Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wild River

I found the 1960 movie Wild River to be intriguing. The movie is about an employee of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) who is tasked with arranging the purchase of various tracts of privately owned land that would be flooded once a dam was built on the Tennessee River. While performing his duties, he encounters an elderly lady who is intent on thwarting TVA’s plan to obtain her property.

One of my favorite parts of the movie is when the TVA man shows up at the elderly property owner's house. The old woman begins asking one of the farm hands how much he wants for his dog. He responds by saying that he didn’t want to sell his dog. She tells him that she wasn’t asking if he wanted to sell, she was telling him he had to sell. She just needed to know how much he wanted. The banter continues until the man tells her she doesn't have the right to make him sell his dog. She then relents and says he is correct. And just like she didn't have the right to make him sell his dog, the government didn't have the right to make her sell her property, even though they were going to give her “fair” compensation.

The conflict between the private and the public realm of civilized life is a longstanding one. This was made clear to me while watching the first episode of Ken Burns: National Parks - America's Best Idea. Back when the National Park system was just beginning, there was great debate concerning whether it was within the authority of the US Congress to take control of large tracts of land for the purpose of preserving it for all people, present and future. Many believed that the senators and representatives were overstepping their bounds and hampering American entrepreneurship and business. Others felt that without the protection of government, greed would drive individuals to exploit some of the most scenic spots in the country. They pointed to Niagara Falls (as it was mid-19th century) as an example.

Wow! This is one of those tough issues for me. When I think about it, I can feel my inner self being torn apart. It’s as though some of the most liberal and some of the most conservative congresspersons have become body snatchers and have picked me as their victim. I am a very strong advocate of free enterprise where people are allowed to build businesses and compete in the open marketplace for customers without interference from the government. Free enterprise is what has elevated the common man in many countries to a standard of living only kings could have dreamed about 500 years ago. If a regular ole Joe from that era could come back and see how millions upon millions of people live today, he would be overwhelmed and probably quite envious.

Yet I have visited many of the US National Parks and am totally enthralled with them. I can identify with the words of John Muir when I saw Yosemite Valley: “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite... The grandest of all special temples of Nature.” Who could want this place, thought by many to be the most beautiful place on earth, to be denuded by a few people for their own gain? Yet I, like Ayn Rand, also see the beauty of the manmade. I look in awe at the Empire State Building just as I look in awe at Half Dome.

It would seem that there must be some sort of balance between the public and the private when it comes to land. I just find it extremely hard to put my finger on where the dividing line is. I will talk about this further in future posts.

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