When should the federal government own land?

Public land would be interesting.

That was a request for topic coverage from Ryan, from last night.  Here is a 2014 CRS survey piece with good background information.

I can think of a few reasons for federal government ownership of public land:

1. For some specific purpose, such as a national park or a nuclear weapons facility or the White House.

1b. There is a conservation argument for land holdings, but again I think it has to be for a specific purpose, thus collapsing into #1 proper.

2. As a revenue-maximizing strategy, a’la Irvine Company, so the government can sell off pieces of land successively, over time, to take in more revenue than if it sold off everything all at once.

3. To hold land off the market and thus force more people to squeeze into cities, thereby reaping extra returns to scale and density, shades of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

4. To limit rent-seeking games, since much of the land might be low value in the present, but a race to homestead it would consume resources.  In the longer run, that homesteading race would lead to suboptimal owners, since we don’t now know exactly what the land will be good for.

5. It’s the only way we can run an asset surplus, since cash would be grabbed by the political process and redistributed.  Think of it as akin to those poorer villages where you save in the form of cows or pigs, because your uncle cannot come to you when he needs to fund a wedding and demand a piece of the pig.

I say #1 is unproblematic and can be decided on a case-by-case basis.  #2 is fine if the government were doing that, but they’re not.  #3 would seem to require much more federal ownership of land than what we have.  It’s still much, much cheaper to live in Idaho.  #4 is an OK argument, but I don’t see why it would apply to properly done land auctions, which is indeed how federal disposal of the land has evolved.

So #5 is actually the main argument, at least once we get past #1.

Overall, I don’t see why the federal government needs to own about 28% of the country.  Nonetheless, in the meantime the government does allow grazing and mining to take place on those lands, often at below-market rents.  (By the way, for now I am putting on hold a possible #6: “federal land ownership is the most efficient way to regulate mining and fossil fuel extraction.”  It raises issues far beyond the scope of the current discussion, though it is significant.)

You will note that the federal government owns 47% of the land in “the West,” but only 4% of the land east of the Mississippi.  Unfortunately:

Congress in 1976 passed a law declaring that “the remaining public domain lands generally would remain in federal ownership.”

Though note a few days ago the House acted to ease land giveaways, so this may be changing.  Yet I feel no great thrill at simply giving this land to the state governments, though that may be an intermediate step toward privatization.

I would prefer to lower the percentage of federal land ownership in the West, but in the meantime I don’t see this as an incredibly pressing issue.  The government can either waste some of your land or some of your money, take your pick.  I do think the gdps of Nevada and Idaho could be higher, just not by that much.  Alaska may be a story of its own.



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