Deception in the Political Struggle over California Propositions 98 and 99:

Some commenters on my previous posts on this subject claim that Proposition 98 (the California eminent domain referendum proposal that I support), is as much or more deceptive than Prop 99, the one that I criticized in my LA Times op ed and elsewhere for undermining property rights under the guise of protecting them.

Deception is a common political tactic, especially in a world of largely ignorant voters. I don't claim that the pro-98 campaign is squeaky clean on this score. But it is far less dishonest than the Pro-99 effort.

The crucial distinction between the two is that Prop 98 really would achieve the objective which is the main stated goal of its supporters: banning Kelo-style "economic development" takings and other similar abuses. To my knowledge, no expert commentator on either side of the issue denies this. By contrast, for the reasons stated in my op ed, Prop 99 will not provide any real protection for property owners against takings, despite the sponsors' disingenuous claims to the contrary. Moreover, it would actually undermine protection for property rights by blocking implementation of Prop 98 even if the latter passes. A proposed law that does what sponsors say it will do is surely less deceptive than one that not only won't achieve its supposed objectives but will actually undermine them.

Critics of Prop 98 claim that it is deceptive because, in addition to limiting takings, it also forbids the enactment of new rent control laws and phases out old ones as current tenants of rent-controlled apartments die or move out. In an upcoming post (if time permits), I will explain why this aspect of Prop 98 is likely to have only a limited impact if enacted - and a beneficial one at that. I will also argue that the inclusion of rent control in the proposal was probably a tactical error by the sponsors. Here, I focus solely on the issue of possible deception.

The sponsors of Prop 98 are indeed guilty of packaging a relatively unpopular proposal (phasing out rent control) with a far more popular one (protecting people against takings), and then emphasizing the latter far more than the former in their public statements. This standard political ploy is routinely used by both liberal and conservative groups. Even so, it may be objectionable, and it may be an effort to exploit political ignorance (because many voters might not know about the rent control provision in Prop 98). However, to my knowledge, the sponsors of 98 have never denied that their initiative would phase out rent control. Unlike the Prop 99 sponsors, they aren't lying about the effects of their proposal, but merely emphasizing the more popular ones and downplaying those that are less so.

Ultimately, I think that Propositions 98 and 99, like other proposed laws, should be assessed based on their likely effects, not on the ethics of their supporters. If I thought that Prop 99 was an improvement over the status quo, I would support it despite the deceptive tactics of its sponsors. The main point of my op ed was to outline Prop 99's substantive flaws, and (more briefly) to explain how they came about (because of widespread political ignorance, which the Prop 99 sponsors have effectively exploited). In real-world politics, there are few if any proposals promoted only by completely honest tactics. Prop 99 is unusual only in so far as it is a particularly brazen effort to use deception to promote a law that is intended to achieve the exact opposite of its stated objectives.