Robert Redford and Property Rights

Is California's Prop 90 the most dangerous threat ever?

California’s Proposition 90 has generated a lot of heat so far. The Sierra Club has called the effort to protect small homeowners and businesses from arbitrary government regulation and property seizures “evil.”

Now, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington, D.C. based environmental advocacy organization, has enlisted famed advocate, actor, and filmmaker Robert Redford to the cause. “Prop 90,” Mr. Redford writes in a letter to the organization’s supporters in the over-heated rhetoric common for advocacy letters, “is the single most dangerous threat that has ever been leveled at our state’s environment.”

But what caught my eye was not the unfounded claims of Prop 90’s potential effect. Rather, it was the brazen claim in that he considers himself a private property rights advocate. “Well, I’ll be first in line to defend private property and protest government seizure,” he said.

Unfortunately, he won’t. Experience shows that the kind of investment Mr. Redford claims to have for property rights won’t be acted on until it impacts him personally. Mr. Redford is so far removed from the reality faced by victims of the government abuse that is the target Prop 90 that his claims need to be discounted.

Mr. Redford has three things going for him that suggest he is unlikely to ever face the kinds of restrictions on his livelihood that motivate support for Prop 90 in California.

First, Mr. Redford is wealthy, and wealthy property owners aren’t typically subjected to the kinds of uncompensated regulations and eminent domain actions that Prop 90 regulates. It’s the low income, older neighborhoods, or small land owners in agricultural areas that experience the brunt of government’s bad behavior.

Second, environmental groups and other advocacy groups are unlikely to challenge Mr. Redford if he behaves badly, granting him de facto regulatory relief. He has a well-earned reputation as a high-profile advocate for environmental causes. Suing him, or using regulation to limit his property rights, could sacrifice future support. Unlike other property owners, any sin Mr. Redford will make will be weighed against his total effort to advance their agenda.

Third, Mr. Redford is a nice guy and influential. Regulators are people too, and they don’t often subject their friends or influential community leaders to unwanted takings or severe restrictions on their property. Hercules, California can initiate eminent domain proceedings against Wal-Mart to seize their land, or regulate its property to the point it no longer operate profitably on its land, in large part because Wal-Mart is unpopular and can’t rally public support. Wal-Mart doesn’t have a fan base, just customers more than willing to shop somewhere else if they aren’t around.

So, it’s hard to take Mr. Redford’s claims about defending property rights seriously. On an intellectual level, he may well understand the importance of property rights to a free society. And, he may understand them in a practical way as it relates to his property. But, experience suggests his commitment to protecting other people’s property rights will not be on the front burner until his rights are threatened directly.

Farmers, small businesses, and low and middle income homeowners face regulatory threats to their livelihood everyday in California, and Prop 90 is intended to protect them. Farm families suffer real economics losses when local communities decide to prohibit land development to protect open space and an agricultural community character. Small businesses have to dig deep into already shallow pockets when they are forced to relocate because local revitalization plans decide downtown is more suitable to a T.G.I. Friday’s, an Applebee’s, or a Marriott Hotel than a family-owned and operated deli. Homeowners have to give up more than just memories when city councils decide their neighborhoods would look better as upscale luxury condos and office buildings than a cluster of working class homes, dry cleaners, corner restaurants, or family lawyers.

Right now, a very small number of these people can tap into free legal counsel from a handful of public interest law firms like the Institute for Justice and the Pacific Legal Foundation. But, the vast majority can only be protected through broad legislative reform like the provisions outlined in Prop 90.

Most Californians can’t wait for the Robert Redford’s of the world to protect them.

Samuel R. Staley is director of urban growth and land use policy at Reason Foundation and co-author of the new book “The Road More Traveled” (Rowman&Littlefield). An archive of his work is here. Reason’s eminent domain research and commentary is here and California-specific research is here.