The Ongoing Saga of the Private Property Rights Protection Act

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee passed the Private Property Rights Protection Act, which would prevent local governments that engage in Kelo-style economic development takings from receiving federal economic development funds. As I explained in a post last year (which explains the bill in more detail), this legislation has been kicking around Congress since 2005. At various times, it has passed the House only to die in the Senate. If it finally passes both houses this time around, it will be a useful, though limited step towards disincentivizing abusive takings that transfer property to powerful private interests, often without actually producing the promised economic benefits for the region.

Why has the PRPA failed to pass for so long, despite overwhelming public opposition to Kelo-style takings? Various factors play a role. But a big one is political ignorance, of the same type that has led to enactment of many ineffective “reforms” at the state level. Most voters are unaware of the PRPA and don’t keep track of its legislative fortunes.Most voters are rationally ignorant and and devote only a very limited amount of time and effort to following political issues. Since the PRPA is not one of the top handful of issues on the political agenda, the public knows little about it and Congress can sit on it for years with little fear of punishment at the ballot box. Meanwhile, many local governments go on taking property for the benefit of private interest groups, while at the same time also collecting federal economic development funds. This is just one relatively small example of the broader problem of political ignorance discussed in my forthcoming book Democracy and Political Ignorance.

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