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Why the Feds (Still) Own so Much of the Country by Steve H. Hanke

The recent “occupation” of government-owned lands in Eastern Oregon by disgruntled ranchers’ motivated Quoctrung Bui and Margot Sanger-Katz of the New York Times to produce an edifying essay on January 6th. It was aptly titled “Why the Government Owns So Much Land in the West.” Curiously, the NYT essay fails to mention one of the most significant, recent, and contentious attempts to “dispose” of federal public lands.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president for his first term in 1980, he received strong support from the so-called Sagebrush Rebels. The Rebels wanted lands owned by the federal government to be transferred to state governments. Their champion was James Watt, a self-proclaimed Sagebrush Rebel who became the Secretary of the Interior.

When I was operating as one of President Reagan’s economic advisers, an early assignment was to analyze the federal government’s landholdings and make recommendations about what to do with them. This was a big job. These lands are vast, covering an area six times that of France.

These public lands represent a huge socialist anomaly in America’s capitalist system. As is the case with all socialist enterprises, they are mismanaged by politicians and bureaucrats dancing to the tunes of narrow interest groups. Indeed, the U.S. nationalized lands represent assets that are worth trillions of dollars, yet they generate negative net cash flows for the government.

I first presented my findings and recommendations publically at the annual Public Lands Council meeting of September 1981 in Reno, Nevada. The title of my speech was “Privatize Those Lands” — privatize being a word Mrs. Hanke, a Parisian, had imported from France.

My Reno speech caused a stir. James Watt, the Secretary of the Interior, was furious because he wanted to hand over the lands to the state governments — exchanging one form of socialism for another. Needless to say, I thought I was in deep trouble. Hoping to avoid political immolation, I rapidly sent my analysis to the President.

Reagan instantly responded, taking my side. Better yet, he swiftly made my proposals the Administration’s policy. The president endorsed privatizing federal lands in his budget message for the 1983 fiscal year:

Some of this property is not in use and would be of greater value to society if transferred to the private sector. In the next three years we would save $9 billion by shedding these unnecessary properties while fully protecting and preserving our national parks, forests, wilderness and scenic areas.

reagan in his own hand book coverIt turned out that Reagan had already thought about this issue. The book Reagan, In His Own Hand (2001) makes that clear. This volume contains 259 essays Reagan wrote in his own hand, mainly scripts for his five minute, five-day-a-week syndicated radio broadcasts in the late 1970s. Reagan, In His Own Hand contains several essays on the subject that clearly foreshadowed his policy statement on privatizing public lands. His 1970s musings on public lands echo the writings of Adam Smith. While Reagan never cited Smith, he employed similar reasoning.

Indeed, Smith concluded in The Wealth of Nations (1776) that “no two characters seem more inconsistent than those of the trader and the sovereign,” as people are more prodigal with the wealth of others than with their own. In that vein, Smith estimated that lands owned by the state were only about 25% as productive as comparable private holdings. Smith believed Europe’s great tracts of crown lands to be “a mere waste and loss of country in respect both of produce and population.”

Unfortunately, political opposition — largely from ill-informed environmentalists and some Sagebrush Rebels, too — stopped Reagan from privatizing. U.S. nationalized lands remain ill-used and a constant source of dispute.

This post fist appeared at Cato.org.

Steve H. Hanke

Westerners join Iraqi Christian militia to fight Islamic State

These individuals are doing what the governments of the post-Christian West have shown no interest in doing: protecting the Christians persecuted by the Islamic State. But since they self-identify as Christian, watch for them to be vilified and demonized by the mainstream media, and held up as the equivalent of the Islamic State: Christians committing violence in the name of their religion on one side, and Muslims committing violence in the name of their religion on the other. That these men have gone there to prevent atrocities rather than commit them will be glossed over and ignored.

“Westerners join Iraqi Christian militia to fight Islamic State,” by Isabel Coles, Reuters, February 15, 2015:

(Reuters) – Saint Michael, the archangel of battle, is tattooed across the back of a U.S. army veteran who recently returned to Iraq and joined a Christian militia fighting Islamic State in what he sees as a biblical war between good and evil.

Brett, 28, carries the same thumb-worn pocket Bible he did whilst deployed to Iraq in 2006 – a picture of the Virgin Mary tucked inside its pages and his favorite verses highlighted.

“It’s very different,” he said, asked how the experiences compared. “Here I’m fighting for a people and for a faith, and the enemy is much bigger and more brutal.”

Thousands of foreigners have flocked to Iraq and Syria in the past two years, mostly to join Islamic State, but a handful of idealistic Westerners are enlisting as well, citing frustration their governments are not doing more to combat the ultra-radical Islamists or prevent the suffering of innocents.

The militia they joined is called Dwekh Nawsha – meaning self-sacrifice in the ancient Aramaic language spoken by Christ and still used by Assyrian Christians, who consider themselves the indigenous people of Iraq.

A map on the wall in the office of the Assyrian political party affiliated with Dwekh Nawsha marks the Christian towns in northern Iraq, fanning out around the city of Mosul.

The majority are now under control of Islamic State, which overran Mosul last summer and issued am ultimatum to Christians: pay a tax, convert to Islam, or die by the sword. Most fled.

Dwekh Nawsha operates alongside Kurdish peshmerga forces to protect Christian villages on the frontline in Nineveh province.

“These are some of the only towns in Nineveh where church bells ring. In every other town the bells have gone silent, and that’s unacceptable,” said Brett, who has “The King of Nineveh” written in Arabic on the front of his army vest….

Tim shut down his construction business in Britain last year, sold his house and bought two plane tickets to Iraq: one for himself and another for a 44-year-old American software engineer he met through the internet.

The men joined up at Dubai airport, flew to the Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah and took a taxi to Duhok, where they arrived last week.

“I’m here to make a difference and hopefully put a stop to some atrocities,” said 38-year-old Tim, who previously worked in the prison service. “I’m just an average guy from England really.”…

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