Property Rights Foundation of America®

Speech from the Eighth Annual New York Conference
on Private Property Rights
(2004)

Richard Miniter

Opening Address

International Property Rights and How to Win in This Country

I was going to talk to you today about developments in international property rights, and actually until I arrived here that was what I was going to talk about, but I want to talk about something completely different. International property rights might bore the pants off you.

Basically being at this meeting brings back a lot of memories, because I think I was at the first convention you held, what, ten years ago. I used to cover property rights and wrote a lot about it and went to see a lot of property rights activists around the country, and ten years or more ago there was a certain pattern to it. People would get together, they would tell each other horror stories, they would remind each other about the U.S. Constitution, how their rights were being trampled by these far away bureaucrats, they would tell you some details about some obscure bit of science, some obscure bits of law. They had a few really small successes, and they would talk about those for awhile, and they would just go and sink back into the general feeling of we are fighting this battle, we are losing, we are going to keep fighting, because that is who we are. That was ten years ago. Things have really changed, I see. Not really!

Today I want to talk to you about winning. I think you guys need to get serious about winning. And spending a lot of my time in Europe, I know what losing is like. We haven't lost all the way yet in this country. They have in Europe. Let me tell you a little bit about Europe first.

Let's take you through an average day. The stores close at 6 o'clock. They open at 9:30 or 10 and they close at 6 o'clock at night. So if you want food, you can get it between those hours except during lunch. Many stores will close for lunch. I always hear, well, that is great. I'll go to a restaurant. Well, again, the property owner, the restaurant owner, cannot decide when to be open and when to be closed. The law tells them that. Maybe this store wants to have a sale. Well, that is great. The law gives them three times of opportunities to have a sale. He can have a sale when all his competitors have agreed to it in writing and that agreement has been approved by the state, or he can have a sale in one of the official sale months, and that depends on what your industry group and your union have negotiated. So for school clothes, no surprise, they pick September and January as the sale months. But for everything else, there are different months, and you have to know when those sale months are. There is a third time you can have a sale. This one is my favorite. It is when it is an anniversary of the founding of the business that is evenly divisible by the number 25. So if it is your 37th anniversary of the founding, no sale. But if it is the twentieth or the fiftieth, no problem. Now you might say, what about going-out-of-business? They have those. Guess what! They have a lot of businesses that go out, but they have the police there to make sure that at the end of the sale you actually do go out of business.

Let's talk about land use. The government not only tells you what pesticides you can't use, they also tell you what pesticides you must use. And they check to see if you are doing it. To write my first book, I actually went to Normandy. I rented a cottage there. You can do that. It is pretty cheap, and for about a hundred bucks you can stay there in a little medieval cottage for a month, as long as you chop up the wood and you pay the guy in cash so he doesn't pay taxes. There is a vast black market economy in Europe. People actually get offended if you pay them with money that is not cash because they want to be able to hide it all from the state. That is because they have sixty-six percent tax rates. This is what happens to a society that doesn't have property rights.

Let's look at the population. There are more dogs than there are children in Europe. Fifty years from now there might be no Europe, or if it is a Europe, it will be a Europe that prays five times a day. The Muslim population is the only population that is growing. They don't own anything, either. They don't even own the mosques. Those are owned by the state and funded by the state. You go to Europe and you see these beautiful old churches and they are falling apart. We say, look at all you people. There must be a hundred people in this church. Why don't you take a collection up and fix it. Oh, we can't. Why? We do not have the permission of the state to fix it and the state must use its money to fix it. We pay our taxes and they are supposed to collect the money and clean up the church. I say, well, why don't you lean on them? You pay the taxes. They said, sir, don't you know? The Socialist Party, they control this neighborhood. They would never fix a church. What about church-owned schools? Also controlled and owned by the state, which picks the teachers. So in some Socialist areas of really anti-religious leaning they will purposefully staff a Catholic school with homosexual teachers, and they will laugh about it. There is nothing anybody can do.

