New Sherwood

The Orland Project, or Why I’m Not a Libertarian

Yesterday I attended, with my oldest son, an event commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Orland Irrigation Project. The Orland Project was the joint effort of local water associations and the United States government – a project which, quite literally, made civilization possible in this part of the state. The coordination of men, money, and resources for this task was a massive undertaking. As one of the speakers pointed out, if a project on this scale were proposed today “the moon would crash into the earth before the environmental permitting process was completed”.

The Orland Project would have been impossible without the help of the United States government. We can thank one of those federal agencies that is probably “not authorized under a strict interpretation of the Constitution”. I’m not a constitutional scholar, but if the Department of the Interior or the Bureau of Reclamation is not authorized by the Constitution, then I say we need to rewrite the Constitution. That is, presuming the United States has a future as a nation. Maybe it’s best in our day that we revert to the Articles of Confederation, in which case agencies of state and local governments can serve the same purpose – but that’s a different argument altogether.

The point is that libertarianism, aside from being totally unrealistic today, is a deeply flawed ideal. Government can accomplish much that is good beyond civil defense and enforcement of contracts. Taxation is not “legalized theft”. There’s nothing wrong, in principle, with government aid to the poor. There’s nothing wrong, in principle, with government regulation of trade and commerce. Etc. It is true that government today is much too big and overreaching, and has become in many cases a force of destruction and petty tyranny. I’m all for reducing the scope of government and returning to Catholic principles of subsidiarity. Ron Paul will get my vote because he’s the only candidate who is serious about moving in that direction. But still, it is hard to muster enthusiasm for a campaign that is essentially libertarian in principle.

Back to the Orland Project … as a refugee from the big city, I’m always impressed by what Orlanders are able to get away with. The political incorrectness is refreshing and totally without guile. By without guile, I mean that it isn’t a conscious ideological reaction against anything – it’s just the way things are. To give one example: all the speakers were men, and 95% of those in attendance were men. Except for the ladies who served the food. In the big city, the feminist bureaucrats in charge of orchestrating such an event would go to the ends of the earth to avoid such a naked display of patriarchy.

In 1906, a song was composed by John A. Apperson of Willows to inspire local settlers to petition the federal government. “Sign It Every Man” was re-printed in the books we received:


Come all ye Water Users from Old Shasta to the Bay –
All who wish to aid the country and make our farming pay;
Let’s band ourselves together and call on Uncle Sam
To help us build our ditches and a water-holding dam.
Now boys, let’s all take water, we will share a better fate
Than filling up on boo-zy rum and coming home so late;
We will flood this glorious country with water cold and pure;
Why then there’ll be no failures – the crops will all be sure.

Sign it, sign it, every man
Oh sign our big petition to send to Uncle Sam,
And he will give us water to put upon our land;
We’ll all be gay and happy when he grants our just demand!

Let’s be a band of brothers to boost our cause along –
And that’s why I stand before you to sing this urgent song
Invade the halls of Congress and urge law-making men,
Lay stress upon our story and tell them we’re from Glenn,
Where soil is rich and fertile, for we’re sure, it can’t be beat,
Where nature’s golden treasures are now laying at our feet,
And where fruits from every Nation grow thrifty in our land
We only need the water and labor’s sturdy hand.

Sign it, sign it, every man
Oh sign our big petition to send to Uncle Sam,
And he will give us water to put upon our land;
We’ll all be gay and happy when he grants our just demand!

Oh, come to dear old Orland, where doth the orange grow,
And where fields of fine alfalfa are ready for the mow
Where pretty girls and mothers plant flowers all year ’round
Where roses and verbenias can every day be found;
Wake up, kind Water Users, it is up to you for choice;
Work hard for irrigation, oh, hear our pleading voice!
Let us dam up creeks and rivers, for dams, forever pray –
We’ll have a flood of water on our lands some sweet old day.

