Gateways to Liberty, Ecology and Prosperity – #2: From Indiana to Montana

Published July 1, 2016

[Read essay #1 here.]

 I attended Indiana University in the late 1960s. Like Columbia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other major universities, IU was a cauldron of radical activities. Many grad students identified with Marxism. They joined or led Students for Democratic Society, the more radical Revolutionary Youth Movement, and a collage of other dissident groups who viewed America as a great evil.

I disagreed with most of my fellow students, arguing that even with its flaws, America was the most successful large-scale social experiment in history. It still is. No other nation has brought such vast numbers of poor, oft destitute people to liberty and prosperity.

My family fled Germany escaping the wars of 1848 and 1878 to become Midwest farmers and teachers. Many millions of immigrants did the same, the great majority, and especially their descendants, benefitting from their move.

The statist, collectivist perspective was especially pronounced among environmentalists, the “proto-Greens,” if you will, of the first Earth Day.  It was celebrated on the centennial of Lenin’s birth, April 22, 1970.  An accident perhaps?  I was there and think not.

In the Green’s view, capitalism and the wealth it needlessly produces are the primary causes of the ecological crisis.  Why?  Capitalism celebrates growth, the ideology of the cancer cell. Markets are evil and property is theft.  We need Green Platonic despots, the reasoning goes, to manage America’ society and economy.

It’s easy to recognize this mind-set as statist, which Merriam Webster defines as a person who favors the concentration of economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government often extending to government ownership of industry.

All of these silly thoughts became common pronouncements among college students and opinion leaders.  They still are today.

This collage of silliness was incorporated within the emerging environmental culture by many of its adherents, but not all.  The exceptions were of two types. First were the old-line conservationists who focused on wildlife and its habitat. The Kohlers of Wisconsin exemplify the type. Second were economists who cared about nature and understood political pathologies.  Lin and Vincent Ostrom of Indiana University were among the best of these.

Here’s how I escaped that “progressive” environment. Remember the threat of global cooling, running out of energy (and everything else), and the population bomb that promised mass starvation by 1980? My training in economics and anthropology made me ask questions that others seemed to overlook. For example, when confronting scarcity, don’t people exercise creativity to find solutions? And as trade and markets generate ever-greater prosperity, don’t people have more resources with which to address possible environmental problems?

Real dangers loomed, I concluded, but the most serious ones arise from political capitalism, not actual or real capitalism. This occurs when political and economic elites rig the game to their advantage while harming others. Corn ethanol is one of today’s sorry examples: Watch Republicans in the Iowa primaries.

My understanding came from exposure to Public Choice economics, a field just emerging at IU, the University of Virginia, and a few other schools. One of my professors, Elinor Ostrom, became president of the Public Choice Society. She won a Nobel Prize for economics for this work in 2009. Combining this field of economics with anthropology gave me considerable analytical leverage.

Another source of inspiration was George Peter Murdock, an anthropologist at Yale, who created the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) in 1949. It supported comparative studies of culture, society, and behavior. The scope was both historic and current.

I used the HRAF material for course papers. Good stuff indeed. I happened to notice an announcement for HRAF summer fellowships for professors. Although I was only a grad student, I asked my major professor, William J. Siffin, to nominate me for a fellowship. Siffin, a specialist in international development and a Harvard Ph.D., did so, not expecting me to be accepted. But I was, and it changed my life.

One of the dozen professors at the HRAF program was John A. Hostetler, a leading scholar of Amish and Hutterite societies. John had studied Alberta and Montana Hutterite colonies. I grew up on a farm in the Midwest and went to a country school among Amish children, so I had a natural connection with Professor Hostetler. He told me that while there were several genetic and cultural studies of the Hutterites, no one had explained the success of their economy. This was enticing since I needed a topic for my Ph.D. thesis. Here it was!

I returned to Indiana University and proposed the topic to Professor Siffin. He agreed and I wrote a proposal for funding from the Ford Foundation. It would support my travel and research expenses for a year plus one semester. The amount was $17,800 in 1968. That was a lot of money for a grad student, $7,000 more than my initial salary at Montana State University. I got the grant.

OK, then what? At that time, there were 120 Hutterite colonies in the upper plains of the U.S. and Canada. I proposed to visit twenty of the communes, live on the welcoming ones, and interview their leaders to collect data. I also proposed to interview neighbors and business near the colonies I visited.

In addition to my thesis research, I had an additional agenda, to find a place to live. I wanted to become an academic but not part of the Marxist crowd at major universities. So I deliberately sought ought a smaller college in a place that seemed less hostile to my somewhat traditional American views.

The Hutterites lived in the region where I wanted to live. But specifically, where could I locate with high prospects of fulfillment? This was a challenge but the selection process was clear. I needed a town, not a city, with a four-year college or a university. It must be in an agricultural area, forestry was a huge plus for I enjoyed working in the woods (I had been a timber faller), and it should have excellent outdoor recreation. I knew this was a small but not a null set.

I took a map of the U.S. and Canada and drew lines west and north from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. This was Hutterite country. I then identified the towns in that region that had colleges or universities. While studying the Hutterite colonies, I arranged to visit every college town and rank each school and community. (Missoula was well below Bozeman. Still is.)

Traveling Montana Highway 200 from Great Falls to Missoula, I stopped in Lincoln and met Cecil Garland, owner of Garland’s Town and Country. Cecil’s store sold dry-goods, snowmobiles, Riteway stoves, and McCulloch chain saws. More importantly for my story, Cecil was leader of the Lincoln Backcountry Protective Association.

The Anaconda Company and leaders in the U.S. Forest Service were conspiring to log and road the 240,000 acre Lincoln Backcountry—and at great economic and ecological cost. Essentially, tax payers would subsidize the despoliation of wild lands they cherished. Cecil was looking for allies. I helped find them.

My family and I had long been involved in old school conservation, mainly involving fish and wildlife. While a grad student my cause was ecology, not radical politics. I found Cecil’s Lincoln Backcountry fight against political capitalism enticing.

Cecil had a small cabin between his store and his home. I found the Montana Hutterite colonies most interesting and hospitable and wanted a base from which to work. Cecil offered his cabin. I took it and became hooked on Montana. Still am. The Lincoln controversy was also my great awakening.