Faith and Freedom Foundation

Beware feds bearing gifts!

By Alan Keyes

August 4th, 2001

The dispute over whether to release water from Klamath Lake for use on farms in the region, or to reserve it for the sake of several species of fish, is fertile ground for recalling several points of practical principle crucial to the prosperity of a free people. Above all, the stand-off should direct our attention to the question of what kind of decisions government is competent to make, and what kind of decisions a free people must make for themselves and how they must make them.

Fred Smith, President of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has written a brief account of the lessons to be learned from the Klamath dispute, available at the Declaration Foundation website. Arguing not so much for or against the claims of the farmers, as against the absurdity of government pretension to settle such disputes wisely, Smith invites us to see how different would be our situation if our government hadn't acquired the nasty habit of pursuing our happiness for us.

The farmers who have watched their crops wither and die over the past three months would not be in the Klamath area at all if the federal government had not developed the lake decades ago. At the time, government priorities in the development and care of natural resources inclined toward projects that would enable economic development and commerce. As Smith points out, "[s]uch politically-influenced development created its own set of expectations, cultural norms, and usage rights. In Klamath Lake, for example, farmers acquired rights to use the water."

And they acquired as well, as recent events have demonstrated, a vulnerability to the political authority that retained ultimate control over that water. In a situation similar in key aspects to serfdom in the old Europe, the farmers have based their livelihood for generations on what looked like a property right in the water they were using, but was, in fact, simply the longstanding indulgence of a higher power in that use. Now that indulgence is gone, the victim of a new "progressive" spirit that sees economic development as evil, and species preservation as good. The lord of the land, it turns out, has an heir with different plans for his land, and the tenants are going to have to get used to the fact that they never really owned the land after all.

In Klamath, this means that the farmers are suddenly realizing that the purpose of government-owned economic projects is whatever the government says it is. For farmers who have built their economic lives, perhaps even for generations, on the availability of government-provided water, this means that success depends not on their own economic judgment, or on their skill in accomplishing the tasks of farming, but on a political judgment in which they have little voice. This dependence can slumber for decades, as it has in Klamath. But it is a real dependence, and one that works evil even during the peaceful years before the rude awakening of a change in government water policy. Apparently permanent government priorities seem to make citizen deliberations about the future unnecessary. Collectivist economic policy threatens to make economic imbeciles of even the smartest citizens, because the hard work of anticipating the future course of events is, quite literally, not worth the time, at least until a change in policy suddenly looms.

In the measure that government policy has artificially determined the economic landscape, including the implicit promise that it will maintain that landscape into the future, the economic inhabitants of that landscape are freed from the task of its maintenance themselves. Shifting values of the components of that landscape, in this case, the new value assigned to the natural species also using the water, are hidden from view unless and until they take the form of political constituencies vigorous enough to alter the form of government policy.

When shifts in value become pronounced enough, the political process is eventually captured by proponents of the new scheme in this case, by what Smith calls the "pessimistic progressives" who value environmental uses of Klamath water far above the economic interests of the farmers. A sudden change in government policy imposes the new relative worth by diktat on a population which had been led to believe that the high value of its activity was permanent and protected.

As Smith points out, there is a cure to this artificial and stupefying sequence of economic stability interrupted by violent disruptions of economic value. The cure is for government to cease preventing the establishment of true, rather than apparent, property rights in the economic goods on which citizen livelihood depends. In the case of Klamath water, for example, farmer possession of property rights would have signaled long ago the increased value in non-agricultural uses of the lake's water. The disagreement about whether a given portion of the water was best used for farming or for fish habitat would have been resolved through the exchange by sale of water rights for different purposes. The judgment that a superior value was placed on water for fish would not have manifested itself in the sudden worthlessness of a parched field, and the consequent rage and ruin of the farmer. Rather, the rising price of water, and the continuous choice between selling it to those who were bidding it up or keeping it for farming, would have constituted a flexible and fluid, intelligent, ongoing deliberation among free citizens regarding the value of the resource, and its corresponding rational allocation.

Our founders understood that government has essential tasks, and has as well a tendency to undertake additional tasks that it shouldn't. They knew that, except in cases bearing on a truly national interest, particular deliberation about the distribution and use of material resources was emphatically not something that the national government should, or could, accomplish and that the attempt would render the government tyrannical and the people servile. They knew as well that citizen responsibility for making such judgments in the context of rule of law, sanctity of contracts and freedom of exchange was a crucial component of republican virtue, self-mastery, self-government and the building of national wealth.

Jostling for the government's ear like a pair of courtiers, the farmers and the environmentalists involved in the Klamath water dispute can serve as an emblem of enforced servility to government power. Without property rights, there will be winners and losers, but there will be no liberty and no true citizen participation in the deliberations that shape our economic future. Klamath gives us a glimpse of the raw government power behind apparently benign government "development," and a reminder of how that power can lurk beneath what we have grown accustomed to think of as the firm ground of our freedom. It should set us to wonder how much of our own economic landscape the government may be pleased to shift with little warning, and leaving us little recourse. It would be a good thing if this free people recovered the spirit of our ancestors, recalled what it means to own property and take responsibility for it, and learned again to beware feds bearing gifts.

Originally published at WorldNetDaily.