No property rights means no rights. That is what losing is like, but you haven't lost yet here. You have lost a few battles. You haven't lost the war. You haven't lost yet. So what about winning? There are ten steps to winning.

At the end of this list of ten steps you guys are all going to tell me this all takes money, and you don't have the money. So I will tell you how to get money. That will be step eleven.

All right, let's start with recruiting. Let me just say this, too. Every movement that is successful has similar characteristics. Movements that succeed do the same kinds of things. Movements that fail do the same kinds of things, but those are different kinds of things. It is the things that you do that determine whether you succeed or fail. Not the moral superiority of your cause, because you people have the best cause in the world. It is these institutional kinds of things that you do.

So, one, recruit a legislative champion. I know what you are all thinking. Heck, I am my own legislative champion. Not really. Okay, a legislative champion is someone who has got a bit of a name in the community, someone who has credibility, has some sort of expertise in the matter. They are a well known politician or media personality or respected scientist, or if you are talking about a local government, sometimes your local math teacher can be one of your most effective advocates because people have respect for his expertise.

This person also has to be someone who is telegenic, a person who looks reasonably good on television, who can speak well. This person can practice, fine, but if it is someone who is already out there speaking a lot, it is best. Insurance salesmen spend a lot of time speaking. They have developed an expertise. Lawyers spend a lot of time speaking. The problem is when lawyers speak, they sound like lawyers. But this is someone who, preferably, could be a local politician, who can be educated and energized on your issues and who you can trust would be a very good legislative champion.

I was talking to someone last night about recruiting a legislative champion on these property rights issues. A person to think about would be Helen Chenoweth. Think of people who have spoken on a national stage, who have relationships with the media, who are credible, and who fully back the cause. I mean people who are not just in it for bucks.

So think about a legislative champion at the local level, at the regional level, at the state level, at the national level, wherever. Think about who this person is in your community. Maybe it is someone who doesn't know anything about the issues. Great, go and educate them. Find a champion. Now, big companies already understand this. That is why they have all the celebrity endorsers for that latest brand of whatever. It is celebrity endorsements. I don't know about you, but I've met some movie stars. They're idiots. You don't really want them in your cause, but you want somebody who is able to speak, able to hold people's attention, able to take complex things and make them simple. If winning on your issue means they have to understand all the arcane bits of forestry law that you know, you are never going to win. People don't have time. They just don't, I'm sorry. However, if there is somebody who the people already have an emotional connection with, a local radio talk show host or a gifted school teacher who speaks very well, or a local politician who they have heard on other issues and they like him and he explains your issue in five minutes or less, then you might have a lot of people come around to your cause. Then they might start to read, then they might start to learn, then things might begin to change.

So that is number one. Recruit a legislative champion. This person starts to communicate to the press, to the public, and to ask for money. This person is eventually going to cost you a lot, but hopefully he will raise a lot more than he will cost you.

Number two, recruit media allies. Okay, everyone in this room raise your hand if you have talked to Kim Stossel in the last year. Okay, we've got R. J., Carol, Greg. Somebody should be calling her every day. I'll tell you who she is. She is on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, a friend of mine. She is from rural areas, from the Northwest. She understands these issues. Guess what! She even likes to write about them. Writers need things to write about. They need issues and details. So when you have a particularly outrageous horror story and you are able to package a story, you give it to someone like Kim who then puts it out into the megaphone of the Wall Street Journal. And let me tell you, when you bring the Wall Street Journal down on a state bureaucracy, they are going to fold sometimes, and they are going to shake every single time. So find other allies. You can find other allies. I just wanted to start with one. Kim can't do it all.

How do you package a story for the media? You don't hand them your entire book of thoughts. These folks are lazy. If they weren't lazy, they wouldn't be journalists. They would be engineers and doctors and making a whole lot more money. Believe me, I am a journalist. I know! These guys don't even like to type. So you've got to make it simple but not simplified. The details all have to be correct. And you have to make it so they can't even get the details wrong, but you lay it out very simply. And every package has certain components, certain parts. Right? What are those parts?