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October 7, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

14 Comments »

  1. Dear Jeff,

    I’m happy to hear that Dr. Paul will get your vote. I’m reminded of what Thomas Fleming said of Murray Rothbard:

    We struck a bargain from the beginning: Although I believe that the commonwealth is a natural and necessary part of human social life, I nevertheless agreed with Murray that about 90 percent of what modern states do is evil and destructive. “When we get to the last ten percent”, I said, “it will be time for us to quarrel.” The offer stands open to any libertarian who wants to work with us for the common good (if that phrase is not too “socialistic”).

    (I agree with you that a return to the Articles of Confederation could be a good idea.)

    I’m afraid that when I hear of the Orland Project, I can’t help but be reminded of the thesis of a book published fifty years ago under the politically incorrect title Oriental Despotism. The book suggested that the large-scale irrigation projects in the civilizations of Egpyt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and Mesoamerica led to highly cenrtralized, collectivist, and bureaucratic states, in contrast to the liberty and subsidiarity we know in the West.

    (I can see this contrast in my Korean students; whenever I raise any social issue in class, the response invariably begins, “The government must…”)

    There are more immediate reasons to oppose other such projects. Ralph Nader recently pointed out that nuclear power plants are always government projects because no insurance company would every give them coverage; the potential for damage is just too large. Bill Kauffman has written about the destruction to community and “rootedness” brought about by Eisenhower’s National Defense Highway System.

    But, as Dr. Fleming said, let’s wait till we get the State down to ten percent of it’s current size to work these things out!

    Pax,
    Joshua

    Like

    Comment by The Western Confucian | October 8, 2007 | Reply

  2. In principle, a state government would have been just as capable of building a dam. A private organization could have done so as well. In the late 1800’s farmers in Sequim, WA got together and built their own irrigation system on the Dungeness river.

    I agree that it takes a government regulation to make sure the dam is safe and isn’t going to kill everyone downstream. I’d even vote for having the state government own the dam. Privately owned dams can be a very bad idea. Ask the folks in Johnstown, PA about that. They’ve had privately owned dams burst and flood the town twice.

    There’s no particular reason the federal government should build and own the dam. Having such a system in place turns irrigation and bridge projects into party favors, handed out to curry favor rather than being built where they make sense.

    Like

    Comment by Danby | October 8, 2007 | Reply

  3. I am a Catholic and more paleo conservative than libertarian (which I used to say of myself). But they still make several tremendous points. First, in regards to the safery issues of the dam, I just happened to see a CSPAN talk where Ron Paul was asked about nuclear plants. Here was his basic response – do you want the people who brought you the New Orleans Hurrican Katrina disaster running the safety of the nuclear plants. The same argument used against national healthcare – all the efficiency of post office with the compassion of the military.

    But second, the other argument that the libertarians make is for the forgotten man. Sure, this dam helped the farmers and folks in this area. But because this project was created from the federal government with its millions of ways of taxing people, what about the 10,000 small businesses who didn’t get loans to add a small new addition on to their business which would have employed one more person in 10,000 small towns scattered across the country?

    It’s wonderful to behold the creation, but what do we tell those smaller, more local businesses when they actually would have helped their neighbor to make a living and support a family in that local community?

    Tim

    Like

    Comment by Tim H | October 9, 2007 | Reply

  4. Hello Joshua,

    Thanks for the intelligent comments, as always. I do have a problem with Dr. Fleming’s bargain. I agree that there is a possibility of tactical alliances on certain issues, but I do not think that libertarians and conservatives (especially Catholics) can share the same movement. They really do speak different languages, and language matters. It matters whether a goal is advanced, and minds persuaded, on libertarian principles or Christian principles. Libertarian thinking lacks a solid moral basis for evaluating the actions of government: the so-called “harm principle” is not enough, because there is nothing in libertarianism by which one can determine what is harmful and what isn’t. Conservatism, at least, encourages people to defer to their own religious traditions in such matters. Furthermore, beyond the idea of “do no harm”, the Catholic tradition lends unequivocal support to the idea of government doing good, and determining the good through religious authority. That’s too easy to forget when one thinks like a libertarian.

    Like

    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | October 9, 2007 | Reply

  5. Danby, you wrote:

    “In principle, a state government would have been just as capable of building a dam. A private organization could have done so as well … There’s no particular reason the federal government should build and own the dam.”

