We are running out of land

July 1, 1993

We are running out of land

By M. L. Simon

By M. L. Simon

We are running out of land

We hear over and over again from certain self-styled environmentalists that we are running out of land. That we are taking good land out of production for the sake of another UGLY subdivision.

I think that we should do what is properly done in all such cases. We should follow the money.

To follow the money, we need to follow the history of agriculture in America. In the early 1800’s, about 90 percent of the population was engaged in agriculture. Agriculture in those days meant cutting down forests, clearing the land of rocks and other obstacles, plowing, planting, and God willing, producing a crop. Food prices were such that it made sense to plow up the great American desert (the Mid-west) and put in food crops. This sort of agriculture reached its peak around the turn of the last century.

Agricultural productivity has been steadily increasing in America. Around 1880, it took a spectacular jump with the invention of the combine and other mechanical tools for agriculture. It took another jump in the 1920s with the introduction of the internal combustion engine. A further jump happened in the ’50s with the widespread introduction of agricultural chemical pesticides. It has taken another jump with the introduction of bio pesticides that are produced by the crops themselves.

All this productivity increase has reduced the farm population from over 90 per cent of the population to less than 2 percent. It also means that a lot of the land once used for farming is no longer economical for farming since not only has the output per farmer been vastly increased but also the productivity of the land has been increased as well. We just don’t need as much farmland as we used to need to feed ourselves and the other nations we supply. The interesting thing is that further improvements in agricultural productivity are still happening, with more on the way. This is one of the reasons that forests are making a comeback in North America. Land that was once economically productive for crops is now more productive as forests.

If we don’t need as much land to feed ourselves as we once did, what happens to the price of land? It declines. In fact the land becomes more valuable for other purposes, such as forests or homes. What happens when a new subdivision is planted on what was formerly farmland? People plant trees. So one of the places where reforestation is happening is the reviled suburbs.

Attempts by well-meaning activists to prevent farmland from becoming homeland actually retards the reforestation of America. All the zoning commissions and regulations in the world cannot in any way change this trend. All that can be done is to bankrupt owners of land that is no longer productive by preventing them from selling the land to the highest bidder. This effectively takes the land off the tax rolls and forces those still on the tax rolls to pay higher taxes. The zoning commission effectively becomes a taxing body even if it has no direct power of taxation.

Of course, subdivisions can cause problems if their building is subsidized by the taxpayers when the local government doesn’t fully account for all the costs involved such as schools, roads, water and other government-provided services. But that is an entirely different question than whether to prevent an ex-farmer from selling his land to the highest bidder. The highest bidder in ordinary circumstances must have the most productive use of the land, or he couldn’t bid so high.

If we want things to remain as they are, we must prevent all technological change. This may be possible in Saudi Arabia. I don’t see how it is possible in America.

In the end, government (zoning commission) control of private property is preventing America from increasing its forested land. I don’t see how this is a good idea, but perhaps my environmentalist/preservationist friends can explain it to me.

If you want to know more about the intended relation of the federal government to private property, you can read a copy of the American Constitution at: http://mywebpage.netscape.com/msimon669/index.html

You might especially want to read the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution on the subject, and note that current law is tending to see any restriction on the use of private property as a taking. This could make zoning commissions liable for vast sums based on their decisions to restrict land use.

M. Simon is an industrial controls designer and Free Market Green (c) M. Simon – All rights reserved.

Permission granted for one-time use in a single periodical publication. Permission also granted for concurrent publication on the periodical’s www site.

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