First of all, journalists always like to see all the articles about the issues that have already been published, been published recently. That's because they never want to miss what has already been said. The idea of journalism was sort of black and white—remember that black and white movie, "Front Page"—they all wanted a scoop. That is not journalism today. Now, the old saying 40 years ago was that an investigative journalist was a redundancy and today it is a contradiction in terms. They just want to extend the story one more step. This means that they want to know what the other folks are saying and they just want to go one more step. That's fine. You can gradually through the press move them further and further. Not all at once. Sometimes you will find a true believer, someone like me when I was younger writing about this stuff who was willing to lay it all out, but most journalists want to look at what everyone else has written, and they want to write something kind of like that, a little better written, maybe a few fresh details, that's it. That's how business works, folks. I am not telling you how it should be. I am just telling you how it is. So in that packet you include the articles on your issue. Now maybe you don't have any articles from a newspaper. No newspaper has been bored enough to write about it. Fine, put the articles from your newsletter, from web sites, from law journals, anything.

The second thing that they like is timelines. Now, I don't mean a whole page of text. This is kind of confusing because they are on deadline. You put the date in one column and what happened in the next column—date, event, date, event, page after page. Leave out some of the unimportant events, you know. The judge had a continuance and they decided next June to meet again. You don't have to put that one on a timeline. The ones on the timeline are like, they stole my land on date x. That is a good date. That is a date we need. The review process, whatever, but all the important events with dates. So when he tells your story, he already has it in chronological order and it is so simple even journalists can't get it wrong.

The next thing is a summary, why this is interesting and who this affects. This is about half a page. Who this affects. You need some statistics here. You might say, if this county ordinance goes through, out of the 494 landowners with land of these characteristics in the property, 300 are going to get zapped. One of the things I do to scare journalists and surprise them is to point out to them that in America landlords generally make less than renters. Per capita income, landlords are worth less. You think, how is that possible? They own property. Well, of course we are talking about America. They don't really own the property. They can't kick the guy out. In many states they can't even decide how much rent to charge. But think about that. That is a little fact statistically proven true. To the press, landlord means bad rich guy. When you explain the issue, you have a paragraph in there with citations for the source. Known fact, on average, renters are paid more. So you turn some of the impressions around. You anticipate some of the arguments that the other side is going to make and you address them, not with rhetoric, but with facts. You say what the source of those facts is. You've got to begin to recruit media allies.

You start with what I call the movement media. These are the opinion magazines, these are the trade industry magazines, Forest Product News, and all that stuff. Also the publications of affiliated organizations. The NRA has three magazines, each with a circulation of more than two million. You would probably never get them to do it, but you could try to get the AARP to have an article about how seniors have been badly affected by property regulations. Begin to look at other publications where maybe they are devoted to a set of issues that is not identical to yours but is close to yours and you colonize those. They've got to write about something. They have got to have something in between the covers and in between the ads. You begin to go into opinion pieces, pieces that are broadly friendly or to groups that are broadly connected to yours. Now, people are going to say you are preaching to the choir. Well, if you want to build a congregation, you need a choir first. So go ahead and preach to the choir a bit more, but then also look at mainstream media. This is where Kim Stossel comes in. That is why I think you should all talk to my brother, Frank Miniter, who is now the number two editor of American Hunter Magazine or my brother Brendan who is on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, also. I was on the editorial page for awhile, but I didn't want to live in New York City, so I went to Europe.

Begin to realize that there are a few people who are reasonably high up in journalism who can be brought along, who can understand these issues—people who grew up in rural areas, people who have an understanding of the Constitution, and you've got to make these people your friends. You contact them regularly and give them information in the form they know how to deal with. You don't give it the way you want to give it. You give it the way they need it. It is like they don't make children's medicine bitter. They make it sweet. There is a reason.