    I don’t agree. The state of California was fairly new in 1907 and either didn’t have the money or had bigger fish to fry. There were private associations developing small scale irrigation projects, but that still left the region without water for 3-4 months every summer. Private investors would not have taken the risk.

    Eventually, the project may have been done by the state or a private entity – but waiting for this might have set civilization back 100 years. The Orland Project is an example of a large government project that did much good and very little harm. Many lives were helped by it then, and we continue to benefit today. It is impossible to live here and to wish the Orland Project didn’t happen when it did.

    “Having such a system in place turns irrigation and bridge projects into party favors, handed out to curry favor rather than being built where they make sense.”

    Granted, there is a danger there. But I don’t regard this danger as a legitimate reason for doing nothing.

    Like

    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | October 9, 2007 | Reply

  6. Tim H, welcome. You wrote:

    “First, in regards to the safety issues of the dam, I just happened to see a CSPAN talk where Ron Paul was asked about nuclear plants. Here was his basic response – do you want the people who brought you the New Orleans Hurricane Katrina disaster running the safety of the nuclear plants. The same argument used against national healthcare – all the efficiency of post office with the compassion of the military.”

    I don’t buy this argument at all. There is nothing wrong, in principle, with the government operating a nuclear power plant (except that maybe nuclear power itself is a bad idea). The profit motive doesn’t automatically make one a better guardian of public safety – in some cases, the reverse is true.

    As for the response to Hurricane Katrina, the blunders don’t prove anything about “government” per se, just the actors involved and perhaps the system itself.

    National healthcare is a horrible idea for reasons of subsidiarity (among others), not because “government” is by definition the Boogey-Man.

    I find the Post Office to be plenty efficient and don’t know why libertarians are always beating up on it. For a short time, in college, I worked for UPS – a private competitor of the USPS. I watched packages routinely fall off the conveyors where they were ignored and lost for days.

    “But second, the other argument that the libertarians make is for the forgotten man. Sure, this dam helped the farmers and folks in this area. But because this project was created from the federal government with its millions of ways of taxing people, what about the 10,000 small businesses who didn’t get loans to add a small new addition on to their business which would have employed one more person in 10,000 small towns scattered across the country?”

    Sure, there’s a trade off somewhere. There will be times when government gets its priorities backwards. Best to be careful about that. But once again, that’s no argument for the government doing nothing.

    “It’s wonderful to behold the creation, but what do we tell those smaller, more local businesses when they actually would have helped their neighbor to make a living and support a family in that local community?”

    We tell them thanks. “Thanks for doing your part to help your neighbors and advance the cause of civilization in California.” And then we offer them cheap, irrigated land in Glenn County and a wonderful place to make a good living. Then we ask those who stay behind how they like the California oranges, olives, almonds, walnuts, beef, and cheese they are now enjoying. Besides, chances are the fiscal impact on any one individual who was taxed for this project was negligible.

    Like

    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | October 9, 2007 | Reply

  7. Hi Jeff, thanks for your kind response. I believe that libertarianism has severe weaknesses at least one of which you write about in response #4 above. But I do think it a very powerful explanatory model for much of what we see government doing. Essentially a government not run with virtue will be the perfect display of what the libertarians argue against and their arguments to my mind carry the day against that kind of government. But in a sense they are arguing against a straw man. Who argues for a government without virtous men running it?

    On the other topic, I think you may be a little too casual about that which is lost when government far away from the local community develops one of these massive projects. I am very leary of taking from Peter to give to Paul when they are both fine fellows trying to do the best they can. And I know for certain that life as a small businessman is often fierce and worrisome. Moreover, the creation of these large scale projects by government often does create an appetite for them for both the government and the benefiting parties. Now, why would we want to create tremendous incentive to go and lobby government? Surely you see the tremendous pressures upon legislators this creates.

    And, yes the folks in Wyoming surely do appreciate having a tomato or two in mid January, but is is worth loss of one or two of their own local business owners who were on the verge of making it or going bust when this tax came along to pay for this dam?

    On a completely separate note, I really enjoy your website and am very glad you have been able to run a small farm. I visit this site and the yeoman farmer quite often to see how it looks and have visited the yeoman farmer place personally. Someday I hope to make it happen too, but it will take much prayer and God’s grace to see that day.

