As I write this, I sit here in Western Pennsylvania, atop the Marcellus Oil Shale Deposit, which may become one of the largest sources of natural gas in the world.
The CEO of its development company recently told Larry Kudlow that things were going pretty quickly for him because most of the land above the deposit is privately owned. Negotiating with private owners, he said, who have an incentive to negotiate mineral rights, works a lot better than negotiating with governments. (See the video)
Some western states are almost all government owned, and the resources of those states remains buried in the ground. Not so with Pennsylvania, which is historically a farming state. That’s why the world’s first commercial oil well was sunk not far from here, in Titusville, on what previously been a farm.
Why did it start here, and not in the middle east or South America? Because they didn’t have Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence which we celebrate today, fought for the powerful idea that the right to private property included what’s under the surface of the ground as well as what is above it.
The old-world model was that the mineral rights belonged to the king. Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, held that coal and iron discovered on a freeman’s property could be taken by the state - without compensation. Not surprisingly, farmers went to great trouble not to find subterranean resources, and to hide any they’d uncovered. This model traveled west with the conquistadors and became the legal order of the Spanish colonies in Central and South America. It’s why Hugo Chavez and not some entrepreneur controls the vast oil reserves of Venezuela. It’s why Mexico’s oil company is state, not private-owned.
However, Jefferson announced a Novus Ordo Seclorum. This translates as “new order of the ages”, not as certain right wing conspiracy cranks claim “new world order”. It means that the old legal order of the divine right of kings would give way to a new order of "all men are created equal."
We have in recent decades drifted backwards, a little, to the old world. Central planning environmentalists cordon off great swaths of energy-rich property from the use of any consumers except a few disproportionately wealthy eco-tourists. They describe this act of putting resources under the control of the state as “progressive”. But they are wrong, it’s not progress, it’s a regression to the pre-American, pre-Jeffersonian privileges of the crown. The natural resources are being held for the good of the few, not for the good of the many.
Jerry Bowyer is chief economist at Benchmark Financial Network, is a member of the Kudlow Caucus, and makes regular appearances on CNBC. He also writes extensively on finance and history for the National Review, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Crosswalk.com, and The New York Sun. He can be emailed at email@example.com.