Gary Libecap has spent a career examining property rights and the environment—water, fisheries, land surveying, and mineral rights, among other topics. In his current working paper he argues that America’s grant of rights to the mineral wealth of land on the frontier contributed to the country’s dynamism, but with more people living in cities, Libecap is concerned that these advantages are fading away.

The distinct assignment of property rights to land and minerals is likely a basis for long-term US exceptionalism in economic performance, individualism, mobility, and optimism. The mechanisms through which property rights to land in a frontier society affect outcomes in a contemporary, highly urban one are complex. Because property rights to land were broadly distributed, Americans could participate in capital markets using land as collateral. This ability shaped opinions regarding markets, capitalism, and individual opportunity. In the 21st century, these critical attributes may be eroding, inviting more analysis from economists and economic historians.