Mismanaging the Commons


Locking Up the Range: Federal Land Controls and Grazing, by Gary D. Libecap, Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger Publishing and the Pacific Institute, 1981, 109 pp., $17.50/$8.95.

The "Sagebrush Rebellion" came to a sudden end when President Reagan appointed James Watt as secretary of the Interior Department. The movement lost support primarily because its proponents believed that, with the "right man" in office, decisions regarding public lands would be improved. Unfortunately, most people do not realize that it is not the person in office but rather the institutions that in large part dictate the allocation results.

In Locking Up the Range, Gary Libecap makes it very clear that resource allocation on federal lands is a function of the institutional structure. Professor Libecap outlines the history of federal grazing policy and the impacts that policy has had on the western range. We find that livestock associations developed an informal property rights structure that served to mitigate the "tragedy of the commons," but the antifencing campaign by the General Land Office after 1900 effectively nullified these informal private property arrangements and contributed to the deterioration of the range.

The struggle for control of federal grazing lands eventually was won by the Department of the Interior in 1947. Bureaucrats involved in the struggle, however, found themselves in a game that did little to improve range quality but much to determine budgets and power. Libecap documents how budgets of the Bureau of Land Management have grown and how special interest groups have used their lobbying power to influence land policy. While many individuals call for more bureaucratic controls to remedy grazing problems, Libecap's study concludes "that bureaucratic management is a costly and inefficient substitute for private property rights."

Though Locking Up the Range highlights the problems of federal grazing policy, it fails to emphasize the fact that private groups were effectively establishing private property rights without federal government intervention. To be sure, it is important that we ask how stable the cattlemen's associations would have been in the light of population pressure and growing resource demands. It is clear from Libecap's work, however, that the alternative certainly has not provided stable policy, improved efficiency, or enhanced individual freedom. The cattlemen, miners, and other voluntary groups of settlers were a part of the spontaneous order in the "not so wild, wild West."

This book should be read by all students of natural resource policy and bureaucratic bungling. When combined with other works sponsored by the Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research and with Bureaucracy vs. Environment (see review in REASON, May 1982), Locking Up the Range helps provide the basis for a new resource economics paradigm that could help shift natural resource policy toward the free-market alternative.

Terry Anderson teaches economics at Montana State University.