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Article Summary

Lehmann, Scott. Privatizing Public Lands. 1995. New York: Oxford University Press.

In 1983, officials in the Reagan Administration proposed privatizing federal public lands. In this one act, the federal lands could be put to their "highest" and "best use," consistent with consumer demands expressed through the market, or so argued these officials. While quickly scuttled at the time as politically unpopular, similar proposals are likely to resurface. In this book, Lehmann begins by anticipating such free marketeers arguments in favor of privatizing public lands.

Culling from many sources, Lehmann assembles what might be a "case for privatization". He finds inherent contradictions and circularity in marketeers arguments that the market is the best mechanism for ensuring "productivity" and greater "social welfare". Finding many potential instances of spillovers from one set of "consumers" to another, he finds any land privatization would need to establish a system of convenants and easements to "contain spillovers". He argues that the regulated use of public lands, the status quo, approximates exactly this kind of complex of covenants, and in so doing, ensures long-term multiple uses of land. While federal land managers do not appear to manage lands on the principle of maximizing profit from resource-release, these officials do make accessible all land resources to a variety of users, from hikers to sheep-herders.

In the last several chapters, he builds a critique of marketization. He contrasts a privatist marketplace with its ideal of consumer sovereignty with experiences of nature that would create a different ethic. While in the marketplace, decision-making bows to the "universal pander" of ability and willingness to pay, in the realm of the public, Lehmann finds participation to be a critical mechanism for preserving cultural and natural values. Resources on which we depend cannot be treated as commodities without jeopardy of cultural values, argues Lehmann. Finally, public lands, in making possible different relationships to the land and its uses than the market themselves, are vital spaces for exploring an alternative ethic.

In sum, while the first sections of the book likely appeal to academics in the dogged exploration and critique of claims made by free-marketeers, local government officials will find a strong articulation of why some resources might best be managed by the public sector.