The U.S. isn't dead yet


WASHINGTON, D.C. - On the first day of the first spring of the millennium, one of the world's largest and most powerful global corporations did as it was told.

Parke-Davis, a division of the multibillion-dollar Warner-Lambert Company, announced that it was withdrawing the diabetes drug Rezulin from the market, as directed by the Food and Drug Administration.

That's an agency of the federal government.

As is the Federal Communications Commission, which is about to foster the creation of hundreds of small FM radio stations.

As is the Justice Department, which might be about to split asunder even the mighty Microsoft, and which will surely reunite Elian Gonzalez with his father.

As is the federal court system, which in effect just told New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to shut up and stop bothering the city's art museums.

In other words, reports of the death of the United States of America are greatly exaggerated.

Or as the great political philosopher Earl Long said to segregationist Leander Perez during an earlier challenge to the supremacy of the United States government, "Forget it, Leander. Da feds got da A-bomb."

Da Constitution, too.

In a rational world, making this point would be superfluous. In this world, at this time, it is a necessary corrective to all the talk about "a new paradigm" in which a pincer movement of the global economy and reinvigorated regionalism will render the nation-state an anachronism.

A tribal revival

Could be. The U.S. is an 18th century creation. Few institutions last forever, and this may not be one of them. The economy is indeed transnational. The Internet (which the government helped create) recognizes no political boundaries.

And in one of history's great ironies, as huge, impersonal, intricately organized institutions loom larger, some folks respond by asserting the supremacy of, well, of folklore, which is personal, tribal and traditional.

So it is now possible for, say, a rancher in Wyoming to enter into e-mail relationships with ranchers in Saskatchewan or New Zealand, feel closer to them - same folklore - than to his fellow-citizens in New Jersey or Tennessee, and conclude that the rules of citizenship no longer apply.

Especially when he reads over the Internet that we are in the post-government, free-market era in which prosperity depends on the private sector's autonomy. So a few guys in the saloon start to talk about how Wyoming and Montana should secede, and maybe so should Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and they'll form a new confederation. Before you know it, such talk has spread from the saloon to newspaper columns.

All of which may help explain the intensity of the grassroots opposition to the federal plan to preserve the roadlessness of parts of the national forest. Even some rank-and-filers in the agency proposing the policy - the U.S. Forest Service - encourage rebellion, as though their loyalty is neither to their agency nor their government, but to their tribe.

The wisdom of the federal plan is debatable. But any adverse impact would be minimal, so the fervor of the opposition suggests a force less rational than visceral. It may be the loss of connection between some rural Westerners (a tribe) and their body politic, which is increasingly dismissed as irrelevant.

An old paradigm

It isn't, at least not yet. Were the national government as unimportant as some proclaim it to be, the corporate world would not be spending ever-more millions to influence it. Corporate leaders know that today's economy needs a strong central government, not only to sustain the rule of law (think Russia), but to guide the increasingly intertwined transportation, communications, and education networks the modern economy requires.

Happily, we do not have a planned economy centrally controlled by government. But the truth we like to ignore is that we have a sort of planned economy, de-centrally guided by governments, and our prosperity depends on it.

Consider Salt Lake City. Local and state governments are not spending millions of dollars on the 2002 Winter Olympics in order to plan the economy. They're doing it for glory, fun and the profits of their leading citizens. But when you create a light rail system, widen freeways, and build a new stadium, you are engaging in both economic planning and social engineering.

Or consider the Defense Department. Its official purpose isn't economic planning, either, but every spending decision is influenced by economic considerations and in turn each decision influences the economy. The Strategic Defense Initiative - billions for a system that will never work to defend against a threat that does not exist - is almost entirely economic development.

Besides, this new paradigm sounds a lot like the old paradigm. American history has been a progression from parochialism to nationhood, and the path toward nationhood led toward equality; it has been the national community - meaning the federal government - that has taken the lead in enforcing racial equality and enhancing economic justice.

Most of the anti-nationalists of the 19th century opposed a strong central government because they feared it would outlaw slavery. They were right. So were the "states' rights" champions of the 20th century who feared that a strong central government would outlaw segregation. It is no accident that most of today's secession talk comes from the South, where it has a slick magazine to make its case.

But the slickness does not obscure the reality that the case is little more than a new version of white supremacy.

Delay tactics

So "devolution," dressed though it may be in high-tech aspect, remains a cover for good old American anti-egalitarianism, both tribal and economic. In the West, this anti-egalitarianism is not blatantly racial, though the recent remarks in these pages about the innate self-reliance of Celtic herdsmen did appear to be a brilliant satire of an unusually bizarre bigotry (HCN, 3/13/00: The last Celtic warlord lives in New Mexico).

The latest version of Western devolution is inspired largely by money and bitterness. The money part is obvious; some people want all they can grab regardless of the consequences. They need not be taken seriously.

The bitterness leads folks astray; they think their "way of life" is threatened by the federal government, when it is threatened by the consolidating trends of the private economy. Industrial beef production, not federal grazing policy, renders the independent rancher an endangered species. And so does the high-tech economy bound to no locale. Let an e-commerce firm move to Elko or Reserve and see how long the traditional Western "way of life" lasts.

The other little secret is that the supposed friends of the Western separatists know full well where the power lies. Members of Congress trying to block the administration's roadless proposal are following an harassment strategy. Every few weeks they haul Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck or Agriculture Undersecretary Jim Lyons up before a committee and work them over, insinuating that the roadless plan is an environmentalist plot which has not been subject to proper review.

This is what you do when you don't have the votes. You try to delay a final decision or to lay the groundwork for overturning it later. In this case, it is the best strategy for the opposition, but it leaves little doubt that the final decision will be made here, by the president (this one or the next), by Congress, by the federal courts, regardless of how angry some forest supervisors and some rural Westerners get.

As long as the United States of America is one body politic, with one Constitution which is the Supreme Law of the land, its government will prevail more often than not, especially when it has the support of most of the people of the body politic, as it does in this case.

Grassroots rebellion by a minority, even if it is a local majority, rarely succeeds. Cuban exiles may form a "human chain" around the house where Elian Gonzales is staying, but an order of the federal court will stand. Enforcing the law on millions of acres of national forest is harder, especially if some of the law enforcement agents oppose it. But harder does not mean impossible.

Da feds still got da A-bomb. Just ask Warner-Lambert.

Jon Margolis keeps an eye on da feds from his home in Vermont.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Jon Margolis

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