Within a few weeks of moving to Wallowa County in 1971 I knew most of the year-round Forest Service employees by first name — Roy, Art, Sander, Bob, Bud, Gary. Some had grown up here; others had been here for years and considered the place home. As I met ranchers, farmers and others I learned that many of them had put in time on the local forest. They’d built a road or trail, or been hauled out of a car on the highway to fight a fire. I don’t remember one of them complaining about those government hours. Many expressed pride in what they’d done, and a few specifically recalled the financial help that building that trail had meant in their young lives. The Forest Service and the public forests were part of the landscape we entered.
Where has it all gone? The dissension across the country and hatred and distrust of all government is numbing, and the growing talk in the West of giving federal lands to local jurisdictions is troubling. These forest lands, mostly rough, dry and/or steep, had not been homesteaded and were brought into the federal land program at the turn of the last century. Some locals have made their livings grazing, logging and guiding on them or putting up hunters and outsiders who used them almost from the beginning. The relationships between private and public, Forest Service and local people, have always had ups and downs, but they have worked.
Now there are new tensions brought to us from elsewhere. Why and how? Two thoughts, seven words. The first three made famous by the novelist Ayn Rand: “Selfish is good;” the second four: President Reagan’s pronouncement that “government is the problem.”
Rand was an immigrant from Russia who was totally disenchanted with collectivism. She wrote about what she called “objectivism” in novels — “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” — and essays. Her idea was that if we each pursue our own selfish ends to the max, we’ll all be happy and the entire society will be the better for it. Rand died thinking that she’d lost and collectivism had won, but her work lives on in U.S. politics from Barry Goldwater through Allen Greenspan to Paul Ryan, and in the society we have become.
The Ayn Rand seeds of radical individualistic capitalism, digested and made academically palatable by Milton Friedman and the Chicago Economic School, rose with Reagan and continued full bore through Clinton. Private is more efficient than public; we will all be richer and happier.
The Vietnam War and the Nixon fiasco had turned the left against government as the ascendancy of economic objectivism gripped the right. Increasingly, people who wanted to work for the common good turned to nonprofits. Hospitals became for-profit or nonprofit; the charter school movement, private and nonprofit, grew; fire and trails and maintenance of public lands was contracted out and nonprofit environmental groups exploded, etc. Chasms — sometimes enmity — between private and public grew.
And what has happened is disaster, from the Savings and Loan fiasco to Enron and Wells Fargo to political gridlock. The nature of sports, business and society has made winning and wealth more important than neighborliness, sportsmanship and citizenship, made litigation more common than cooperation. The end product of this selfishness was made movie famous by Michael Douglas in “Wall Street” — “Greed is Good,” he professed.
The cooperators are still here. Those who realize where we would be with slavery if we had relied on “local” control; what kind of nation we would have become with dozens of currencies and armies. Cooperators think that the country works because of, and not in spite of the tensions between local and national, private and public, east and west, north and south, that checks and balances have worked well for almost 250 years.
Cooperation works because Warren Buffett — the very successful capitalist who speaks truth to greed, who made his money investing in good and stable companies, has paid taxes every year since he was 14 and takes tax deductions for charity gifts of millions as he gives away additional billions — sees capitalism’s limits. Like Carnegie and Rockefeller, he has become an example for Bill Gates and other successful entrepreneurs to give away billions toward public good.
It works because many of us who are not millionaires work in successful nonprofits straddling public and private in education, natural resources and health care. It works in small towns like ours because government employees and ranchers and accountants coach Little League and serve on school boards, talk with and to each other rather than at each other.
Let’s remember what we have had and have, and pass it back up the political and social ladders that have told us otherwise.
Columnist Rich Wandschneider lives in Joseph.