Jurisprudence Article 121 Harv. L. Rev. 1273

Valuing Laws as Local Amenities


The conventional approach to evaluating a law is to examine its effect on proximate behavior. To evaluate a new criminal law, for example, the conventional approach would look to changes in the crime rate. This Article proposes another method for evaluating laws, specifically, that they should be judged by the extent to which they raise housing prices and lower wages in the short run or raise the aggregate value of residential land in the long run. The logic is that the value of a law, much like the value of a lake or a public school, is capitalized into local housing and labor markets in the short run and residential land values in the long run. In the short run, desirable laws increase housing prices and decrease wages because more people want to live in the relevant jurisdiction; undesirable laws have the opposite effects. In the long run, more houses are built and jobs are created, so the capitalization settles into aggregate land values. Evaluating laws in this manner has several advantages over the conventional approach. First, it employs a more direct proxy for utility. Second, it accounts for all the effects of a law, including hard-to-measure outcomes, unintended consequences, and enforcement costs. Third, it permits direct comparison of different types of laws, which is important in instances where lawmakers have limited resources to invest in lawmaking. Lastly, it sheds light on the distributional consequences of a law. In particular, it makes clear that a significant portion of every law’s benefits is reallocated through housing and labor markets to property owners.