How Libertarians Deal With “the Problems of the 1890s”, Part 2: Public Parks

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A picturesque view of Northeastern Pennsylvania

A picturesque view of Northeastern Pennsylvania

Those with an over-inflated sense of entitlement will be the last to seriously consider the libertarian argument.  I would not consider any of the alleged “solved problems” on Austin Cline’s list to be fundamental human rights.  Many are outright luxuries.  This is seems to me to be true of state parks and parks in cities.  As much as we all love green leafy, open spaces in cities nobody is entitled them, and I think we can live without them.

I would love to know how rural Americans feel about this issue.  I’ve been a city dweller all my life.  Much of the ground I come into contact with is covered either with a building or with some sort of stone, concrete, or asphalt surface.  I understand why some city dwellers get hopped up about keeping certain spaces green and open.  But what about those who sit on their porches and see nothing but green, rolling hills extending all the way to the horizon.  Are they as concerned as we city dwellers are about public parks?

For the past two summers, I’ve had the privilege of touring eastern Pennsylvania and central New York by bicycle.  Each time, my room-mate and I departed from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and spent about a week -and-a-half riding to Rochester, New York, where some dear friends of ours live.  Each time, I was surprised at how quickly the city had faded away to reveal large expanses of green hills and clear blue skies.  These shots, for example, were taken within about twenty-four hours of leaving the city, and that time included an eight-hour rest:

First Night

First night.

Second day, morning.

Second day, morning.

Second day, afternoon.

Second day, afternoon.

Some of this land is state park land, but a lot of it is people’s private land that they own and enjoy.  A lot of it is farm land.  The third picture, for example, is of a cornfield.  Due to big-government subsidies, American farmers regularly overproduce corn.  Who knows?  In a free market, some of this land could have been put to better use as park land.  (“If you build it, they will come?“) The point is that you do not need to travel very far outside the city at all to find open spaces like these.  Open space is still in abundance.  Those who have access to cars or mopeds will have access to open spaces, even if the city of Philadelphia decided tomorrow to pave or build high-rises over all of its public parks.

Most nights, my room-mate and I paid about fifteen dollars to pitch a tent in state-park campgrounds.  This proved to be very convenient for us, but I wouldn’t claim to be entitled to pitch a tent on someone else’s land.  On the contrary, one state park at which we planned to camp was closed while the state made some sort of improvement.  There was enough grass in front of the park office to accommodate at least ten tents like ours.  Still, we were turned away, and we left.  Fortunately, we met a pair of nice strangers, who arranged for us to camp in the back yard of a friend of theirs.  This was the view from his yard:

Lake Henry, looking East.

Lake Henry, looking East.

Lake Henry, looking South

Lake Henry, looking South.

Many cross-country cyclists attest to the generosity of strangers they meet along the way.  This stranger did not charge us anything for his service, but I would have gladly paid double or triple what I would have paid to stay at the state park that night.  I suspect that many homeowners along that lake could also make a substantial amount of money by offering their yards for rent on the side.  This is an example of how market forces would preserve park land in the absence of government action.

When there is enough demand for a thing to generate revenue from it, someone will be willing to provide it.  This is just as true for park lands and camp grounds as it is for every other good or service on the market.  Where there is a significant demand for park land, someone will be willing to preserve an appropriate portion of land for that purpose, and allow the public to use it at a price.  If the demand for parks is not significant enough, then the land should put to higher-valued uses.

The issue of demand might cause some confusion for those who are not accustomed to thinking economically.  To establish demand, it does not suffice to simply call your congressman, local representative, or businessmen and tell them that you want a thing.  True demand is established when people actually calculate what they are willing to give up to obtain the thing they want.  I want parks in cities.  I think many people want parks in cities.  But it is not enough to want parks.  Those who demand parks actually have to make it worth while to preserve park land by offering something of value in exchange for the preservation and use of that park land—usually money.  Those who demand parks have to indicate through action that the highest-valued use of the land is, in fact, as a park.

No, this is not my default desktop wllpaper image.  This is a real place in eastern Pennsylvania.

No, this is not my default desktop wallpaper image. This is a real place in Eastern Pennsylvania.

