Friday, February 3, 2012

Jarbidge Shovel Brigade & Public Choice

On the Fourth of July, 2000, some 300 protestors descended on Jarbidge, Nevada, the most remote settlement in the state. The town of 50 permanent residents, two bars, and a jail was not hosting a traditional fireworks display, but there was a parade. All present marched to a road on the outskirts of town, South Canyon Road, which the Federal government had closed for environmental reasons. Using shovels, many sent symbolically from around the country (8,500, by one account), they removed the boulders and obstructions the U.S. Forest Service had used to block passage. Calling themselves the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, they became a powerful symbol of anti-Federalism in the Western United States.

This episode raises interesting questions regarding Public Choice. Following Charles Tiebout's theory of local expenditures, in which citizens are posited to decide where to live based on the bundle of public services provided (i.e. much like consumers), people "vote with their feet". People tend to live in locations that match their preferences on the level and quality of public services, and their associated costs.

The Jarbidge episode illustrates one limit to this theory. In the Midwest and Eastern areas of the country, relatively little land is publicly owned - no more than 10 percent. Hence, more land, proportionally speaking, is owned by private parties or more local forms of government. West of the Dakotas, the percentage of Federal land is over 30 percent in every state. In Nevada, that figure is nearly 85 percent - the highest proportion in the country.
I visited Jarbidge, and I can attest that the residents choose to live there to be as far away from the government as possible, yet they are surrounded by land owned ad controlled by the Federal government. This is an extreme example of a common dynamic in this area of the country: many choose to live in small, isolated settlements with very small governments, but they are significantly impacted by governmental decisions at the Federal level. It illustrates one of the limits of choices available to the public in the United States, and that people do not have an entirely rational perspective on what control their residence decision entitles them to with regards to public services.

1 comment:

  1. I had never thought that the Federal government owns that much land in the west!