Gateway to Wisdom regarding Liberty, Ecology and Prosperity

 

by John Baden

This is the first of a series of essays composed for ThisIsBozeman.com. I will explore the culture, economy, and institutions fostering an ideal mix of liberty, ecology, and prosperity. First some modifiers. I’m referring to responsible liberty, sustainable ecology, and modest prosperity. They don’t easily go together. This initial essay introduces my perspective and the context from which I write.  An important part of this context is our ranch setting. This morning, the sandhill cranes returned and a herd of elk was on our south hayfield. Ramona and I love living here.

jb-rmb-on-ranch-ygr-Ramona and John at the ranch, August 21, 1976: "John's luckiest day."I am an economic anthropologist by inclination and training. This is not a field I recommend as a career but it has worked very well for me. I’ve only once taught a course with that title, in the Honors Program at Indiana University. However, the mix of economics and anthropology has provided powerful insights when considering environmental policy reform.

Anthropology stresses culture while economics explains how people in that culture respond to opportunities and constraints. These are the core ingredients of environmental policy. I began working on environmental policy as a National Science Foundation post-doc at Indiana University. But how did I come to Bozeman? It was not an accident but rather results of a careful search.

In the late 1960s, Indiana University, like Columbia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other major universities, was a caldron 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, 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 followed, the great majority, and especially their descendants, benefitting from their move.

I made a fortunate error as a grad student. I thought American universities would resemble Latin American universities, spawning a permanent cadre of aging Marxist students. I wanted to become an academic but not part of that crowd. In brief, I elected to opt out of the emerging conformist culture dominating most large universities.

Here’s how I escaped that “progressive” environment, one enchanted with statist*, bureaucratic solutions to real and imagined problems. Remember the threat of global cooling, running out of energy (and everything else), and the population bomb that promised mass starvation by 1980?
(*Merriam Webster definition:  A statist is 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.)

 

No other nation has brought such vast numbers of poor, oft destitute people to liberty and prosperity.

 

In contrast with the prevailing negativity, I opined that economists were the last of the optimists. Why? Primarily because they expected creativity when people confront scarcity. They understood the benefits from trade and the potential for markets to generate prosperity. Real dangers loomed but the most serious arose from political 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 UVa, 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.

George Peter Murdock, an anthropologist at Yale 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 to nominate me for a fellowship. He, William J. Siffin, a specialist in international development and a Harvard Ph.D., did so, not expecting me to be accepted. I was. 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.

This was 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 for I needed a PhD. Thesis topic. Here it was.

I returned to Indiana University and proposed the topic to my major Professor, 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 land.

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 ag 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 a line from Sioux Falls, South Dakota west and north. 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.) Again, I was very lucky.

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. We clicked.

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.  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.

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. I count my blessings daily.

Next week, My Gateway to Wisdom

 

Editor's Note: John Baden found Bozeman in the late 1960s when looking for the best place to build his life.   He explored and ranked every town in the Northwest having a four year college or university.  Bozeman ranked first and he left Bloomington, Indiana in 1970 to accept an offer from MSU. He earned a Ph. D. in economic anthropology from Indiana University and was a NSF post doc in environmental policy.   He founded the Foundation for Research in Economics and the Environment (FREE) in 1985 which his wife Dr. Ramona Marotz-Baden lead.  FREE's mission is to harmonize three oft conflicting values; environmental quality, responsible liberty, and modest prosperity.  John and Ramona live on an irrigated Gallatin Gateway ranch, all but thirty acres of which they placed in a conservation easement.

 

 

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July 2014, Teton Wilderness, Wyoming

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New! New Resource Economics: Description & History

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New! The Beartooth Plateau and Beartooth Highway

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