Big Sky Bureaucracy

The West and the rise of modern government.

Forgive me, but this is going to be one of those "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" columns. So what did I do? I spent a week with my extended family at a ranch in southwestern Montana.

While I was there enjoying the spectacular scenery, I worked my way through a novel, Dancing at the Rascal Fair (Scribner, 1987) by Ivan Doig, with whom I had no familiarity until about a week before I left for Big Sky country. The book is an epic tale of late 19th century immigration from Scotland to Montana, at a time when the newly minted state represented all the peril and possibility of the American frontier.

The novel explores the relationship between Angus McCaskill and Rob Barclay, two friends who leave their homeland to carve out a new existence in a dramatically beautiful yet unforgiving land. But in a much more muted way, the story examines another relationship: that between the homesteaders of the West and the modern federal government.

The Montana settlers live under circumstances in which government of any kind has little influence on their independent lives. Then Uncle Sam suddenly appears in the form of Stanley Meixell. "While the badge on his vest seemed to say he was a lawman," McCaskill says, it was "not anything I had ever seen: a shield with a pine tree embossed in the middle." Meixell was a ranger with the brand-new United States Forest Service.

At first, McCaskill and his fellow sheepherding Scottish settlers want little to do with Meixell and his endeavor-creating a national forest and in the process, implementing new restrictions on grazing activities. But their view changes when they find out he proposes to put even more severe limits on the massive cattle ranching operation nearby that has been gobbling up every available piece of quality grazing land.

The scene records the birth of a new kind of American government- a massive apparatus that serves as provider of services, protector of resources and balancer of competing interests. That combination almost guarantees a love-hate relationship with citizens, and that's the way it's been for more than 100 years.

That relationship continues to evolve today. As Eliza Newlin Carney reports in our cover story this month, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has come face to face with the big government debate as she seeks to implement federal standards requiring all American driver's licenses to meet anti-fraud standards without creating what amounts to a national ID card.

Likewise, the dispute over the role of government in the national health care system that erupted at town hall meetings across the country this summer shows that even after more than a century, Americans have made little more than an uneasy peace with the behemoth that governs them.

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