Less glamorous and less ecologically desirablelands make up the bulk of the federal lands,and it is these lands—which support activitiessuch as grazing, forestry, and mineral extrac-tion—that demand the bulk of public agen-cies’ time and attention.
Naturally, they aregoverned by public officials using criteria thatoften and appropriately have little to do withenvironmental protection.The growing demand for environmental pro-tection even on traditionally “commercial” landshas forced agencies accustomed to facilitatingprivate use of public lands to change priorities.Unfortunately, this transition is hindered by both a lack of clear political guidance about thenew regime and the requisite expertise necessary to perform this new mission.
Thus it is not sur-prising that public land management is a chron-ic problem about which only a few specialistscare until real or imagined crises arise. Even then,interest is superficial and fleeting. The prevail-ing reluctance to examine seriously the nature of the challenge associated with public land man-agement both preserves the status quo and pre-cludes devoting adequate resources to do the as-signed regulatory jobs. When politically chargedproblems do arise, the political outrage andresulting demands for action run well ahead of the government’s ability to respond intelligently.Politicians and journalists have made responsesynonymous with more intervention; deregula-tion is dismissed as negativity. With obscure poli-cies, indignation is usually limited to the insidersand other specialists. In none of these cases doesa rational public policy emerge.The key reason that federal stewardship of realms such as public lands is likely to disap-point no matter how competently adminis-trated or well-intentioned it may be was fa-mously explained in Friedrich A. Hayek’s 1945essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society.”
Thearticle is a concise argument for why marketsare superior to centralized control. In it, Hayekconvincingly demonstrated that when dis-persed, specialized knowledge is required tomanage an enterprise (such as, say, the com-mercial exploitation of mineral deposits be-neath the Gulf), private actions and privatemanagement are preferable to public actionand public management. A subsequent essay observed that governments regularly assertcontrol over economic sectors even while fully aware that they cannot devote the resourcesnecessary to achieve desired outcomes.
Plan-ners’ inability to manage the task they have setfor themselves explains their critics’ antipathy toward complex procedures to regulate, oneshared across all ideologies and epitomizedby the dismissal of such micromanagement as“command and control.”The difficulties are aggravated by deliberatemisstatements about the nature of science. Alltoo often, science is made synonymous withthe precision of physics and chemistry. Theshortcomings of this vision are well illustratedby geology and meteorology.
Systematic, im-partial, “scientific” analysis cannot resolve thesubjective issues affecting policy choice.The knowledge problem identified by Hayek is thus only one of many that bedevilgovernment when it attempts to intervene inthe economy. Milton and Rose Friedman, forinstance, have noted that government has a limited ability to act and cannot properly treatall the problems thrust at it.
Ronald Coasehas highlighted the income distribution andtax distortion effects of intervention.
A fur-ther “rent-seeking” literature documents thepolitical temptation to aid strategically locat-ed special interest voters to the detriment of others.
Of course, intervention is often basedmore on ideology than analysis, and “action”is assumed to require more intervention with-out considering whether prior policies werethe cause of the disaster of concern. Thus, theresponse to flawed land management and en-ergy policies is always tighter regulation.These observations apply to many govern-ment policies, which is why a large and expand-ing literature exists on the failure of governmentintervention in the economy. Nevertheless, ev-ery massive public policy failure—whether we’retalking about the September 11 attacks, homemortgage defaults, poor public school perfor-mance, or industrial accidents such as the Gulf oil spill—leads to calls for action, and that ac-tion is always defined as an elaborate new gov-ernment program or regulation regime.
Governmentsregularly assertcontrol overeconomic sectorseven while fully aware that they cannot devotethe resourcesnecessary toachieve desiredoutcomes.