Over the holiday weekend, rummaging through old file boxes in the barn, I came across a folder of my five-minute commentaries aired on WDEV radio thirty years ago. Most of them dealt with issues now long forgotten, but the final one in 1988, entitled “Vermont’s Future,” got my attention. So here it is, slightly updated:
Last year’s debate on school centralization and this year’s battle over growth control have brought to center stage the question: what kind of future can we expect for Vermont? Two very different pictures have emerged. One is Vermont as Land of Freedom. The other is Vermont as Land of Community. These twin themes, freedom and community, have swirled back and forth throughout Vermont history, and indeed, through American history.
The Land of Freedom is the land of individual rights. It is the land of private property ownership, a competitive economic system, and the opportunity to grow and become. In the Land of Freedom, independent citizens, their property and their rights secured by a limited government, will be happy, productive, and compassionate toward the less fortunate. They will come together, not as subjects, but as free and independent citizens, to meet great crises and govern themselves.
The Land of Community is the land of working together, of shared values, of cooperation. It is the land of “we,” as in “we don’t want Vermont to turn into New Jersey.” In the Land of Community citizens are expected to yield to the will of the majority rather than pursue their personal interests and private rights.
The Land of Freedom can be any scale, but the Land of Community has definite limits. For some purposes all of Vermont is a community. We were a community when as one we spoke out for halting the spread of slavery and sent our soldiers to save the Union. We were a community with all Americans when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
But in most things we do, Vermont is not a true statewide community, a fact long recognized in the old Mountain Rule, which alternated the governorship between the east and west sides of the Green Mountains. Bennington and Newport have very little in common, in any practical sense. The real battle for the soul of Vermont is over the extent to which the people in control of state government will force their idea of community on people who rarely have much in common.
The backers of the Land of Community idea seem always eager to homogenize our society. They want to equalize, standardize, and unify what they conceive to be the various diverse parts of a statewide community. In doing so they give short shrift to the advocates of freedom, for they see freedom and individual rights as bothersome obstructions to their goal of creating a Land of Community in all things, regulated and enforced by the central power in Montpelier.
It is the Land of Community people who think up school regionalization schemes, so that all communities will be efficiently managed from Montpelier to produce the same thing for all of our children. It is the Land of Community people who want growth managed from the center, for the benefit of everybody. It is the Land of Community people who deplore the private ownership of property, for they are convinced that with freedom and property, individuals will undermine their vision of the common good.
To the Land of Freedom people, individual liberty comes first. They believe that only independent men and women can govern themselves in a republic, and they believe that centralized control over the things that are locally different signals the beginning of a tyranny which aims to strip them of their rights. Thus they want to keep control of their children’s schools, and they oppose every attempt to strip them of their rights in land and, for that matter, their right to own guns.
The freedom advocates are today on the defensive, as the centralizers and standardizers and controllers have the upper hand in our state government. But the time may come when the pendulum swings back – and I for one hope it does.”
My signoff for that 1988 commentary was: “This will be my last broadcast with you, for today I am becoming a candidate for the state Senate. I’ve enjoyed doing these shows, and I hope you have enjoyed listening – or if you have hated every minute of them, I hope I’ve at least made you think.”
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.