Talk radio. Okay, there are so many talk radio shows in this country, thousands. You don't have to get on Rush Limbaugh to succeed here, folks. These guys have got to fill two or three hours. As impressed as they are with their own voices, that is a lot of hours. So when you go back and you have your legislative champion, you get him on the radio shows talking about things, giving out the address of your web site. Spend more time on talk radio. You reach a broader audience and you attract people. In radio you have the time to really explain an issue. If they are interested in what you are saying and you are lighting up the phones, they will put you on for an hour or more. That is a long time and a big audience in many cases. You attract more people to the cause and you attract more money to the cause. Don't be afraid of asking for money on the air. Clear it with the host beforehand. There are books of addresses that you can call that give the address of who these people are. You can e-mail them, you can call them, you can visit them.

Now, talk TV, that is a much higher bar. You've got to find a very sexy story and, for better or for worse, although it is the bedrock of all our rights, property rights is not a sexy story to an urban audience. But there might be a way to get into that, about how to talk to TV.

Then there is C-Span. Has anybody thought about getting C-Span to cover conventions like these? You want to get the word out. C-Span doesn't cost you anything but time and effort.

Okay, next step. We have talked about legislative champions, media allies. The broad coalition. I know what a broad coalition is in this room. It is one of the forest products guy and the guy who is worried about invasive species and the guy worried about wetlands all agreeing how rotten government is. That is the beginning of a broad coalition. That is not the end of a broad coalition. If you look at all these issues, the people who are primarily upset about them are people in rural areas because they are the people who are most used to having rights. People who live in Manhattan, people born in Manhattan, they never really had a feeling of rights before, so they don't really feel like they have lost anything. You people are upset because you remember what it was like to have rights. You feel like something has been taken away from you. So you've got to start to educate urban people and build a broader coalition.

One way to do it is by making common cause with the gun groups and learn how they organize, learn how they operate. They have been spectacularly successful. And think about the product they are defending. Unlike guns, property rights haven't killed anybody. They have saved and sustained people, and they have saved and sustained endangered species and environments. You've got a much easier product to sell and they are selling it better than you are. Go into coalition with them.

Think about intellectual property rights as well. I'll give you an example and this happened under a Republican Congress. The songwriters and the restaurant associations went to war. If you play the radio in a restaurant, you are, believe it or not, taking someone's private property rights because radio is for private enjoyment. For public performances, the songwriter, the owner of that song, has a right to compensation. Radio stations pay for the songs they air. Well, the restaurant association was tired of this so they wanted to get a law through Congress, through the Republican Congress, that said we can take that property right and we have, as long as the restaurant is a certain size or smaller, we can play all the music we want and not have to pay any royalties. Now it not going to surprise you to know that a lot of songwriters only have a few songs that make any money at all. Most of them are getting royalty checks for $1.92 a year. That is why they are waiting tables in Nashville or whatever. Their property rights got taken away. I knew the lobbyist for the recording industry who was fighting this, and I said, have you ever gone and talked to a property rights community? He didn't even know it existed. He said, you mean there is a whole grassroots movement of people fighting for property rights? I said, absolutely, there is. Oh yeah, but they are probably a bunch of conservatives. They probably hate us Hollywood types. I said maybe they do, but they probably love property rights more, probably love principle more, and you guys have a lot of money and you've got no grassroots. These people have a lot of grassroots, a lot of heart, and a lot of principle. It is a national coalition. Then he said, well, who do I call? That is why you need a legislative champion. There was literally no one for him to call.

Okay, so you need a broad coalition. You could also partner up with churches and synagogues, because the government is using zoning laws and other property restrictions to keep places of worship out of areas. Mel Gibson, a multi-millionaire, wanted to build a church in his neighborhood. He had the land and his neighbors fought it saying it is a public nuisance to build a church. Not one of these ugly modern churches either. He wanted to build one of those nice stone, old style churches. They fought him. I think he fought a ten-year legal battle just to build a church. This is happening all over the country. Churches make sympathetic victims. In some people's minds we are all greedy landlords. Well, you can't call a church a greedy landlord. So form a broad coalition.

