Fee-Demo and the Economic Taliban

by Richard W. Behan

Richard W. Behan is the author of Plundered Promise: Capitalism, Politics, and the Fate of the Federal Lands, published by Island Press, 2001. ISBN 1-55963-848-6. For information about the book, go to www.rockisland.com/~rwbehan/

Fee-Demo is the greatest threat to the federal lands since the breathtaking proposals in the Reagan years to sell off the entire public estate, and there is a direct connection between the two. The architects and many of the current advocates of Fee-Demo are the same people who wanted to privatize the federal lands back then. Fee-Demo is simply the latest (and clever, as we will see) incarnation of the urge to bring an end to public land ownership.

The champions of Fee-Demo are part of what might be called an Economic Taliban, a fanatic sect of unbending believers in the superiority of "free markets" to conduct and harmonize the affairs of society. Fee-Demo is best seen as part of a great religious pilgrimage to a time and place where the Holy Market triumphs over Tyrannical Government. Known a bit more formally as "neoliberalism," the rhetoric includes death to the infidel. Grover Norquist, described as the "field marshall" of the Bush Adminstration tax-cut, said this: "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

The Economic Taliban was willed into being, and its own Jihad has come close to success. But I believe we will see, in the fairly near future, the Enron Corporation doing them in.

In the 1960's 12 arch-conservative philanthropic foundations undertook a deliberate, thoughtful, well-orchestrated and richly financed campaign to shift public policy sharply to the right. They did so by funding the research, writing, and publicity of "market solutions." They achieved what one political scientist described as a "hegemony of market theology," and in two decades they witnessed an international political spectacle: Michael Mulroney in Canada, Margaret Thatcher in the U.K., and Ronald Reagan in the White House espousing that theology simultaneously. The Economic Taliban was now empowered, and decades of progressive public policy were confronted, jeopardized, attacked, and destroyed. Fee-Demo is a piece of this.

One of the initiating foundations, the John M. Olin Foundation, has sent a great deal of money to Bozeman, Montana. There, the Political Economy Research Center ("PERC") and the Foundation for Research in Economics and the Environment ("FREE," a far catchier acronym) have been in the vortex of the federal lands privatization movement. The ideological base for Fee-Demo was developed and campaigned from these sources.

One of the associates at PERC, Richard Stroup, was the Director of the Office of Policy Analysis for James Watt's Department of the Interior, in the heyday of privatization proposals. P. Lynn Scarlett, who serves now as Gale Norton's Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget, has been a senior fellow at FREE. And Terry Anderson, the executive director of PERC, advises the Bush Administration on the "charter forest" issue. PERC and FREE are nothing if not well connected to the Republican right wing.

They can't be faulted for lack of candor. Anderson co-authored in 1999 a paper entitled "How and Why to Privatize Federal Lands," published by the Cato Institute. Because the federal lands agencies-the Park Service, Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management-generate less in receipts than they receive in appropriations, they lose money. Therefore the lands should be privatized, to let the markets correct this deficiency. The childlike simplicity of the argument calls more for patience and pity than outrage, but the strategic objective is clear: do away with public land ownership. Donald Leal of PERC is perhaps more patient. He also believes national parks should be put into market settings to make money, but suggests reducing appropriations for the parks gradually, over a ten year period, "until they reach zero." His ideal is a park dedicated totally and explicitly to commerce.

The Foundation for Research in Economics and the Environment applies its Olin Foundation money to different purposes. Not policy advocacy, but the dissemination of free market ideology is what FREE does best. It seeks new recruits to the Economic Taliban, but only influential ones, those with leverage. FREE finds many willing and happy volunteers among federal judges. Offering week-long seminars on such topics as "Environmental Economics and Policy Analysis," FREE spreads the neoliberal gospel. The seminars are held at lush resorts near Bozeman, and among the lecturers are Randal O'Toole, the ideological father of Fee-Demo, and P. Lynn Scarlett. The afternoons are open for golf or fishing, until cocktail hour, dinner, and a final dose of market theology from a hand-picked speaker. FREE pays all the expenses for the judges and their wives, and the Olin Foundation pays FREE.

The Economic Taliban relies on an obsolete, trite, simplistic dichotomy between market solutions and government, or "command and control" solutions. People can be "free" only in markets; they are tyrannized by governments, they argue. That was true, perhaps, at the time of the American Revolution, but much has happened since, notably the rise to economic and political dominance of the modern corporation. Nowhere does corporate power enter the calculus of the market theology, however.

Corporate dominance was starkly evident in the Reagan years. The federal lands were stripped of immense public wealth in the form of timber, oil and gas, forage, and water resources by large national or transnational resource-extracting corporations, and almost without exception their plunder was subsidized with public funds. The rampage was in-your-face noisy and visible, and it provoked a rapid expansion in the number and strength of opposing environmental organizations. The Sierra Club never had a better recruiter than James Watt, but the federal lands suffered grave physical damage. The American people at large were left to witness the ecologic and economic ruin of their lands, and left to bear the associated direct and social costs, as well.

The federal lands became and remain a net public liability. Largely gone are the commodity-value resources-the timber, forage, water, minerals, oil and gas stripped in the Reagan onslaught. But one resource is left: the recreational and amenity values of the federal lands. And now corporate interests, again national and transnational, and fronted by the American Recreation Coalition, have their eyes on those. Fee-Demo serves them up for the same fate: corporate pillage.

The strategy of the Economic Taliban remains unchanged. Public ownership must end, to defer to the pure and soaring majesty of the market. But the tactics have changed since the Reagan years. If overt and boisterous privatization provokes political opposition, try subtlety instead. Cite the chronic under funding of federal recreation programs (all the while cutting taxes to guarantee it). Cite the advantages of public/private cooperation and "partnerships." And then design Fee-Demo to resolve the problem and exploit the opportunity. Then, over a period of 10 years, wind the public funding down to zero and there you have it. The tub-sized government drowns, and the market can reign unchallenged. Clever, very clever.

It won't succeed. The ideology of the Economic Taliban-deregulation, privatization, and the glory of free markets-is both na´ve and fraudulent. I have written a book making just this case, and it is only one book among many others. The literature critical of the "hegemony of market theology," however, has not been featured on the evening newscasts.

But the collapse of the Enron Corporation has, and so have the cascading linkages of corporate greed, corruption, dishonesty, and purchasing of political influence. The disastrous realities of "market solutions" are front page news.

When all the Congressional hearings are concluded and the reports filed, when the lawsuits are settled, when the exposÚ's have been written and the movies produced about the details and dimensions of this economic, political, and social disaster, then we will see two things.

We will see how the modern corporation, immortal in time and unlimited in size, has made "free markets" an oxymoron and "democratic politics" a tragic illusion. And we will see how urgently we need to reclaim and rebuild a healthy, vigorous, truly democratic public life.

Suppose we could persuade our Congress to let Fee-Demo expire, quietly and humanely. That would be an exemplary beginning.


This document was prepared by Wild Wilderness. To learn more about ongoing industry-backed congressional efforts to motorize, commercialize, and privatize America's public lands, contact:

Scott Silver, Executive Director,
Wild Wilderness
248 NW Wilmington Avenue,  Bend  OR 97701
Phone (541) 385-5261    E-mail: ssilver@wildwilderness.org