You Just Can't Take It Anymore: America's Property Rights Revolt

Article excerpt

Outraged citizens staged a grass-roots tax revolt in the late 1970s that forced lawmakers to cut taxes, reversed the prevailing orthodoxy about taxes in intellectual circles, elected dozens of state and federal anti-tax lawmakers, and helped catapult Ronald Reagan into the White House. The resulting 1980s tax cuts touched off the longest peacetime economic boom in American history and led other nations to trim taxes and spending.

Meet the grass-roots rebels of the 1990s: The private property rights movement. Like the early tax rebels, these activists were often strangers to politics until the government disrupted their lives. Their cause promises to have similarly dramatic results.

Indeed, the property rights revolt already is changing the political calculus in Washington. There are more than 500 active property rights groups across the country, with a total of some 2 million members. They have helped thwart the environmental agenda in Congress and several federal agencies, successfully pushed legislation in a more than a dozen state legislatures, helped elect at least a score of state and federal lawmakers, and won key cases in the courts, including two landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases. Like supply-side economics, the movement has touched off a paradigm shift in the way many view property rights. All of these accomplishments from a movement that didn't exist five years ago.

STALLED PLOWS, DASHED HOPES

If the property rights revolt succeeds, vast areas of federal regulation would have to be reexamined. Why? Because courts and legislatures are increasingly requiring compensation for government rules that reduce property values. Federal regulators would be forced--often for the first time--to weigh the costs and benefits of regulation. Many rules would not pass the test. The property rights movement would touch off the biggest reduction in government regulation in more than a century. "This is the unfinished business of the Reagan Revolution," says James C. Miller III, head of the Office of Management and Budget under President Reagan.

In 1989, President Bush's "no net loss of the nation's remaining wetlands" pledge produced an arbitrary and confusing set of wetlands regulations--creating, in effect, a national zoning law. Wetland regulation, originally designed to protect swamps, became so broadly defined that, with a few computer keystrokes, almost 75 million acres of private land suddenly became wetlands. Bush's most important environmental campaign promise fueled a massive regulatory expansion. It soon stalled plows in farmer's fields, idled home builders on small plots, and snatched away the dreams of people who bought land decades before hoping only to build their modest homes.

ON THE RETREAT

Wetlands regulations sparked a national grass-roots movement against a broad array of environmental and other government-imposed land-use restrictions. Within a few years, environmentalists faced a full-scale revolt against many of the laws and regulations they cherish. Even today, with environmental guru Al Gore a heartbeat away from the presidency, the environmental movement is having trouble raising money, hanging on to members, and winning in the legislative arena.

To be sure, the environmental grip on federal legislation remains secure--there is little danger at present of any major environmental programs being repealed or dramatically scaled back. However, on most significant pieces of environmental legislation up for reauthorization this Congress, the greens have been unable to expand their agenda for federal control of privately owned land and resources.

The National Resources Defense Council's Erik Olson, in a now-infamous March 4, 1994 memo with six of the most influential environmental lobbyists in Washington, recommended all but killing the ambitious environmental legislative agenda for 1994. If environmental bills are debated, he said, they could be amended in ways the environmentalists would dislike. …

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