How Much Land Does The Government Own
In “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth,” Ludwig von Mises challenged the socialists to explain how economic calculation could be performed in a socialist economy absent prices. Mises concluded that economic calculation in a socialist economy is impossible, therefore socialism is impossible.
Mises wasn’t saying that you couldn’t have a socialist society, he was saying that it’s not an economy, in the sense that decision makers are economizing regarding their decisions about the allocation of resources.
Socialism, at the time, was defined as a system where the state owns the means of production. The state owns the natural resources and the capital, such as the factories necessary for use in the production process. Given this state ownership, the resources are not being traded in any market and since there are no markets for the resources there are also no market prices for the resources.
In an economy where resources are privately owned, the exchange of those resources would provide us with market prices. And those prices provide us with a sound basis for assigning resources to their most productive uses.
This rational calculation is impossible in a socialist economy.
Mises concluded, “Thus in the socialist commonwealth every economic change becomes an undertaking whose success can be neither appraised in advance nor later retrospectively determined. There is only groping in the dark. Socialism is the abolition of rational economy.” (p. 23)
Land Socialism in the United States
My interest in this topic was inspired by Yuri Maltsev. A few years ago, Dr. Maltsev gave a talk at Ferris State University focusing on the evils of Soviet socialism (a portion of the presentation can be seen here). Nobody disagreed with Yuri’s point that the Soviet economy was socialized, however, some took heavy issue with Yuri’s claim that the US economy was also socialized to a large degree.
This led me to consider the degree of land socialism in this country. This is a critical issue. Starting with the available land and labor, the structure of production is determined by the available technology and the capital that we derive from the available land and labor. Government control of the natural resources gives the government tremendous control of the whole economy, distorts prices, and diminishes the efficacy of our economic calculation.
Is US land ownership heavily socialized? Let’s begin answering this question by considering the states with the largest percentages of government-owned lands.
Nevada has the largest percentage, 84.9 percent, of federally owned lands, but 30 percent of Alaska is state owned, so Alaska has the largest percentage of government-owned lands. As you can see, due to the Louisiana Purchase and other factors, much of the federal land ownership is in the Western states. I included New York on the list because New York has the highest percentage of state-owned land.
Admittedly there is some false precision in these numbers as the states and the federal government have some difficulty in accurately providing statistics on their land ownership.
Next, consider the largest federal agencies ranked by land ownership.
Texas, with 171 million acres, is the second largest state. We see here that the BLM and the Forest Service are both larger than Texas. And the fourth largest agency, the National Park Service, is larger than all but four states, Alaska, Texas, California, and Montana, slightly larger than New Mexico’s 77.6 million acres.
Note that these numbers do not include the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The federal government claims that the 55 million acres of BIA lands are Indian lands not federal lands. I don’t know if the Indian tribes agree with this assessment. The Indian lands, if they were a state would be the 11th largest state, almost equal in size to Utah’s 54.3 million acres.
The Department of Defense administers 14.4 million acres of land, according to a 2014 Congressional report. (By the way, a 2012 Congressional report with the same title as this report claimed that the Department of Defense administers 19 million acres of land. There is no explanation for the missing 4.6 million acres in the 2014 report.)
The federal government, according to this report, “owns and manages roughly 640 million acres of land” and there is an estimated 200 million acres owned by the various state governments. Therefore, 37.1 percent of US dry land is owned by some government.
A map of the government land ownership will help us put things in perspective.
Note that this map shows only the federal holdings and the Indian lands and omits the 200 million acres of state lands. Still, it provides us with an illustration of the degree of land socialism in this country. The federal government owns most of the land roughly from the Continental Divide west to the Pacific Ocean.
Government-owned Lands in the Oceans
What about the submerged lands? The federal government also claims ownership over what they call the submerged lands of the US. These claims began with 1799 legislation regarding the “customs waters,” allowing the boarding of foreign flag vessels within 12 nautical miles of the coast. Over time, these claims have expanded and in 1945, Harry Truman declared US government jurisdiction and control over the continental shelf. During the next decades, governments of the world claimed increasingly larger amounts of the ocean beds. Problems occurred, however, if two governments disagreed over these claims. This became a United Nations issue in the 1970s, and in 1982, at the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, the countries of the world came to an agreement regarding their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), whereby each country owned the sea and the sea beds out to 200 nautical miles offshore.
Due to Congressional resistance of United Nations treaties, Congress did not ratify this agreement. But Ronald Reagan, in 1983 simply proclaimed sovereign rights over the US Exclusive Economic Zone. He ratified the agreement by presidential mandate.
According to a Department of the Interior report, there are 3.9 billion acres in the US EEZ. Reagan’s proclamation was the biggest land grab in US government history.
Consider this map of the US that includes the US EEZ. The various colors highlight the regions of the EEZ.
The federal government owns the sea beds out to 200 nautical miles off of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and much of the Gulf of Mexico. Due to the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands, there is a tremendous amount of EEZ lands off of the Alaskan coast. And the US government claims ownership over immense amounts of the Pacific Ocean, much of which is due to the military use of small islands during World War II.
For instance, the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific was used as an airstrip of about one square mile during WWII. Since this tiny island is now a federal holding it allows the government to claim ownership over 166,000 square miles of ocean sea bed, which is approximately the size of California.
We can now consider the total amount of US government lands.
One point to make here is that there is over 70 percent more submerged lands in the US than the total amount of dry land in this country. That is, the federal government owns more submerged land than the total amount of land in the 50 states.
Thus, 76.9 percent of total land in the United States is government owned. There is no doubt that regarding this essential resource, land, our economy is heavily socialized.
How Much Land Does The Government Own – Back to the Calculation Problem
The government ownership of lands leads to several economic problems. Government officials can use their control of the natural resources to reward politically favored industries and punish their political enemies. Second, government restrictions on the use of resources on government lands limits economic growth. Third, and this is Mises’s point regarding socialism, land socialism will create economic calculation problems.
The first calculation issue here is the government’s decisions regarding the use of this land and the resources on and under the land. Since the government owns the land, we see no prices for these resources. The government has no way to economize on these resources in the sense that government officials, even if they wanted to, could not efficiently allocate these resources. They make these allocation decisions based on political considerations, so they end up allowing the private sector to access the wrong resources, wrong in the sense that if we were allowed to have private ownership of these resources, we would choose to use the resources much differently, and more efficiently.
The second issue is that the economic calculation of private businesses is distorted by government control of the resources, because government ownership distorts the prices of the resources. If the prices were based on the private ownership of land and resources, for instance, we would see a different array of energy prices. The prices we see for resources do not accurately reflect the underlying realities of resource availability. Even though we are engaged in calculation when we allocate these resources, we are not economizing on the resources in the sense that Mises described.
Due to the high degree of government land ownership, the US government distorts economic calculation in the exact manner that Mises explained and predicted in 1920.