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October 6, 2022 Reading Time: 5 minutes

“You libertarians are the types that would allow fornication in public parks!”

 “What do you mean, public parks?”

This is a joke Brian Doherty tells in the club history of the libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism. Libertarians who want to dig further into their principles ought to ask whether government parks should exist, and they should also recognize that there is strong public support for their existence. Few libertarians imagine that their ideal world has governments owning millions of acres of land. Yet that’s the world we live in.

Libertarians ought to have a lot to say about what to do with government-owned lands. They should also recognize that, while it is worth considering as one policy option, demanding government sell its holdings will be met with resistance. And they ought to recognize that they have more to say on the issue than divestment.

Governments at the state, local and federal level own land and are charged with managing it for the benefit of the public. This could be an impossible problem. People want different things and there are plenty of uses that interfere with others. Your snowmobiling gets in the way of my birdwatching. Managing a forest for whitetail deer means that it is not being managed for whooping cranes.

Libertarians offer insight by demonstrating that private interests and free markets ensure better allocation of resources. It’s often unclear what the public interest is, but markets are effective at answering this challenge and getting land to its highest and best use. What people are willing to pay, and pay for, matters a lot. In lieu of market signals, politicians use their sense of public sentiment to guide their decision. That works, in a way, but it’s a much less powerful method.

How do we use lands to benefit the public? You can figure this out not by setting up a political process to weigh people’s claims, but by selling it to the highest bidder.

What about all of the subtle and hard-to-value benefits of biodiversity, cleaner water, and cleaner air that government-owned lands and forests provide? Wouldn’t some of these be lost if public lands get sold to the highest bidder?

Maybe? … Sometimes? It depends!

There’s a lot of land out there and people find a variety of uses, apart from farmland, ranches, strip malls, and housing. There are land conservancies, funded by voluntary contributions, that buy ecologically important properties. Conservancies often open up those lands in a way that encourages people to get into and to appreciate nature. Half a million acres of land in Montana are under private management for conservation purposes. Other private land owners manage their property for ecological benefits or vulnerable species.

Markets can play a key role in helping make the decisions about where resources can do the most good. Do we have too much conserved land or not enough? The best way to answer that question is to let people put their money where their mouth is.

Government land managers agree, at least in part. They are already in the land-selling and land-swapping business. If there’s a remote patch of land you’ve got plans for that doesn’t serve their recreation, conservation, or other goals, the federal conservators may entertain your offer to purchase or trade it for a more easily managed tract.

Proceeds from land sales tend to be restricted to conservation purposes, rather than considered as general government revenue. That is, they’ll sell property and use the revenue to buy more land. That presents an obstacle to libertarians who would like to see the government out of the business of land ownership entirely.

Government land managers defer to the political process to determine their goals. People elect their representatives. Their representatives create public administration and give them the task of determining how to use government land.

Like many political decisions, this leads to picking winners and losers in conflicts about how to use land. Yes, this part can be used for logging. No, you can’t ride your dune buggy there. Why not? They went through a process to hear the different opinions and made a decision. That’s another way of saying: because they said so. Write your elected officials, or push for the creation of collaborative management processes, if you’re concerned about the decisions being made.

This means that libertarians have a difficult task ahead of them. They have to make government divestment of public lands a popular policy, and get it within the Overton Window. Then they would need to find a good use for the proceeds raised, to best serve the public good. Until then, these lands will remain in government hands and subject to a political process that determines their use.

Libertarians should also be ready to grapple with an inevitable secondary question: Short of selling the land, do they have better ideas about how to manage land for the public’s good?

To some libertarians, the answer is an unflinching, no. “What do you mean, public parks?” To others, however, the answer is yes. Free markets and private property rights better serve the public good. We’ve socialized a lot of land, but we don’t have to let them suffer from all of socialism’s follies.

Governments and their supporters believe publicly owned lands are the best means of preserving natural areas and wildlife habitat to conserve biodiversity. But can we leverage the private sector to better serve these aims? Yes. Forest companies pay royalties to obtain the rights to harvest logs from state forests. But their activities can also help serve state conservation goals in the process. Forest rotation practices ensure forests remain healthy and viable in perpetuity. Lumber companies remove dead and dying trees that represent a hazard for wildfires, disease, or insect infestations. They replant to replenish the habitat of the species the government wants to encourage. Government managers and public lands benefit from infusions of cash, and the public (and public lands) benefit from healthier forests.

This well-established practice is driven, in part, by market demand. Producers of wood products often prefer to buy certified-sustainable forest products. Many of their customers now actively seek out certifications from organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

Very often, libertarian insights about markets, property rights and incentives can help to better serve the public good.

They can design markets to improve the fisheries managed for the public good, while providing incentives to avoid catching sensitive species as bycatch.

They can establish good neighbor authority to find mutually-beneficial areas of management.

They can recommend the suspension of harmful regulations and encourage cooperation to prevent wildfires.

They can etch out the rules about what to do with the extra cash generated by selling mining rights on government-owned land.

Many conservationists already try to make use of market forces to better serve their ends, and they’ll welcome further support and collaboration.

“What do you mean, public parks?” is a worthwhile question. People ought to question whether governments’ substantial holdings are being managed for the best interest of the public they are charged with serving. To the extent that governments continue to own land, libertarians have a lot of things to say about what that means and how to better serve the public interest.

James M. Hohman

James M. Hohman is the director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute in Midland, Mich.

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