The musings of one Andrew Langer - defender of liberty, passionate protector of individual rights, foodie. (Note: Said Musings of Andrew Langer are his own, and the views represented herein are likewise his views, and not the views of any other people, entities, foodstuffs, etc [unless otherwise specifically and explicitly noted].)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Honoring The Conscience of a Movement

Andrew Langer with RJ Smith

Everybody involved in politics and policy needs people who stand behind them. And I don’t just mean for support – I mean people who sit there and question what they’re doing, the positions they take, the issues they either work or don’t work on, how far they’re willing to push. A Jiminy Cricket, in essence.

For me, one of those people has been Robert J. (“RJ”) Smith. RJ is, in my opinion, the academic dean of the property rights movement. The movement has its firebrands, like Chuck Cushman. It has its tacticians, like Ron Arnold. It has its field commanders, like Mike Hardiman.

But RJ has been the movement’s historian, the conceiver of many of its tenets, the engineer of the bedrock principles. And I was fortunate yesterday to attend a ceremony honoring RJ for his years of service to the movement. The event, sponsored by CEI, the Heritage Foundation, and the National Center for Public Policy Research, took the opportunity of “Private Conservation Day” to bestow upon RJ a lifetime achievement award.

Of course, Private Conservation Day is a holiday conceived by RJ himself. Recognizing the near-monopoly on environmental philosophy that the statist-left has, and how April’s Earth Day perpetuates that near-monopoly, RJ thought that the time had come to create a day that would recognize the essential role private property, and private property rights, play in environmental protection. The day he selected was April 12 – the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, one of the first proponents of harnessing the power of private property rights in both preserving and conserving our natural heritage.

Rather than give you a bland recitation of RJ’s history (which would pale in comparison to the stirring recount given by Myron Ebell at yesterday’s event), I’d rather give a testimony as to what RJ Smith has meant to me.

I first met RJ while I was a fledgling member of the property rights movement, working as a reader for Roger Marzulla, a blind attorney and one of the best property rights lawyers in the country. It was pure serendipity that I came to be in Roger’s service, as what I learned while working for him set the stage for what was to come in my life down the road.

We were working on Endangered Species Act reform then, and when I went to work for Defenders of Property Rights, I started working with RJ more directly on a host of other issues as well. RJ was one of the people who taught me about the destructive nature of the ESA, and how that law’s backwards principles actually serve to harm more species than they help.

It was when I started working at CEI that we began to really discuss the future of the property rights movement more directly, voicing concerns about a host of internal and external pressures that could have had a devastating impact on that important force for change. RJ conceived of Private Conservation Day, and I set about to write a resolution for members of Congress to sign (the one signed by the late Congressman Helen Chenoweth Hage was on display yesterday).

But it was after I let CEI that RJ had his greatest impact on me. I had been contemplating putting together a working group on property rights in DC, to strategize for both the near and long term. Because of my relatively-new job, I’d put that working group on the back burner. But RJ became seriously ill, and that moved me into action. I knew that any working group’s success would hinge in no small measure of the counsel of RJ, and so we needed to put it together. And we did. Some of the work of that group is still being used by Congressional staffers, from the “Omnibus Property Rights” bill concept, to smaller portions of that (like the call for a full inventory of federally-owned lands, again being considered by Congress this spring).

When other things took precedence over the property rights issue on my agenda, RJ was constantly there, pushing, in that inimitable way that only RJ Smith can. For all his academic vigor and his western upbringing, sometimes the brusqueness of his New York tenure can shine through (and those of you who know him know the off-color phrase to which I refer). “Langer,” he would say, “I hear you’ve abandoned us.”

Of course I hadn’t. And RJ knew it. But he knew that property rights are one of my greatest passions, and that I needed a bit of a nudge from time to time to bring me back.

Yesterday, RJ inspired me once again. He mentioned one of my pet issues, something I haven’t written or spoken on in several years (take a look at my speech to the Property Rights Foundation for America’s Conference in 2003, I believe): the Private Lands Pledge. Much like the taxpayer protection pledge conceived by my friend, Grover Norquist, and put out by Americans for Tax Reform, this would be a resolution for elected (and, frankly, executive branch officials) to sign, stating that there would be “no net loss of private lands”.

I’ll write more on this later, but to summarize, while I want us to consider disposing of certain public lands (after we get an inventory, we can get a real handle on exactly what we owe), at the very least we have to stop acquiring new lands. Or if we’re going to acquire new lands, then we need to dispose of a commensurate amount, acre for acre.

This will be an issue the Institute for Liberty will work on. No two ways about it. I could honor RJ with more flowing praise here, but for him, deeds have always been louder than words. And this way, he knows that I haven’t abandoned the movement.

Congratulations, RJ. Thanks for doing what you do, thanks for doing what you have done, and thank you for providing us with the inspiration to carry on your hard work for years to come.

- Andrew Langer


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