TCS Daily

A Mountain Memo

By John Baden - March 26, 2003 12:00 AM

BOZEMAN, Montana - I'm writing soon after the invasion of Iraq began. I'm scheduled to travel before this appears. What can I say that's neither trite nor obsolete, but surely true?

First, few adults live here by accident or assignment. We have consciously, deliberately elected to live in the Northern Rockies. The reasons carry a common theme; attraction to our natural, social, and cultural environment. Folks do not live here to maximize income. For most of us, other factors - ecology viewed broadly - trump money.

As citizens, we of course confront universal problems of education, welfare, health, and crime. The issues that set us apart from urban Americans are topics such as wildlife, wetlands, wilderness, and water. They motivate our passion and involvement in public policy debates and personal discussions.

Our tastes and knowledge base are different from those of urbanites. Most Americans can't distinguish the Forest Service from the Park Service and very few can identify the BLM or define acre-feet or AUMs. These names and terms are common in the vocabulary of my Montana friends. They identify the furniture and fixtures of our world.

But what happens when war intrudes? Aside from its relevance to America's war effort, this stuff, once central to our lives, is ignored or consciously discounted. Environmental concerns become secondary. Suddenly our daily thoughts and concerns become focused on larger, more immediate issues.

Saddam will surely fall. But then what? Of course we'll win the war but winning the peace is much less certain. Here's why:

The bureaucrats who will no doubt be called to administer a post-war Iraq crave stable, well-defined systems. But the second half of the twentieth century was a period of devolution and fragmentation along ethnic, cultural, and religious fault lines. U.N. membership went from 60 in 1952 (51 at founding in 1945) to 191 in 2002. Much of this increase came from the dissolution of multi-ethnic and multi-religious nations.

This process was quite rational, though often bloody and destructive. People, perhaps especially illiterate peasants, recognize that the default activity of government is to be an engine that systematically rewards the wealthy and corrupt. The efficiency of that engine varies greatly but its propensity doesn't - it takes from the weak and gives to the strong.

Unless a nation is blessed with a well-functioning constitution that protects liberty through secure property rights and the rule of law, groups identified by race, religion, ethnicity, or kinship will use the coercive apparatus of the state against others. No Third World nations have these progress-fostering qualities.

Iraq is a contrived, constructed nation of warring parties - Kurds in the north, Shiites in the south, and Sunnis in the middle. So if we are to win the peace, in Iraq and other battles that surely will follow, we much recognize that many nations have centrifugal forces tearing them apart. Compare the fates of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia after the fall of the Berlin wall.

In Czechoslovakia, enlightened rulers who valued liberty were able to negotiate its peaceful separation into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic in 1993. Both countries have done relatively well since their breakup. On the other hand, Slobodan Milosevic and his thugs tried desperately to maintain their tyranny over Yugoslavia's disparate groups of Christians, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians. But even violent oppression and ethnic cleansing failed to keep the country intact.

Let's not squander our resources and good will in futile efforts to hold contrived, inharmonious countries together.

The Shah always falls. If we dealt with separate, more homogenous entities, we might foster democracy, literacy, the rule of law, and prosperity. After these values are achieved, the components might reunite in a federated nation modeled after the EU, Canada, or the U.S.

Unfortunately, bureaucrats from established nations demonstrate a strong preference for the maintenance of existing "sovereign" nations, however sorry their performance.

Many countries are artifacts of colonial dominance. Identity groups with generations of hate were lumped into contentious "nations." They and we pay for these colonial policies motivated by avarice and transitory convenience.

John Baden is chairman of the Bozeman-based Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) and the Gallatin Writers.

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