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Fee-Demo and the Economic Taliban

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.
Richard W. Behan is the author of Plundered Promise: Capitalism, Politics, and the Fate of the Federal Lands
 http://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. A spokesman for the Bush White House said, "We want to cut government down until it fits in a bath tub. Then we'll drown it."

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, ces-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 expos»'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.