If you've never read the iconic classic by Buckminster Fuller, SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL, you should. Pick up a copy. It's a wonderful read, and perhaps even more appropriate today than when it was written several decades ago. Wendell Berry echoes the same idea when he says that there are no global issues, only local ones. The Chinese have a proverb: if every man would sweep in front of his own house, the whole world would be clean.
Here in our farm business, whenever a new idea presents itself, we always ask: "How small can it be?" In other words, when Wall Street pushes us to ask: "How big can it be?" we believe the better start is to ask how small it can be. Long-lasting innovation is never birthed big; it's birthed small, in the back yards and minds of individuals who tinker with prototypes.
That is why I'm such a huge believer in the 50-state experiment. Almost everything currently undertaken by the federal government should be remanded to the states. A one-size-fits-all simply doesn't work and reduces innovation.
A perfect case in point came across my desk in the most recent issue of PERC Reports "The Magazine of Free Market Environmentalism." In a wonderful article titled "A Permit Runs Through It," we're introduced to Scott and Sandy Campbell, owners of the 140,000 acre Silvies Valley Ranch. Several years ago these good folks undertook a land healing experiment based on re-creating beaver dams.
Because beaver dams are permeable, they did not build ponds but rather used rocks to simply build impediments to slow the flow of rushing flood waters during significant rain events in that dry country. The transformation is nothing short of remarkable. The first one held silt behind it, just like the old-time beaver dams did, slowing the water so it could deposit debris. This built up a ledge of fertile sediment that sprouted the succulent meadow grasses and prairie flowers that existed there prior to European conquest.
With the excitement of a child, they extended the experiment to gullies throughout the ranch and today thousands of acres of meadow bottoms exist where dry, parched sage existed just a decade ago. Streams that only ran for a couple of months a year now run year-round as the lush vegetation cools the soil and the deltas slow water runoff, giving it time to soak in and hydrate the entire landscape.
As the article says: "And then all hell--permitting hell--broke loose for the ranch." The Campbells had not asked permission to do this experiment: placing a loose gravel water retardant in a gully. The federal Corps of Engineers got involved because this activity affected the course of a stream. But these were not streams when the project started; they were gullies that ran a couple of months a year. They only became year-round streams after the Campbells did their remarkable landscaping caress. They are still embroiled in regulatory harassment over what I consider a wonderfully sacred and righteous healing act.
British common law was established centuries ago to protect the commons, those reserved acres that lords and noblemen could not touch so peasants could at least feed themselves with their own milk cow or some sheep. If someone abused those lands, the neighbors could haul them before the magistrate who demanded the perpetrator of the destruction be hauled before a court and a jury of peers--a jury who knew the perpetrator and could vouch for whether he was a scofflaw or upstanding. The situation was not remanded to a bureaucracy.
Today, our nation has abandoned common law--you could call it the law of little things--and instead opted for a regulatory technocracy where federal technicians determine freedoms. That is a horribly inept and tyrannical approach. If neighbors felt empowered to bring a local polluter or commons destroyer to justice, it would be localized, appropriate, and smaller. And we wouldn't have lobbyists in Washington. And the Campbells and thousands like them would be encouraged to innovate and heal rather than vilified for righteousness.
If you could pick one thing to move from federal oversight to state oversight, what would it be?