The concept of a universal basic income (UBI) is highly controversial. It is a system whereby, in place of all the various social programs, a guaranteed basic income is granted to every citizen. There are various methods of how this is done – some graduated, and some just a base amount. Amongst libertarians, the conflict is generally not over whether UBI can replace some or all of the social programs, but more typically it is over whether it is right and just to take from some in the form of taxes to give to others in the form of a government handout. However, what if it could be funded without taxing anyone at all?
Federal and state-owned land in the US, for example, amounts to nearly 640 million acres – 28% of the total land area in the nation. As farmland, the value of that land would be around $3,010 per acre, or a total of $1.93 trillion (nearly 12% the value of all US currency in circulation). Of course, it isn’t all farmland, so the figure could be lower or higher. These numbers are mostly guesswork, but still interesting to consider. If all government-owned land in the US were sold outright for $7 trillion, there would be somewhere around $6,400 for every US citizen. When added up per family, that’s quite a chunk of change. The average family would get something like $25,600 or so.
However, what if instead of selling the land, we were to lease the land? Currently, grazing rights are going for somewhere around $1.80 per head of cattle, and farmland is leasing for somewhere around $200 per acre, whereas hunting land leases for somewhere around $2,500 per acre, and timberland is worth anywhere from $500 to $3,000 per acre. Mineral rights can vary by enormous amounts. When it’s all said and done, all this land could be leased for perhaps as much as about $2,000 per acre per year (admittedly, there is a lot of guesswork in that). Doing the math, that would give every US citizen somewhere close to about $4,266 or so per year. For a family of four that would be around $17,000 per year – below poverty but it is something that could certainly offset a lot of social programs.
Now, much of the land under public ownership is not valuable land, but certainly not all of it, and land is always worth something to someone for some use. And it is possible that with so much more land becoming available for lease, the value of leases would come down considerably. But, all of this still makes a good point regardless of what the real numbers would be. There’s likely plenty of money to offset most costs of the social programs in existence in the US. It would be nice to replace money that has been forcibly taken from US citizens with money that comes voluntarily from people who could make good use of government land.
People concerned about land preservation and conservation could allay their concerns, as the government still has control and could set the rules. However, you cannot find better caretakers of land than people who hunt, farm, and ranch on such land. They have every incentive to take good care of it, because it is their livelihood, and in the case of hunting – if land is not well maintained, there is nothing to hunt. Want the public to still use the land as well? That’s certainly doable with agreeable easements written into leases.
Voluntary contributions are always preferable to forced coercion, extortion, and theft. I’d much prefer government to use land for these purposes than for them to take my money by force. It wouldn’t fund all of government, but if it only funded all social programs – or more preferably provided a UBI, I think most people would be pretty happy with that.