David R. Henderson  

My Small Victory

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Private affluence, public squa... Economics Never Stops: On the ...

People in my area of California yesterday voted on Measure O. Here's the exact wording of the measure:

Shall the ordinance, Measure O, which directs the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to adopt a policy to move toward public ownership of all water systems within its boundaries by conducting a feasibility study, and if deemed feasible, move forward with acquisition of all such water systems' assets, be adopted?

Right now we have a private monopoly and this measure, if the policy were deemed "feasible," would have turned it, by eminent domain, into a government monopoly.

While my first-best solution would be competition--and I admit that competition is harder to achieve in water supply than in most other industries--my second-best is a private monopoly rather than a government monopoly. For one thing, a private for-profit monopoly, as the current owner, Cal-Am Water is, has an incentive to care about costs, an incentive that is blunted under government ownership. For another, the private monopoly, although it doesn't have to care about customers as much as a competitor would, probably has to care more than a government monopoly would. Here's an instance I wrote about earlier in which I thought their workers were heroic.

That's part of why I opposed Measure O. Another reason, though, is that I favor property rights. Cal-Am made it clear that it had no desire to sell its assets and, in fact, spent over $2 million fighting this initiative.

So imagine my surprise when a neighbor, with whom I see eye-to-eye on many "Tea Party" kinds of issues--reducing rather than increasing taxes, reducing rather than increasing government spending, etc--had a sign on his lawn that said "Yes on O."

This has been a particularly busy quarter for me--with teaching, publishing, and dealing with some personal issues--and so I hadn't been as active as usual in writing letters to the editor. But that sign in my neighbor's yard pushed me over the margin.

I thought: I bet there are at least 15% of the voters who care somewhat about property rights and that not all of them see this as an issue of property rights because the "No on O" people have not explicitly made it such. So what if someone made the property rights issue clear? Maybe some people who wouldn't have voted would vote "No" and some people who would have voted "Yes" would vote "No."

That, I thought is why I should write a letter to the editor of the Monterey County Herald. So I did. Here's the letter:

I have a modest proposal: I want the voters to support me in forcing Ronald Cohen, George Riley, and other proponents of Measure O to sell me their houses at a reduced price.

Mr. Cohen and Mr. Riley might object that they own their houses and that they should be allowed to decide whether or not to sell. But why should that matter? I think I can run their houses more efficiently.

They might reply, "It doesn't matter if you can run our houses more efficiently. We shouldn't be forced to sell."

Actually, I agree. They shouldn't be forced to sell. They have property rights and we should respect those rights.

Now all we need do is get them to see that they are not special, that property rights in general should be respected. That includes your rights, my rights, and, yes, even Cal-Am's rights. Cal-Am has made it clear that their local water delivery system is not for sale. Let's respect their rights.

That does not mean that Cal-Am should have a monopoly. That's another discussion, a discussion worth having. But that's not what's at issue here.

If you value property rights, join me in voting NO on O.


What would be a sign that my letter worked? The sign would be a sign, literally. That is, a sign taken down from my neighbor's lawn. (I know he reads the paper regularly because he sometimes writers letters to the editor.) Every day after my letter appeared, when I would drive by his house, I would see the sign still up. Damn!, I thought.

Then, last Sunday, as I was walking to my front door after my Sunday morning walk, I heard a car honk. I turned around and it was my neighbor. I walked up and he lowered his window. "Tell me about Measure O," he said. "Which way should I vote?"

"You didn't see my letter to the editor?" I asked.

"No," he said, "I've been out of town."

So I told him what I had written.

"I'm voting No," he said, "and the sign is coming down."

Later that day the sign was down.

Oh, and with most of the returns in, Measure O is losing by 56% to 44%.


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COMMENTS (1 to date)
nl7 writes:

I don't typically trust the yard sign "polling" method after working street-level on a campaign. The union-backed candidate had signs all over the place that sprouted up over the course of a few days - a team paid by the union had gone around the district and dropped them. The thing is, they strategically placed the signs between lots, such that each neighbor plausibly might think the sign belonged to the other.

I know this was their strategy because I drove the district for weeks and weeks and that was how most of their signs were placed - visibly placed, but ambiguously owned. Meanwhile, we had phone called people for weeks, collected people who agreed to have signs posted, and then a handful of us paired off to distribute the signs. I also knew the party registration of voters in a lot of the houses, which was in our voter database, and sometimes there'd be a sign between two houses with no Democrat or Decline to State amongst them.

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