Libertarian Vacationers Demand Their Subsidies

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My article on the national parks as the elite’s way to keep private owners away from their pristine property — they bought it when it was cheap — drew some heated responses from libertarian defenders of socialist land ownership.

Over the last four decades, I have found all too often that libertarian defenders of the free market are tried and true men of principle until the day that someone points out that their favorite subsidy from the government is a form of theft. Then they call the critic a crank. I have learned this lesson: Never underestimate the power of a government subsidy to affect people’s logical process. Let me provide some examples.

I received this comment from Don W. Don lives in Jackson, Wyoming.

Have you ever visited the back country of Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park? Yes, John Muir was a nutcase, but he was right — some places on this earth should remain relatively pristine for the benefit of future generations.

By “future generations, he thinks he means future generations of non-owners: vacationers. But the economic effect of the national park system is very different. The park system protects future generations of the elite who own the enclaves. He refuses to admit what the elite have accomplished. “Keep your eyes on the tourists,” he implies. That is exactly what the elite want us to do.

I need to translate the word “pristine” in this context. It means “where the Federal government keeps taxpayers from being able to buy Federal land. It taxes the masses to keep things nice for vacationers and the super-rich, who bought up the contiguous land decades ago.”

Here is what Don W. believes. It takes a socialist, land-grabbing state to keep things pristine. He believes in salvation — healing — by the state.

Here is his religion. Without the Federal government, nature would be contaminated. We dare not trust private ownership, except by the elite on their now-protected enclaves. This is also the outlook of the elite. As Nelson W. Aldrich IV writes in his book, Old Money, communing with nature in one’s teens has been a rite of passage for the sons of the elite since the 1850’s.

The Federal government protects enclaves of this land for the sons of the elite. It protects it from the sons of the non-elite. Ken Burns did not mention this when he discussed Teddy Roosevelt’s commitment to nature.

The phrase “relatively pristine” means “where I can spend my vacation hiking at taxpayers’ expense.”

The reason I say you are wrong is that your thesis about the national parks being playgrounds of the rich has it completely backwards. The rich have helped conserve the wilderness, and have and are donating their land to the people.

The elite have long donated land to the government to keep the rest of us out except as vacationers. They keep the enclaves for themselves. The tourists get to visit on the outlying land, which the land-grabbing state now owns permanently. A good book on this, sadly out of print, is The Greening. It was written by gold coin salesman and hard-working farmer, Franklin Sanders.

Don continued:

I recently hiked Phelps Lake in Grand Teton National Park. It was private property for the last century, but is now available for proletariat like me to hike and enjoy.

Ah, yes: Don the proletariat! A true libertarian man of the people! While there are very few proletarians these days, they are invoked by a middle-class libertarian who wants to gain access to government-funded land on his vacations.

They are allowed to visit, but not buy. The land is maintained at taxpayers’ expense. Most taxpayers never visit a national park. But they pay to keep it open for those who do.

Anyone who suggests that the Federal government or even local state government should not be in the vacation-subsidy business is regarded as a libertarian extremist.

I sent him a letter that I had received from Robert Anderson, who earned his M.A. under Ludwig von Mises. He taught economics at Hillsdale and Grove City College. He lives in Wyoming on a rural property, which he owns.

You sure got this one right! Beverly and I took a long weekend trip over to Western Wyoming last week, driving through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons national parks. Junior Rockefeller bought up the land in front of the Tetons in the early 1950’s, and that enclave along with no state income tax, has made Teton County the richest county per capita in the US. Jackson “hole” manifests the lifestyle of the super rich.

I added in my response to Don:

I always love letters from libertarian socialists. “But X is different. I love X. I love subsidies. Don’t take away my subsidies!

Don was incensed. “There is not a socialist bone in my body. Name calling only makes my point that you have an indefensible argument about the national parks. Have a nice day.” I always have a nice day when I upset a subsidy-seeking defender of private property in general.

He added that he is a constitutional libertarian who favors a minimal state and pollution control. Yes, the good old minimal state: which owns about 30% of the land in the United States. This includes:

Nevada: 85%
Alaska: 69%
Utah: 57%
Oregon: 53%
Idaho: 50%
Arizona: 48%
California: 45%
Wyoming: 42%
New Mexico: 42%
Colorado: 37%

For these figures and a unique map showing where the Federal land is located, state by state, visit the Strange Maps site.

With Constitutional libertarians like Don W., Nancy Pelosi can stop worrying about her right flank.

Don said I invoked straw men.

Do you not believe that the Grand Tetons are worthy of being kept pristine? How about a McMansion on the top of the Grand Teton? Or maybe a casino with Las Vegas lights all the way to the top?

Right. A house on the top of a huge rock. A casino. Straw men? I think these qualify.

The intense, nearly religious hated of the free market marks the worldview of this self-proclaimed constitutional libertarian. The state must heal the land! The state must keep the yahoos out! The state must preserve pristine property for vacationing lovers of nature!

Then there was Herman K. Herman informed me:

You would auction off the national parks? You are no longer on my list of Authors You Must Read. I don’t care a gnat’s ass who or what funds the parks, they are THERE! And they are the only thing that remains beautiful about America.

Conclusion: “Private ownership makes things ugly.”

I wonder why these people read

A counter view came from another reader: a victim.

Thank you very much for you article on LRC today about the national park scam that has been going on in this country for over 100 years.

My family was a victim of the national parks service when the Smokey Mountain national park was created in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. My family had hundreds of acres of very fertile farmland in a valley known as “Cades Cove” They were evicted from land that had been in my family for well over a century. What did they get in return? “Next to nothin!” To quote my late Grandmother.

As someone who is furiously against the “national” parks I am grateful you have brought attention to this one small area of government tyranny on behalf of the elite class.

The Don W’s and Herman K’s of the world benefit personally from the losses inflicted by the Federal government on families like this one. They benefit from the reclamation of the land — reclamation by the bureaucratic hand of the Federal government.

Don and Herman can see the majestic vistas of the national parks on their vacations. But they cannot see the losers: heirs of confiscated land and taxpayers who do not vacation at the parks. Bastiat was right in the mid-nineteenth century. This is the fallacy of the thing not seen. It is a powerful error, especially when it afflicts those lifting the wallets of the non-land-grabbers whose taxes fund the land-grabbers.

To Don and Herman I say, the pristine scenery you enjoy is stolen goods. You spend your vacations worshiping. You do not worship the grandeur of nature. You worship the messianic state.

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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