The National Parks: The Super-Rich's Greatest Idea

Recently by Gary North: ‘Dr. Deflation’ Changes His Mind After 27+ Years

Ken Burns is at it again. This time, it is a PBS series on the national parks. He subtitles it “America’s Greatest Idea.”

The national parks are not America’s greatest idea. They are the super-rich’s greatest idea . . . for themselves.

The super rich love nature. Anyway, they love owning big chunks of nature. But they face competition. The masses can buy property right next door. Land developers buy up acreage and build condos or even worse, time-shares. Then Mr. and Mrs. Sack Lunch buy the condos and move in. They litter the area with themselves.

The super-rich want privacy. This is one of the three identifying marks of being super-rich today. First, you own magnificent houses that cannot be seen from the highway. They can be seen only by your peers, after driving down a long highway or from the air in a private plane or helicopter. Second, you hire lots of servants to manage these properties. Third, you own private aircraft to take you to your hidden properties with all the servants. The mark of great wealth in America is inconspicuous consumption.

Who are the main beneficiaries? The servants. They live on the properties year-round and get paid for the privilege. The super-rich enjoy the view twice a year for a couple of weeks. It costs them millions of dollars in forfeited income.

The super-rich like to buy low, watch it appreciate, and then never sell. They do not like price competition. So, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. devised a plan to get this. He began this just after the turn of the century in 1900. He bought up property in Maine. So did his peers — the younger super-rich. Then they gave the surrounding land to the National Park Service.

This was for The People. The People could come and visit, but they could not come and stay. The People are allowed to marvel at the scenic beauty. “If only we could own a piece of this!” they think.

Comes the answer from the family estates: “Too late, suckers!” That puts them in their place. That is a big part of being a card-carrying member of the super-rich. You put others in their place. The secret is to keep them from finding out how you do it. So, you fund “The National Parks: America’s Greatest Idea.”

They have run this restricted-access land scheme over and over since 1906. The popular place to have done this in my generation is in the area around Jackson Hole, Wyoming. But the first experiment was in Maine.

I wrote about this back in 2000. I described the three islands from which the true Powers That Be in the United States have built their family enclaves: Mr. Desert Island in Maine, Jekyll Island in Georgia, and Jupiter Island in Florida. You can read my essay here.


The national parks remove land from land speculation. “All those in favor of grasping land speculators, please stand up.” (“OK, North, you may sit down now.”)

Land speculators buy property that they believe people would like to own. They develop the properties at their expense. If they guess wrong, they lose money — lots of money. So, they try to offer properties for sale that people will be willing to pay for. These properties are cut up and sold in terms of the taste of buyers. The horror!

The elite super-rich do not like what common people like. One of the ways that a super-rich family demonstrates its rise to status is to sit on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). This position is difficult to achieve. (This is described by a member of the elite, Nelson Aldrich IV, in his book, Old Money.) They know that if MOMA burned down tomorrow, the general public would not know or care. A few of the commoners would even rejoice. (Put me in this category.) General headquarters for the aesthetic war of America’s richest elite against the common man’s idea of beauty is MOMA.

The national parks allocate access in two ways: (1) first come, first serve and (2) price. Commoners must apply to reserve a pass into the popular parks, then drive there. If there is a waiting list, we know the price was set too low. If too few people show up at some less desirable park, we know the land is not being put to its highest use — highest use as determined by the free market’s principle of allocation: “high bid wins.”

The parks are becoming famous for huge forest fires. Rival theorists of land management have competed for a century to gain control on the National Park Service. There are the “let it burn” people. There are the “controlled burning” people. The parks are the great Federal laboratories for these two views.

There are also rival theories of park access. There are the hikers-only people. They are challenged by the internal combustion engine people. There are the bicycle trails people. What there aren’t are “high bid wins” people.

A society can allocate resources by price or by power. The national parks have always been allocated by power. In this competition, The People lose. “Power to the People!” matches “I will still respect you in the morning” as a popular slogan. Both slogans promote the same result.


Ken Burns is a hired servant. He gets to do what he wants at other people’s expense: the super-rich and the taxpayers.

Burns was funded by General Motors for 22 years. General Motors last year discovered that it is better for the United Auto Workers union to allocate by power than by price. The company had priced itself out of the market. It took an infusion of Federal money to keep the factories humming. Then the Obama administration gave controlling ownership to the UAW. The company immediately cut off funding for Burns. His latest documentary on the parks is the final cut for GM. An artist just cannot trust those blue collar types!

Burns has survived because the Public Broadcasting System has run his shows. He would not make it on any other network. PBS affiliates initially received grants of free television spectrum from the U.S. government. It also receives money from the Federal government. Had the principle of high bid wins not been banned by Federal law in the realm of broadcasting spectrum, I doubt that you would have heard of Ken Burns.

Aesthetically, his work appeals to the college-educated people who would rather not walk through MOMA, but who are afraid to admit this to anyone. PBS is where the super-rich fund the extension of their worldview. If they should ever quit, “viewers like you” will no longer be viewers: not enough funding. The tax-exempt foundation money keeps the people with brains and cultural influence on their side. Ken Burns is a man with brains.

He did a documentary on baseball. Let me know when he does a documentary on NASCAR.


My view is that the Federal government should auction off the national parks and use the money to reduce taxes. Soft-core conservatives think this money should be used to reduce the national debt. That is the equivalent of putting a 17-year-old female page on the staff of a Congressman. It only tempts them.

September 28, 2009

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.

Copyright © 2009 Gary North