A Philosopher's Blog

Public Lands & Privatization

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 1, 2016

Thanks to people such as Teddy Roosevelt, the United States has vast areas of public lands—including the famous national parks. While most Americans have a positive view of these public lands, there has long been a push to privatize them. While the very few who would benefit from privatization have a compelling interest in ending public lands, I will show that the vast majority of citizens should strongly support keeping public lands public.

One somewhat abstract argument in favor of public lands is that they provide the basis for common ownership of the country even for those who do not own their own private land. As citizens, they have a stake and a share in the public lands. While people might not feel this ownership, it seems to be an important part of being a citizen of a democratic state. In monarchies of the past (and present) and dictatorships of the present, the common folk do not own the lands—rather, they belong to the monarch or tyrant. In contrast, public lands seem to be a rather important part of a democratic state—if only as a symbol of democracy.

It could be countered that a democracy does not require public lands—after all, they have existed without them and there is no necessary link between democracy and public lands. This is certainly a reasonable point: a democratic United States could exist in which there are no public lands; merely private lands and government property such as military bases, schools and courthouses. There might even be no real change in the attitudes of most people. As such, I must concede that the stake argument, though appealing, is perhaps too abstract to have significant strength.

A second, and stronger argument, is that public lands are needed to preserve nature. While individuals live but a short while and easily change their minds, land that is protected by enduring law can be persevered for as long as the state stands. This preservation of nature has value in many ways. One is that people have a psychological need for nature. For those who favor evolution, we evolved to be a part of this world. For those who accept the divine, it can be contended that we need to look upon the handiwork of the creator and preserving His work is to show respect for God.

I can also point to the obvious fact that the natural areas of the world serve as the life support for our planet. To use the obvious analogy, to allow some passengers of a spaceship to rip apart and sell the life support systems would be clearly stupid and wrong. While they would make a short term profit, they would do so at the expense of everyone. There is also the matter of future generations: to ruin the land for decades or centuries for short term profits would seem to be a crime against the future.

I noted above that there are a very few that would benefit from privatizing public lands. They and their supporters typically argue that privatization would take the land back from the government and thus restore freedom and put the decision making back into the hands of the people.

While this sort of rhetoric has considerable appeal, it is fundamentally a lie. This is because the transition from public ownership to private ownership would mean control over the land with no input from you or I and all access to the formerly public land would be at the discretion of the owner. In the case of public land, the citizens have a role in the control of the land through voting and the political process. If I do not like how the land is being used or the restrictions placed on its use, I can take action to get the laws and rules changed. However, if the land is privately owned, then I no longer have any real influence or control. While it is true that the very few owners would have greater control and freedom under private ownership, the vast majority of people would have no control or influence under private ownership. So, when people use the freedom argument, they mean to give freedom to the very, very few and take it away from the vast majority.

There is also the argument that privatizing public lands would result in profits and economic growth, so they should be privatized. This argument is certainly compelling—at least for the tiny fraction of people who would profit from the privatization. While some of the wealth would “trickle down”, the vast majority of people would gain nothing and would, in fact, lose access to those lands. Privatization would mean that the least who have the most would get even more, while the most who have the least would be losers. This would be great for the privileged few, but awful for the rest of us.


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