On Hunting, Marxism and the Public Land Debate.
Updated: Aug 2, 2018
To illustrate the point of this article I want to first ask the reader to answer three simple questions:
1: Would you identify yourself as a supporter of socialist ideologies, Karl Marx or Marxism? In other words, do you support socialism?
2: Do you believe a large powerful federal government is better than a small government?
3: Do you support transferring public land (BLM, National Forest, etc.) from federal control to the states?
These questions aren't asked to be patronizing, my hope is by the end of this article they will become illustrative to the dangers of ideological dissonance that are currently prominent in the hunting community.
The hunting community is waving a marxist flag without realizing they are doing so, and that is a problem. The issue of hunting rights and public land is one that merits sensible discourse, not tribalistic groupthink. This article puts forth three claims:
1: Those strongly opposed to transferring public land control to the states are framing their arguments using direct Marxist claims, in a dangerous groupthink manner.
2: The ideologies we promulgate matter and should not be taken lightly. One should not support an action if they do not support the underlying ideology promoting the action.
3: There is no evidence that access to public lands has any real effect on hunting participation numbers. The hunting community should carefully examine reasonable alternatives prior to pushing forward with our opinion that federal public land is the best solution.
I do not make any claim herein that eliminating federal public lands is the proper course, that is not the intent of this article.
I recently engaged in a conversation on Instagram that caused me some concern. Not necessarily the topic itself (although the topic is important), but more the ideological underpinnings of what was being argued. The topic was regarding the movement, currently being pushed by Senator Mike Lee (UT), in favor of removing land from federal control and transitioning it to the states. Many influencers in the hunting community, including Cameron Hanes, Steve Rinella, Brian Call and others have aggressively encouraged their followers to fight to keep public lands public. These are intelligent individuals that have done a great deal for the hunting community. I respect them and would share a hunting camp with them anytime. They are, however, vocally supporting a politico-economic system that I would assume most of them would not want to admit, even to themselves. To frame the discussion, here is the post that originally sparked my interest:
The same social media personality then went on to describe why he feels so opposed to transferring federally controlled public lands to states.
If I can summarize the arguments being made in the above post, it is that large amounts of land must be owned and controlled by the federal government in order to protect the poor from the greed of private property owners (or market entities). Meaning, if we allow private ownership of land then poor people will not be able to access it, and therefore we need the government to seize and own the land. That is, of course, a socialist (or Marxist) ideology. Socialism is generally defined as a politico-economic system advocating large scale collective or governmental ownership and administration of property. It is a system in which the resources and means of production are owned by the state. Marx defined socialism as an opposition to the untrammeled workings of a capitalist economic market. Loosely speaking, Marx divided the world into two classes of people. The Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie. The Bourgeoisie were the landowners, the wealthy. In the Instagram post above, the Bourgeoisie would be the ones wealthy enough to pay to hunt private land. The Proletariat, on the other hand, were the poor and oppressed. They would be the ones who must hunt public land because they can't afford to hunt private. Marx believed the government's proper function was to seize control of resources (land) in order to provide the Proletariat (poor) with the same opportunities as the Bourgeoisie (rich). Does that argument sound familiar? Of course we know how Marxist ideologies regarding private property ownership turn out when left to their natural progression.
Many of the hunting personalities who have expressed strong opinions against public land transfer have simultaneously resisted the idea that they are promoting socialism. The below conversation between myself and a prominent outdoor personality is illustrative to this point:
In a well researched Business Insider article, the Mises Institute calculates the overall percentage of land owned by the federal government at 76.9%. This number includes submerged lands. A staggering 37.1% of all dry land is owned by the government.
In states like Utah the percentage is much higher (roughly 65%). 85% of Nevada land is federally owned, 62% of Idaho, and so on. That is not some of the land, that is most of the land. The graphic below illustrates how disproportionally the West has been affected by federal land seizure.
