Privatizing Public Lands

Privatizing Public Lands

Privatizing Public Lands

Privatizing Public Lands


In the United States, private ownership of land is not a new idea, yet the federal government retains title to roughly a quarter of the nation's land, including national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges. Managing these properties is expensive and contentious, and few management decisions escape criticism. Some observers, however, argue that such criticism is largely misdirected. The fundamental problem, in their view, is collective ownership and its solution is privatization. A free market, they claim, directs privately owned resources to their most productive uses, and privatizing public lands would create a free market in their services. This timely study critically examines these issues, arguing that there is no sense of "productivity" for which it is true that greater productivity is both desirable and a likely consequence of privatizing public lands or "marketizing" their management. Lehmann's discussion is self-contained, with background chapters on federal lands and management agencies, economics, and ethics, and will interest philosophers as well as public policy analysts.


It rests with the philosophers to change people's ideas and ideals. The entrepreneur serves the consumers as they are today, however wicked and ignorant.

Ludwig von Mises, Human Action

When people learn of my research on public lands and the privatization proposal, they generally respond with some variant of "Oh, I thought you were in philosophy" or "And what does that have to do with philosophy?" Their challenge can be met quickly, if superficially, by pointing out that recommendations, such as "Public lands should be privatized," are inescapably normative and therefore fall into the domain of ethics. Moreover, philosophers have always delighted in questioning customary ways of thinking, exposing obscurities in our concepts, and pursuing arguments to their foundations. Since most of the arguments for privatization come out of economics, it is economic concepts and arguments that receive most of this unwelcome attention here.

My own interest in privatization and, more generally, in the normative aspects of economics derives from long-standing environmental concerns. Nearly thirty years ago I joined the Sierra Club, which was then fighting proposals to build a couple of dams on the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon. I got involved in the debate at a letter-to-congressman level and was surprised to find that a good deal of it ran in economic terms. I suppose I was both uneducated and naive, but I recall having some trouble seeing what benefit-cost ratios, discount rates, electricity demand projections, and so forth had to do with what I felt when I viewed the canyon at sunrise, or hiked into its immensity, or watched the stars emerge in a narrow strip of sky over a remote beach. Only much later did I find out that some economists think you can attach a monetary value to such experiences--in terms of willingness-to-pay travel costs to the Grand Canyon, say--and also that some people are apparently quite unmoved by such things: former Interior Secretary James Watt once said of a Grand Canyon raft trip that by the third day he was praying for helicopters to come and take him out.

I soon found that there was nothing extraordinary about the Grand Canyon dam controversy, that in fact all environmental issues tend to get debated in economic terms. Maybe I should have stopped to wonder about this, but instead I just joined in, using appeals to economic considerations . . .

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