Previously on Thank Government For Something, I considered the value of the National Weather Service. Here is another edition in that series…
Earlier this week we watched a DVD about some of America’s National Parks, highlighting the variety and beauty of the protected lands across the United States. I thought this made a great candidate for another T.G.I.F, I mean, T.G.F.S. (Thank Government For Something.)
The National Park system of the United States has an interesting history. In 1832, “Andrew Jackson signed legislation” to partially protect what later became Hot Springs National Park. In 1864, Lincoln signed legislation that gave the future site of Yosemite National Park to the state of California. Yellowstone was the first true National Park created in 1872, partially as a chance consequence of local political structure; unlike California with Yosemite in the previous decade, the land of Yellowstone was not yet part of a state but was still a federal territory, “so the federal government took on direct responsibility for the park.” Yellowstone is apparently considered the first national park in the world, and it inspired many other countries to do the same in the following decades. (What? You mean back in the day the American conservation movement was a trend-setter for Europe? Yep. But the difference between conservationism and environmentalism is a whole ‘nother topic.) Today the United States has 58 national parks covering mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, and other varieties of gorgeous natural phenomena.
Now if you’re a good little libertarian – or even just a good little ideological Tea Party Republican – you might believe that everything the federal government does is inefficient, incompetent, and a drag on the private economy. And we could begin an argument in that direction. When government protects land, there is an opportunity cost regarding whatever private development could have happened. In a pure libertarian fantasy, I presume National Parks wouldn’t exist, and private individuals would own these lands and cut the trees for wood or mine the mountains for raw materials or whatever else they wanted. But only thinking about the lost economic value of protecting these lands ignores the intrinsic value that citizens place on these lands. I think it’s clear that the National Parks are highly valued simply by the large numbers of people that come to visit them (hundreds of millions per year), and it could be argued that our society has decided we value the joy of preserving and visiting these lands more than the economic value of developing these lands.
There are definitely trade-offs between the two values, but I think our National Park system sits in a fair place between the extremes. In the DVD they said that 90% of the giant Redwood forest was destroyed to support the advancing civilization, and a conservationist movement led to the protection of what was left. I think I was supposed to feel bad about all the Redwoods that were gone, but I couldn’t help thinking that as a whole we ended up with a pretty good deal. If the government had protected the entire forest, a lot of economic progress would have been lost due to the increased difficulty of building homes and businesses for the people of the time. But if the whole forest had been eliminated, no one could choose to visit it and enjoy its natural beauty today.
Additionally, the “beauty” value isn’t the only thing we get from National Parks. People value the joy of viewing these natural wonders so much that they pay to drive or fly to them, stay in hotels near them, and otherwise act as tourists while they support the local economies. Even large numbers of foreign visitors come to the United States every year and spend money around our National Parks. Anyone who believes that the federal government always gets in the way of economic progress should consider the bustling tourism business that springs up around all of these federally protected lands. The United States is big enough that we can “exploit” most of the land and still have plenty of room to mark off some of the most beautiful parts for people to visit and enjoy – and spend money on businesses while they’re there. Learning about these National Parks actually inspires me to work harder so I can afford to visit as many of them as possible.
So not only is there non-economic value to preserving the Redwood forest, but there’s raw economic value as well! It’s even possible that the ongoing tourism business created by the forest leads to greater economic progress than we would have received by cutting the rest of the forest down a hundred years ago to build a few more houses. (Of course, it’s also possible that it’s not greater, but it’s definitely not a slam-dunk for the government-always-impedes-progress crowd.)
This does not mean that the system is ideal. I have no idea whether or not the National Park Service deserves its $3 billion budget (but I doubt it), or whether the amount of land in our national parks achieves the perfect trade-off of private economic development vs. public protection for all to enjoy. It’s possible that the federal government could auction off a decent amount of the land for private ownership and still preserve a large amount of valuable land. Additionally, a strict constitutionalist might argue that there are thousands of state parks and we don’t need national ones as well. It’s That may be a principle worth arguing in our deficit-ridden era, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that the effects of the National Parks have been bad for the country as a whole.
But even if the National Park system is not ideal, I believe its value to us as citizens is still positive. I thank the government that I have the ability to freely enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and hike some of its hundreds of miles of trails. Meanwhile, I can still give my capitalist business to the hotels and restaurants of my choosing, along with whatever other museums or other places we decide to visit along the way and during our stay. So thank you, government, for parks!