Todd Henderson headshot

Michael J. Marks Professor of Law
University of Chicago Law School

M. Todd Henderson is the Michael J. Marks Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School. Professor Henderson’s research interests include corporations, securities regulation, and law and economics. He has taught classes ranging from Banking Regulation to Torts to American Indian Law.

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Government ownership of land

I love our national parks as much as the next guy (probably more, having visited every major one and dozens of smaller ones, and loving every minute of nearly every visit), but can someone tell me why the federal government owns so much of our country? Some maps tell the story. See here and here. Now comes news from the Obama administration that there are plans to make more land off limits to economic uses. See here. I understand the temptation to think of nature as benign, aesthetically valuable, and like a piece of antiquity to be preserved, but I think we go too far when we sacrifice economic progress for desert plants, tall trees, fish, and other nonhuman things. Fundamentally the claims of favoring these things for some abstract goals of perservation are antihuman. They are also often ways for politicians to serve their own interests and those of favored constituents over the general welfare.

The examples of hypocrisy from politicians on this subject are innumerable. The Obama administration favors more solar power, but Senator Feinstein wants to make sure it doesn’t happen in “her” desert. See here. The Kennedy family favors non-fossil fuels for energy, but not if it spoils their view. See here. Everyone is in favor of less reliance on foreign oil, but we don’t drill off the coast of California, so Jennifer Aniston can avoid seeing oil platforms from her Malibu mansion, and in Alaska, so caribou are not offended by our presence and the tundra is “preserved.”

Would our world really be worse off if the federal government sold all federal lands, except a limited number of areas for national parks and essential military facilities? Is it really true that the government does a better job of balancing the tradeoff between economic returns from land and preservation of land? It is time to get the government out of the business of issuing mining permits, oil drilling permits, logging permits, and on and on. There used to be a time when corporate charters were passed out by the state in this way, and the result was a disaster of exploitation, bribery of public officials, and reduced economic efficiency. One of the most important legal innovations of the past century was getting the government out of the business of telling people what business organizations they could form.

In that spirit, we should sell nearly all of the 60% of this country owned by the federal government, and use the vast sums such sales would generate to pay down some of our massive debt. Private property is not a recipe for spoliation but our best hope to get everything we can from our resources, including recreation, preserving natural beauty, minerals, and everything else the Earth has to offer. It is time to put people, all people, not just the rich ones who can afford to visit the wild places, first.

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