Rittenhouse Square is one of the most visited and best-known public parks in the city of Philadelphia.  Suppose a philanthropist offered a substantial amount of money to the city of Philadelphia to buy Rittenhouse Square for the purpose of building a high-rise apartment building on that land that he would use to provide free housing to homeless people. Suppose that the philanthropist had enough money to pay for maintenance of the building for five hundred years.  Should the city sell the land to the philanthropist so that he may shelter the city’s homeless?  Would selling the land violate some right of all the people who enjoy Rittenhouse Square daily?

In the free market, the owner of Rittenhouse Square would measure the philanthropist’s demand for housing against park-goers demand for park land by comparing the income he would expect to receive from each venture.  If the philanthropist is willing to pay more for the land than the park-goers are, then Rittenhouse Square’s time is up.  The time has come to put the land under Rittenhouse Square to its higher-valued use: a fully-funded apartment for the homeless, in this hypothetical.

Me at Blue Rocks Family Campground, a privately owned and operated park

The author at Blue Rocks Family Campground, a privately-owned and operated park in Lenhartsville, PA.

The same would hold true, even if the buyer were not as magnanimous.  Imagine that, rather than dedicating the land to homeless people, the buyer intended only to build an office building or a factory that would employ several hundred Philadelphians and produce some goods or services that Philadelphians generally valued.  Even so, if a buyer is willing to pay more than the park-goers, then the land should go to that buyer, and put to the use that the buyer intends.  Those park-goers who are disappointed with this turn of events should find another city park to visit, or take a drive to some place just outside the city, where the hills still roll green for miles and miles.  They should allow the city’s unemployed to revel in the new job opportunities, and they should allow the nation’s consumers to revel in the new products brought to market.

When the government designates a certain amount of land as park land, it practically guarantees that the land will not be put to its highest valued use.  It may be nice to have parks in cities, but having parks requires foregoing other valuable ventures.  Those who want park land have no right against anyone that they should have it, especially if it comes at the cost of some greater opportunity.

Even if not all park land will be preserved in a free market, a substantial amount will.  A great many people take a personal interest in preserving and enjoying park land.  Many of these people are so interested that they are willing either to buy land for the purpose of preserving it, or to purchase licenses to use land that others own and preserve.  This is what my room-mate and I did when we paid to stay not only at state parks, but privately-owned parks as well.  The demand is there.  The question is, what type of organization or entity will best preserve the land that so many people are interested in preserving?

The following maps, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Certified Forest Products Initiative (whether they know it or not, but I hope they appreciate the publicity), give a decent idea of public land ownership in Pennsylvania:

PA land cover

PA Land Cover.

PA Forest Land.

PA Forest Land.

PA Federal & State Parks.

PA Federal & State Parks.

First, I’ll admit that map indicating federal and state parks does not represent all publicly owned park land in the state of Pennsylvania.  County governments and municipalities also maintain park systems that do not appear on the map.  For example, I can see French Creek State Park, the yellow splotch nestled on the border between Chester and Berks counties where my room-mate and I have camped on the first night of our ventures, but I do not see the Wissahickon Valley Park, which should appear as a noticeable stripe above the D in PhilaDelphia.  I have tried in vain to find an on-line map that includes county and municipal parks.  Many counties, like Berks County, have  maps that indicate the locations of county parks with markers, but do not actually indicate the parks’ land cover.  (Boulder County, Colorado’s park site has the type of map I’m looking for.) This does not completely destroy the utility of the map posted above.  Just imagine that the map is significantly peppered with county and municipal parks like Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park system, and the parks of Berks County.

That said, just look at the broad swaths of open and forested land that do not fall under either the federal or Pennsylvania state parks systems. Much of it does not appear to fall under any public park system.  Most of the land that is not forest is either farm land or grazing land that could easily be converted to recreational space should the demand rise relative to the demand for what is  produced there.  I’m not aware that these open and natural lands are in any immediate danger of irretreivable loss merely because they are not publicly-owned.  If I’m wrong about this, please correct me in the comments, but I don’t think it is accurate to say that without government-run parks, there would be no forests or nature or parks to enjoy.

