Images: Wikipedia (Federal Lands and Bureau of Land Management)

Occasionally a libertarian will look at a map like this one and lick his chops at an obvious opportunity to strike a blow against the D.C. Leviathan:

 

The notion of prying this enormous amount of land out of the hands of the feds is not merely a libertarian idiosyncrasy. This article from 2013 (also during an infamous “government shutdown”) says at least seven western states have lobbied to reclaim federal land, apparently out of desperation. These states didn’t like seeing the land shuttered or unmanaged, suffering Washington Monument Syndrome while politicians a thousand miles away played financial chicken with each other’s constituencies. There is some real-world interest in this idea. As Washington’s fiscal convulsions get progressively worse, the question will become more urgent. Libertarians would do well to have realistic answers when a radical change becomes politically possible.

It would be a mistake, though, to look at a map like that and assume the red shaded areas are “federally owned” the way you own your house — as if it could all just be put up to auction and privatized overnight. Here’s a more detailed map of those federal holdings, courtesy of Wikipedia:

 

A great deal of it is administered by the Bureau of Land Management. BLM is meant to act more like a steward over an unowned commons than like an owner (actual behavior of the Bureau notwithstanding). For generations this land’s status as an unowned wilderness has been central to entire ways of life out west. For better or worse, an individual state might not be ready or willing to put in as much “administration” on land like that as BLM has. Alternatives might involve allowing it to be homesteaded by its most active users, who already do things like irrigate and control fires on their own.

Another enormous chunk consists of reservations for Native American nations, which occupy a murky legal position too. They are not exactly protectorates, like Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands, nor are they independent nations, and they are definitely not federal property. If Arizona decided to reclaim “federal land” they would not be free to put a For Sale sign on the city of Window Rock, which is rightly owned by the Navajo. The land is “managed” by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to give the native nations a direct interface with the federal government. For a group like the Navajo, whose land sits within three separate American states, maybe federal status is more convenient than the alternatives.

Some of the other areas are a bit easier to speculate about. National parks need not be national meaning a state could theoretically staff it with rangers just the same. Compared to the other categories, the military sites are negligible in size, but are also the most clearly like direct ownership. The only difficulty in liquidating those would be the resistance from the military industrial complex and its zillions of deep-pocketed clients.

Libertarian Proposal

The libertarian platform is unabashedly radical, but radical doesn’t have to mean telling the other side they get nothing but a boot to the head if you get your way. It should be possible to devise realistic libertarian solutions that manage to satisfy all sides, even when the question is such a tangled web as federal land. “Privatize it all and damn the consequences,” is what they expect us to say, and it can be rejected out of hand as a nonserious answer. Our goal is to decentralize and localize political power, partly because many of us believe that eventually people will find the state unnecessary, but also because the state we have now is just too big to serve its people effectively. The monopoly needs to be broken up.

One possible way to get land off the federal budget with minimal necessary upheaval, at least in cases where the local state won’t take it, would be to have Congress create private joint-stock organizations that would own the land privately. Their charters would task them with jobs identical to the federal bureau they replace. Their shareholders would be all the people who currently draw benefits from the land. The details would take some haggling, but in the end a private entity would be responsible for the land, with an incentive to please the same people who were served when it was federally owned.

Now, it may turn out that the “business model” of, say, the Bureau of Land Management totally falls apart the way the Second Bank of the United States fell apart when it ceased to be a central bank and became a mere private bank subject to market forces. But that will be a decision made by the managers, bound by the realities of profit and loss, in a best-effort attempt to satisfy the same customers that BLM satisfied when it had federal backing. If it can’t be done privately, either by profit-seeking enterprise or by charitable aid, then people are voting with their feet and wallets and saying it ought not to be done, no matter how sentimental some might feel about it.

The Libertarian Party Mises Caucus exists to keep the Libertarian Party close to its radical principles, even while it strives to be pragmatic.