Secretary Gale Norton: Roosevelt Republican?

Gale Norton, an individual who was once libertarian and who has long espoused a principled view of private property and the market, now heads the Department of the Interior.  Previous holders of that position—Jim Watt and Bruce Babbitt—have taken strongly divergent stances.  Watt was generally viewed as pro-business—his goal was to ensure that the people of the United States received economic value from the federal government’s land holdings.  Babbitt was generally viewed as favoring environmental goals—he sought to preserve the priceless heritage of America for future generations.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


Norton has sought to plot a course between these extremes, arguing that America should seek instead a rich array of public-private landowners and the government to restrict land development.  An owner, for example, might agree to protect habitat or some species or not develop an area.  In return, the government agrees to allow the owner to use the rest of his land for productive purposes. Sometimes, a public-private partnership will entail an agreement to reward a landowner for his “conservation” efforts by ensuring that adjacent properties remain free from development.


In practice, public-private partnerships generally involve large corporations or rich individuals and government.  Large corporate interests and wealthy individuals can better afford to pay “greenmail” than can smaller business or small property owners.  Indeed, since such rules reduce competition (small firms can’t afford to idle any of their land), the big boys can actually benefit from such deals.  Similarly, the large private landholder—the Robert Redfords and Ted Turners—can agree to set aside part of their land, especially if the government promises to keep the hoi polloi away from their front porch.


Republicans are all too prone to endorse public-private partnerships.  Indeed, Teddy Roosevelt was a major proponent of such land restrictions, viewing private owners as incapable of “scientific land management”.  The Rockefellers eagerly supported state purchases of lands for non-development.  As rich landowners with country estates, they were pleased that the taxpayer would bear the costs of creating buffer zones around their enclaves.  Not surprisingly, the Rockefeller Republicans have been the leaders in the modern environmental movement.


This brand of conservatism is disdainful of private property.  They seek always to shift private property into political hands.  One strategy is to find an endangered species on the property (the Endangered Species Act is structured so that every piece of land will surely have at least one such species) and then call that fact to the attention of the owner, noting that this drastically reduces the value of his property. They’re still willing, they say, to purchase the land, though only at fire-sale prices.  If the owner refuses, then the enviros move in with lawsuits and government action.  If he accepts, the group purchases the property and then moves swiftly to resell it to an appropriate government agency.  Another success for private-public partnerships!

Public-private partnerships blur the line between the coercive police power of the state and the voluntary arrangements of the market. Norton must decide whether she favors government or private property.  If, as her background suggests, she does believe in the value of private property and private conservation, she should stop talking about private-public partnerships and promote the role of private property in advancing environmental goals.  Speaking out for private property, clarifying that it is the only way of advancing environmental goals consistent with freedom, will not be easy.  The environmental establishment is powerful, hates private property, and will lash out at anyone who challenges their “government knows best” paradigm.