There is a different story to tell elsewhere in the country. The federal government owns almost half the last west of the Mississippi River, including about 84.5% of Nevada.  Will “big government” necessarily do a better job of preserving this land than private organizations?  Consider this quote from, Holly Fretwell, author of the book Who is Minding the Federal Estate: Political Management of Federal Lands, from a recent interview with the Property & Environment Research Center:

When we look at our public lands, they were designated at a time when it was believed that the government could best protect the resource values, and many people still believe this today.  These are really good intentions, but its really the incentives that shape the management that we’re going to see.  Our public land managers and employees are professionals.  They’re professionals with advanced degrees in land management, yet they have to follow the guidelines that are set for them in Washington by politicians.  And the problems that we see are stemming from the tools that the land managers are provided.  …The hands of public land managers are often tied by the systems. That is, budgets are provided by Congress, they have earmarks for pet projects that are often not aligned with what management priorities would otherwise be.  I can think of million dollar outhouses.  The ones in Glacier [National Park, Montana,] are the ones that come to mind right now.  These outhouses in Glacier were lobbied for by a Montana group to save the backcountry chalets.  These are fabulous backcountry chalets out in Glacier, but they’re used by less than one percent of park visitors.  At the same time, managers were desperately seeking funds to rehabilitate the visitor center and to repair the Going-to-the-Sun Road that is used by ninety-nine percent of park visitors.  The chalets were not even on the managers’ priority funding list.  So, when we look at what’s happening in our lands, it is not the people on the ground that really run the show.  Rather, it is the directives of Washington that determine what they will do through both legislation and the budgeting process.

Keen Lake Campground, a privately owned and operated park just outsaide of Carbondale, PA.

Keen Lake Resort, a privately owned and operated park just outside of Carbondale, PA.

Catering to special interests is “not a bug, but a feature” of government bureaucratic control. Those who disapprove of the government’s catering to drug companies through health care legislation, or of the government’s catering to religious institutions through its “faith-based initiatives”, should also disapprove of the government’s catering to environmental organizations that represent the interest of a mere one percent of national park visitors.  Rather than placing these lands in the trust of government politicians and bureaucrats, we should hand them over to those private professionals who have dedicated their lives to the science of maintaining and preserving natural lands for the enjoyment of the general public.

In conclusion, land should first be put to its highest valued use.  If some group of people can benefit from the forgoing of public parks more than park-goers benefit from visiting the parks, then the public parks should be foregone.  Simply wanting park land is insufficient to warrant preserving it.  Those who want a park to remain should be prepared to sacrifice more than all others interested in the land if they want the parks to remain.

Second, government is ill-suited to meet the true needs of park-goers because it is removed from the market forces that guide investment.  Government succumbs to political pressures and caters to special interests too often.  If saying so makes me “unfair” and “unjust”, then so be it, but I think the point is “worthy of consideration”.

For an interesting related discussion of logging and forests, see the second half of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! episode on Environmental Hysteria. Of course I don’t dig the ad hominem attacks, but they do give us something to think about:

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Up next:  those indispensable housing and fire codes.

Coming Soon –  Part 3:  Housing and Fire Codes >></.


3 Responses to How Libertarians Deal With “the Problems of the 1890s”, Part 2: Public Parks

  1. […] the Author « Legal Thought of the Day, No. 11 How Libertarians deal With “the Problems of the 1890s”, Part 2: Public Parks […]

  2. rjm says:

    >hand them over to those private professionals
    It makes some sense. Rather than filter the money through Congress, hand it right over to the special interest groups, the corporations, Haliburton, and the other professionals. Cut out the middle man. Private enterprise can save millions or billions of dollars by hiring as WalMart and McDonalds and (more on point) Disneyland, does. Pay minimum wage, no need for education, train ’em on-the-job, do it again next year. No need for high falutin’ education in natural resource schools. There’s thousands of ex-mortgage brokers and car company execs begging for jobs.
    Private enterprise knows how to turn a profit. The current nation park entrance fee of $60 per year for however many you can cram in your car is nuts. $60 per person each time is more like it. Ask DisneyWorld. And if by some extemely unlikely mis-chance they run into trouble, they can always protect their shareholders by selling Yellowstone to the Chinese, apologize, and go home rich.

    • autofyrsto says:

      @ rjm: “Those with an over-inflated sense of entitlement will be the last to seriously consider the libertarian argument.”

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