In his chapter on “Public Land” in Liberty Defined: 50 Essential Issues That Affect Our Freedom, Ron Paul argues that federal land should be turned over to the states so that it can be sold to private interests.
On page 233, Paul anticipates an objection to this idea: “Some argue that in the West, the land has to be managed by the federal government due to the natural resources available. They argue that these resources belong to the people and shouldn’t fall into the hands of a few rich individuals.” I raised a similar concern about the privatization of the seas in my post here.
So how does Ron Paul respond to this objection? First of all, he says that, under the status quo, a few politicians control the land, and that “special interests…benefit from bureaucratic and political schemes” (page 233). That’s the sort of argument that I’ve heard a number of times from libertarians: that big government benefits rich special interests. What caught my eye, though, was Paul’s second argument—-that private ownership of land can lead to less wealthy people benefiting. Paul states on pages 233-234:
“Texas is a good example of how private ownership of land facilitated the development and use of its natural resources—-especially oil, gas, and coal. In the beginning, the Spanish land grants allowed large blocks of land to fall into the hands of a few. But over time, for economic reasons, this land was broken up into smaller and smaller pieces. Ownership of the oil was divided according to private property rights, which allowed many less wealthy people to benefit. The risks were taken by the entrepreneurs and the benefits were spread generously to small landowners with mineral rights and to the workers who labored in the industry. Before joining the union—-probably a mistake—-the Republic of Texas owned very little land. Texas never needed the federal government to manage its progress, whether it concerned natural resources, agriculture, or ranching.”
In my opinion, this is probably the best point in Ron Paul’s book. Against the argument that private ownership leads to the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a few, Paul presents a historical example in which a lot of land was initially held by only a few people, but economics led to that land becoming more widely distributed. A lot of times, the libertarians I read argue that government fosters monopoly and income inequality by supporting rich corporations, but they do not address the concern that a laissez-faire economy would itself result in survival of the fittest and the concentration of wealth and power into a few hands. Ron Paul, at least, does address that concern. But I wish that he had gone into more detail, explaining what economic factors led to the land becoming more widely distributed.
In quoting that passage from Paul’s book, I had to include the part about how the Republic of Texas joining the union was a mistake. Ron Paul offers some pretty unconventional views on American history in this book! On page 211, he discusses the erosion of limited government in America, an erosion that he considers to be a bad thing. He states: “The erosion started early, and it could be argued that even the Constitution itself weakened this principle that was embedded in the Articles of Confederation.” This is the second time in the book that Paul speaks highly of the Articles of Confederation.