less government subsidized industry that helps keep this region afloat. In fact, the dirty little secret of this area is that if there should be a shrine carved out to anyone, it should be to those politicians and bureaucrats who have managed to transfer vast sums of taxpayer dollars to this part of the country just so people will live here. Two of those folks on Mt. Rushmore might be in that category, while the other two might not have been so supportive of these huge transfer schemes. 

As students once learned in history and geography classes (before government educators turned them into Maoist re-education camps), from 1927 to 1941, workmen blasted, jackhammered, and carved the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln into the sheer granite wall of Mt. Rushmore. Viewed from the National Park Service's commons about 500 feet below the summit of the 5,700-foot mountain, the sight is rather impressive. 

My first thought upon gazing upon this site was why anyone would mar perfectly good granite with the faces of Roosevelt and Lincoln. Although Washington and Jefferson committed their own grievous errors while serving as chief executive of the central government, their sins were nothing next to those executed by Theodore Roosevelt and Dishonest Abe. 

At least Washington and Jefferson somewhat understood the ideals under which the nation was founded. Roosevelt and Lincoln dedicated their presidencies to overturning those very ideals-and were wildly successful. At least the architect of the Mt. Rushmore memorial could have considered trading Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln for Grover Cleveland, perhaps the last US president who sincerely tried to adhere to the Constitution. 

Not to be outdone, the Park Service, which must have been taking a break from burning down large tracts of government-owned forests, has built an elaborate plaza so the millions of visitors can experience something akin to a worship experience of "our form of government." Actually, the feds have undermined themselves by including a huge exhibit of the flags of all 50 states, thereby doing violence to the argument that states should be administrative districts of the central government rather than sovereign political entities. Most likely, however, the exhibit's creators were not thinking that deeply. 

It should surprise no one that most of this project was funded under the New Deal, first by Herbert Hoover's administration, then by the presidency of Teddy's distant cousin Franklin. Nor should it be shocking that two of those faces on the cliff are those of presidents who did as much or more to empower the central government, Theodore Roosevelt and Abe. 

In fact, this entire region is a shrine to the central state. The US Forest Service owns most of the Black Hills, along with nearby Devil's Tower in Wyoming, a monolith of columns of igneous rock that rises more than 800 feet straight up from the nearby plains. 

Even the drive from Rapid City to Devil's Tower accentuates the role of the central government's schemes in remaking this region. We passed some herds of sheep grazing on the vast grasslands that characterize the area, and while it might have been picturesque, it was also a reminder that Uncle Sam is continually draining the contents of my wallet. The wool subsidy given to Wyoming sheep ranchers is one of the most ridiculous and wasteful of all of the government's agricultural schemes. 

Of course, who can comment on this part of the country without mentioning the original inhabitants, the American Indians? In the early 1870s, the government agreed to set aside the western half of North and South Dakota, along with lands in Wyoming and Montana, for the natives. However, after prospectors discovered gold in the Black Hills around 1875, whites streamed into the area, much to the chagrin of the Indians. At first, the federal government tried to enforce its original treaty, but soon after, decided that US soldiers were training their rifles on the wrong folks. The upshot was an Indian war made famous by the elimination of the brash George Custer and his troops at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Of course, the feds got the last word in 1890 with the infamous massacre of about 200 Indian women, children, and the elderly at Wounded Knee, which is just south of Rapid City. (The Clinton administration carried on that murderous tradition in 1993 with the largest domestic federal slaughter since Wounded Knee when it wiped out the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.) 

For all the federal subsidies of agriculture and tourism in the Black Hills region, however, all is not lost. The locals don't care much for Bill Clinton's gun control schemes, and the speed limits on the interstates are 75 miles an hour-which people (and state troopers) manage to ignore. Unfortunately, the once-heroic Indians are now relegated to nearby reservations where alcoholism, despair, and poverty are the norm. The natives who once lived off the buffalo now are showered with cradle-to-grave subsidies that make the reservations socialist entities that rival any portion of Washington, DC. Like our nation's capital, Indian reservations are well-known for violence and the short life spans of the inhabitants. 

Our sojourn back to Wisconsin took us to another part of the country, but also to another heavily subsidized region. The ubiquitous "cheeseheads" who populate Green Bay's Lambeau Field for Packers football games wear their headgear for good reason: Wisconsin's huge dairy industry is propped up by its thieving Uncle Sam. 

During the Great Depression, Roosevelt's minions came up with a bizarre scheme to price milk. Emulating base-point pricing for steel and wood products, government bureaucrats decided to formulate milk pricing upon the distance of its retail source from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Unlike steel and wood products, which actually involve real transportation costs from sites in the Northwest and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the dairy pricing mechanism is simply an excuse to force up the retail prices of milk products. 

Like the sheep ranchers in Wyoming and Montana, Wisconsin dairy farmers and their cohorts elsewhere in the USA find themselves gorging at the public trough. Teddy Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln, no doubt, would have given hearty approval. 

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William Anderson (anderwl@prodigy.net), a former Mises Institute scholarship student, teaches economics at North Greenville College.

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