Public, Central Parks Are A Product Of The State

It’s common for non-libertarians to try to point out holes in or problems with libertarian theory. It can also be really annoying.

Less common, and less annoying, is when libertarians attempt to point out possible problems with libertarian theory, and then attempt to fix those problems or reconcile reality with the problems created. As a libertarian, I would like to believe that adopting a laissez-faire approach will always yield the best possible result. As a man committed to logic and evidence, however, I must submit my beliefs to the crucible, and follow the facts wherever they might lead. With some hard work, doing so ought to advance the theory, rather than merely hoping that the world continues to evolve in ways that substantiate classical liberalism.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Bosque de Chapultepec in Ciudad de Mexico. It is simply a gorgeous, breathtaking park that defies description. One must be in Chapultepec to understand its scope and beauty. However, to put it very dumbly, Chapultepec is an enormous city park – the largest in the Western hemisphere – full of trees and greenery, fountains, monuments, sculptures, museums, bicycle and running paths, and so on. On the one hand, Chapultepec is “just like one of those big city parks” of which there are many examples: Central Park, Stanley Park, etc. On the other hand, Chapultepec is something altogether different and remarkable, considering its literal eons of history as a place of respite for the inhabitants of the area around what is now Mexico City.

 In any case, parks like these require something very important and specific. They require that city planners, a hundred or more years ago, make a conscious decision to prevent any kind of commercial or residential development on a specific, contiguous plot of high-value land. And this must be done despite tremendous pressure to develop that high-value land and reap the resulting property taxes, population expansion, and economic growth.

Rare as it is for government to exercise any level of restraint, especially in the face of handsome monetary rewards for the governors, it is equally rare for the dynamic free market to simply leave a beautiful patch of land unutilized and dedicated to free public use. There is, of course, the classic Tragedy of the Commons problem with this, but the predicted outcome of such a thing is that private owners will take better care of this space than will the commons. That is true, provided that some private sector buyer or buyers agree to purchase the land and care for it. Yet, with high-value land located right in the middle of a commercial hub, as parks like Chapultepec tend to be, it is unlikely to the point of irrelevant that any such buyer or buyers would ever set aside such land to remain undeveloped.

The final piece of this problem involves the acknowledgement of a plain fact: Big green spaces in cities make people happy. They are genuinely good for human life. They increase property values. They provide a central gathering place for people who want to exercise. They provide a space for buskers, artisans, and street merchants. They provide clean air and oxygen to the surrounding environment, and a hiding place for local wildlife. It’s healthy to have such places available to city-dwellers, objectively so, and on many different levels.

The question is, how can such spaces be preserved and maintained under a libertarian regime? We cannot simply assume that some eccentric millionaire will buy up the land and keep it nice, maintained by a trust, for all of time. It would be nice to feel confident, as a libertarian, that such beautiful parks might still be possible if the state were not there to mandate their preservation. But how?

In a future post, I will attempt to tackle this question. For now, it suffices to simply articulate what the problem is.