Step four. Form a political action committee or a 527. Look at what Steve Moore did for Club for Growth. He has terrified politicians. Look, politicians are moved by two forces—fear and greed. Fear that they are going to be defeated and greed for campaign dollars. A PAC satisfies both of those basic appetites in a politician. So you need to form a PAC or a 527 where you say—Steve Moore said— people who raise our taxes or people who don't support tax cuts vigorously enough, we are going to have challengers to support. There are primaries and then there are campaigns, and he got a few of them booted out of office. Talk to Steve about doing something like that for property rights. People who don't support property rights shouldn't get re-elected. But you don't have any mechanism for doing that. You don't have a PAC. You don't have a way to hurt your enemies and to help your friends.

Step five—foundation. Well there is a Property Rights Foundation but that is not what I am talking about. Let's look at how pervasive and powerful the environmentalists have become. How they've done it. They have these foundations that do a broad array of things. They write school curriculum. They give out awards to media so when the media writes a story the environmentalists like, they have an award off the shelf to give to them. And, of course, journalists look up, and there are books of awards, and they know, oh boy, if I write an article like this, there is a possibility I will get a $10,000 prize. That influences coverage; so you want to think about it. Maybe you call the award "The Pombo" and get Richard Pombo to raise the money for it. You want to have a foundation that would help write lesson plans so teachers who do want to have a balanced approach to the environment have something to teach and so on. There are a lot of these small projects that you could raise money for, small deliverable things that a non-profit can do. That is the classic work of a foundation and you need that. A foundation alone is not going to win the battle, but it is part of a winning effort.

Six, the law firm. Okay, I am not talking about one of these $250-an-hour law firms where guys just want to make money. I am talking about things like the Institute for Justice and other non-profit law firms out there. You ought to have one or many more devoted to property rights cases, to set legal precedents, to continue to push the private property jurisprudence the right way. Ideally, they would also publish a law journal to talk about these cases, and they would have a program to educate judges about the importance of these cases. It is not something you are going to do this year or next year, but it is something that should be part of your thinking and planning. If you look at the NAACP in 1900, they decided they wanted to get rid of Jim Crow and segregation. They thought it would take fifty years, a little bit more. But they did it through targeted litigation, through educating judges and lawyers about the issues and setting the precedent and then going to the next lawsuit, setting the precedent and going to the next lawsuit. There are people who have done it on other issues. Talk to Clint Bolick at the Institute for Justice and some of those people.

Seven, write a bible. I don't mean literally write a Bible. Get someone to write a book outlining the history of the movement, the principles of the movement. The environmentalists already have it. They have Silent Spring. Even people who haven't read it quote it. You need something where if somebody says, I want to learn what there is to learn about the property rights movement, there is one book and they can get it on Amazon or at any major bookstore. Books also bring a lot of media attention, which can educate people about the issue.

Eight, more conferences and more web sites. Conferences like this are really important for a couple of reasons. One is they sustain activists. A lot of you guys are working alone or working with a couple of people. And it is a lonely battle. We all know people who were super-effective and kind of dropped out, burned out. So you need more conferences like this where people can at least meet each other and figure out what works and what doesn't so you are not repeating the same mistakes, and also get new contacts. So conferences are important.

Nine, web sites are important. Somebody ought to think about writing a property rights blog where every day it gets updated so people can see all around the country and even from other parts of the world what is going on—why is this new and interesting.

Finally, ten, you need to start building some institutions. This talk by the property rights ombudsman was fascinating to me. That is an institution we could replicate in every state, but there are other institutions, too. I don't understand why when someone is accused of a crime, the government will pay for a public defender. But when someone has put his entire life savings in a few acres of land and has it taken through regulation, he has to somehow pay for his own defense. Think about institutions like that.

Those are the ten points to win. I hope you don't take this as frustration. I really think it is time for the property rights movement to win.

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