    Tim

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    Comment by Tim H | October 10, 2007 | Reply

  8. I have some questions maybe you can answer, Jeff.

    First, as a 36-year member of the water project, my dad has always told me that the project was built first and foremost for flood control, and that irrigation was a favorable by-product of the system.

    Second, the irrigation water does not come from Black Butte Reservoir (although it comes through it) but from Stony Gorge Dam, to the south of BBR. BBR — correct me if I’m wrong, if you know — was actually built with funds by southern cities (which? I dunno) and, as such, they own that water. We benefit from the flood control, but don’t get a drop of the water. Thoughts?

    Laurie

    Like

    Comment by Laurie LaGrone | October 10, 2007 | Reply

  9. Tim: Well, once again, I don’t see it as “robbing Peter to pay Paul”, since Peter and Paul are (or should be) essentially on the same team. Such projects benefit some more than others, but more importantly, they benefit the common good. Anyway, thanks for your comments and perspective.

    Laurie: Your dad may be right – I would certainly take his word over mine – but according to the speakers at Friday’s celebration irrigation was a very prominent goal from the beginning. The song “Sign It Every Man” was composed in 1906. The Orland Project does not include BBR: that’s why the photo in the post is a photo of Stony Gorge! I don’t know much about BBR, how it was funded, or where the water goes. If you find out from your dad, let me know at tomorrow’s meeting. :-)

    Like

    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | October 10, 2007 | Reply

  10. See you there!

    Like

    Comment by Laurie LaGrone | October 10, 2007 | Reply

  11. Super! I’ll bring you some kittens …

    Like

    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | October 10, 2007 | Reply

  12. Jeff, this is the primary reason I support Dr. Paul as well. He is the closest thing to a distributist candidate we’ll have in a long time, esp. considering the idea that things shold be done as locally as possible.

    I don’t agree with him 100%. I have qualms with the libertarian worship of the free market and what I think is a immigration policy out of confluence with his stance on foreign policy. But, compared to all the others, he’s my horse in the race.

    Like

    Comment by Tracy Fennell | October 10, 2007 | Reply

  13. No harm done? Not to you and your tribe perhaps. How about all the truck farmers around the country that have gone out of business thanks to cheap produce grown with subsidised water from federal irrigation projects in California? The tax argument is kind of nebulous, but really, thousands of small truck farmers throughout the midwest and northeast simply could not compete with the cheap produce coming from the Central Valley. The were driven out of business in the 50s and 60s, and taxed to pay for the privilege.

    That said, in the interest of honesty, I have to say that I actually have no objection to water projects. They were necessary for the development of the West and have undoubtedly returned more in taxes than they cost to build.

    As far as Libertarianism, I would be more attracted to their ideas if I didn’t know any Libertarians. My ex-sister-in-law is one of the movers and shakers in LP politics up here in Washington, and based on her behavior and that of her friends, Libertarians are a bunch of self-indulgent children with an entirely undeserved attitude of intellectual superiority.

    And their “political philosophy” is puerile, self-centered and intellectually shallow. It consists entirely of ‘How does this affect me?’ and ‘How dare you say I cant a) smoke dope; b) be promiscuous; c) abuse all and sundry?’ rather than ‘What is the best thing to do?’

    Like

    Comment by Danby | October 10, 2007 | Reply

  14. “On a completely separate note, I really enjoy your website and am very glad you have been able to run a small farm. I visit this site and the yeoman farmer quite often to see how it looks and have visited the yeoman farmer place personally. Someday I hope to make it happen too, but it will take much prayer and God’s grace to see that day.”

    Tim, I forgot to respond to this. You’ve been to TYF’s farm? That must have been a treat. I’d travel quite a ways to do the same … but not quite to Illinois! Anyway, I don’t really “run a small farm”. TYF has a real farm. We have a homestead that produces maybe 5% of what we eat, at the very most. (It’ll be different next year with a steer in the freezer!) It’s a good life and I hope you will get there someday. Prayers and patience.

    Like

    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | October 12, 2007 | Reply


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