To put this into perspective of the Marxist Proletariat vs. Bourgeoisie argument previously mentioned, only 2.14% of the state of Pennsylvania is federally owned land (meaning 97.86% is not). Still, and in direct contrast to the argument being made by most hunting community personalities, a significantly larger percentage of the population participates in hunting in Pennsylvania than in states with much higher federal land percentages. In fact, none of the states in the above graphic (illustrating percentage of public land) are in the top-ten for hunting participation numbers. According to Realtree, a top-ten public land state doesn't even enter the rankings for hunting participation until California at #19 and then Colorado at #20.
To be fair, this ranking is based off of total licenses sold and states like Idaho have much lower populations than Pennsylvania, but even in high population states we don't see a correlation between public land access and hunter participation. Texas, a state where there is virtually no federal land (1.86%) tops the list of hunter participation by gross license sales, and is followed by a litany of other states where very small portions of federal public land can be found. California, on the other hand, has 13 million more people than Texas and 184% more federal land, but significantly lower hunting participation. Compare the above list to the below map illustrating percentage of federal land ownership. Obviously correlation doesn't necessarily equal causation, but if the argument made by most public land advocates is to be believed, there should at least be some connection between the amount of federal public land available and the participation rate of hunting in a given state. That connection is not found.
The point, which cannot be ignored if we are to have a truly informed discussion, is there is no empirical evidence to support the claim that we need federal land in order to protect the rights of low income (Proletariat) hunters. If anything, the inverse appears to be demonstrably true.
Why This Matters:
Private property ownership, which is the right to exclusively use and enjoy property and exclude others from its use, is the most fundamental right that any American has. All other rights mean nothing if you do not first have the right to own property. After all, what good is the 2nd Amendment if you don't have the right to individually own firearms? What good is the 4th Amendment's privacy protections if the government owns your home or your land? Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, described property rights as follows, "ultimately property rights and personal rights are the same thing."
The right to private property ownership is inseparably interwoven in the fabric of every other right we have. Take it away, and all other rights go away with it. As such, we should be more critical of private property ownership rights being taken away than any other rights. We don't, however, do that. As previously mentioned, roughly 65% of Utah's land is federally owned and therefore taken away from private property consideration. Although it is not a direct analogy (those rarely exist), imagine if the federal government said 65% of all firearms in Utah and 85% of all firearms in Nevada will now be federally owned. If you want to use them you can, you just have to pay us a fee, use them when and where we tell you, and under the conditions that our bureaucrats proscribe. One can assume we wouldn't accept that line of logic with our Second Amendment rights, so why do we immediately accept that logic with our property rights?
The dangers of Marxist ideologies, like socialized land ownership, are often understated to a significant degree. They should not be.
“The history of China’s “land reform” was written in the tears and blood of landowners like my great-grandfather. But the 300 million poor Chinese farmers were victims too. They gave the Communist Party their popular support, hoping to improve their living standards by taking property away from landowners. Instead, they became stepping stones for the Party to abolish private property rights once and for all.” ― Helen Raleigh, Confucius Never Said
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had witnessed the horrors of Marxist ideologies first hand as a prisoner in the Gulog's of the Soviet Union, had similarly unkind things to say about those who promote Marxist ideologies:
"The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others' eyes, so that he won't hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors."
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956
I do not wish to insinuate that the current American legal structure would allow for the atrocities and civil rights violations that were seen in 20th century China or the Soviet Union, it wouldn't. Still, the ideologies fueling those atrocities are certainly worth avoiding wherever possible. Both the Soviet Union and China commenced on their marxist journey with a desire for communal ownership of property in order to give the poor the same advantages in life that the wealthy enjoyed. The terrible destination they both arrived at were unthinkable to most when they began (60 million dead in Soviet Union, estimates of over 100 million dead in China).
No, our current system of public lands is not going to turn us into Maoist China, that is not at all the claim I am making. The ideologies we promulgate matter, that is the claim. The way we have discourse matters. Scroll through the comments on any of the hunting community social media posts about public lands and you will see a frightening display of tribalistic, groupthink, speech. In other words, I am a hunter, I belong to a group known as hunters, therefore I must promulgate the ideas of the group instead of individually assessing the merits of those ideas. If the group hates Mike Lee, I also must hate Mike Lee or risk losing my affiliation with the group.
