The National Parks
A few years ago I visited Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, where I learned that, prior to federal protection in 1906, visitors had freely lugged away the colorful logs. Without that protection the logs would soon all have been gone.
For some time now I have regarded our National Parks as (among other things) giant refutations of the libertarian contention that matters go best under private ownership. Clearly in many significant areas this is not so. Unattended by government, the sites of our National Parks would constitute a chain of Coney Island tawdriness, or a constellation of strip-mining horrors. Or else everything of interest would simply have disappeared, the fate that threatened to overtake the Petrified Forest.
The story of the National Parks seems to be Government One, private enterprise Zero. The reality is more complex.
To be sure, petty capitalists did do a lot of damage. An egregious case is that of Ralph Henry Cameron who sought to privatize the Grand Canyon through spurious mining claims. He charged admission to use his squalid facilities, and proposed to add two ugly hydroelectric dams. Cameron continued illegally occupy large parts of the Canyon even after it became a National Park.
The role of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was entirely different. He acted decisively to protect the Grand Tetons, just south of Yellowstone. Then he put up a huge sum of money to buy the land for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which was being ravaged by lumber interests. The Park was not without costs, however, when as many as 500,000 poor whites and Indians were removed from their homes inside the perimeter of the Park.
Still the message seems clear. Petty capitalists like Cameron turned out to be villains. Megacapitalists, at least John D. Rockefeller, Jr., were heroes. Of course Rockefeller could afford it.
The role of the government is considered entirely laudatory, but Washington often accepted responsibility for individual parks with great reluctance. The needed appropriations for maintenance were often lacking.
So the balance sheet between private enterprise and government is a mixed one--just the opposite of the simplistic message we are getting from Michael Moore’s latest visual screed, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” or for that matter from Paul Krugman's contentious columns, with their ongoing demand for ever more deficit spending.