Groupthink is dangerous. Bad ideas often find themselves to the forefront of groupthink, and because the group isn't adequately evaluating the ideas, otherwise flawed, irrational and dysfunctional ideologies gain a lot of power very quickly. One of the hallmarks of groupthink is the active suppression of contrary views or open discussion within the group. That's not a good thing.
Dr. Jordan Peterson explained the risks of group think as follows:
The idea of the Divine Individual. That is the West. So, if we subsume that under group identity then we will perish painfully. And God only knows what will go along with us, maybe everything.
Recall your responses to the first 3 questions in this article. Did you answer "no" to all 3 questions? If so, do you now find a contradiction between your first two responses and your third?
As a final note, the danger of a single entity controlling what activities are permitted on 65% of a state's land cannot be overstated. Right now we are in a political climate where hunting rights do not appear to be exceptionally under attack by our government. However, as we've recently seen with elephant and lion import regulations, it does not take much for significant change to occur very quickly. When government controls all the land, government can set the policy for that land as quick as a pen can strike paper. The reason we don't allow businesses to obtain monopoly status within an industry is because that status lends itself to great potential for misfeasance. The same analogy can certainly be drawn for a monopoly on our land. The same government you currently rely on to give you access to public hunting land will change dramatically every 2-4 years for the rest of our lifetimes. Do you feel comfortable those political changes will always be in the best interest of hunters? If you feel comfortable government will always serve your best interests then you likely haven't been involved in an eminent domain action. In my law practice I've watched helplessly as the government tore down the homes of my clients and paved roads directly through their cattle ranches. Government taking of private property under the guise of doing what is best for society is a terrifying concept, one we should support only with extreme caution.
Many have expressed fear that the states will "sell off" federal land if transferred to their control. I have not seen any evidence to support that fear, but even if states took that course I am unconvinced that would be a deathblow to conservation. Wildlife Land Trusts are finding great success with Bison populations in Montana. Cooperative Wildlife Management Units (CWMUs) are very successful in Utah. Larry Ellison purchased 87,000 acres of Lanai Hawaii (97% of the island) and has established his own private wildlife management organization. I hunted there recently and can attest it is better managed than any public wildlife management area I've experienced.
I have hunted Africa multiple times, particularly South Africa, where the vast majority of game are found on private land and private landowners have achieved conservation success rates we can't compete with in the United States. I have hunted on several hundred thousand acre farm cooperatives in Nebraska where the deer are better managed, fed, monitored and cared for by private landowners than any public land. These are all free range and ethical hunting options, on private land and voluntarily set up. Obviously they would not serve as a replacement to public lands, but they fact that private land conservation already plays a major role in US conservation is worth noting.
I do not offer a solution to this problem. That is not the intent of this article. It is a very unique and complex problem, one that will require a very unique and complex solution. However, when I am faced with a variety of paths forward, and one of those paths is a perpetuation of Marxism and socialized land ownership, I am instinctively inclined to evaluate what other options may be available.
The current discourse on this subject is one of pitchforks and tribalistic allegiance. The hunting community is better served by educated and informed discourse. Perhaps the current system of federal lands is truly the best system, perhaps it is not. Virtually all hunters want the same thing, the maximum amount of untouched wild lands. The question should be how to best preserve lands in an ever changing political climate. Will the states remain more politically stable and hunter friendly than the federal government? Let's take the time to educate ourselves of all potential solutions, evaluate them on their merits, and choose the best path forward. The hunting community should know as well as any other community how frustrating it is when entire groups of people rush to judgment about your motives and character. Let's resist the urge to do that amongst ourselves.
Phillip Nelsen is an attorney, college professor, author, entrepreneur, professional hunting guide, life member of Safari Club International and various other hunting rights organizations.