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Even in affluent societies, limited economic resources constitute a barrier to changes that might otherwise be readily adopted. For instance, in the United States, more people would probably accept the desirability of more effective controls on pollution, more convenient systems of public transportation, and adequate health care for all, if all these changes would cost much less than they would cost. The fact that changes in these areas come very slowly is thus a matter not only of ideology and other factors but also of cost. Cost and limited economic resources in a society do in effect provide a source of resistance to change.

It is a truism that change through law can be expensive. In most instances, the instrumentation of legislation, administrative ruling, or court decision carries a price tag. For example, the economic impact of federal regulations on institutions of higher education has been significant. In the United States, various affirmative action programs carry sanctions providing for cutting off federal funding to institutions that do not comply with antibias laws. Compliance, in turn, results in increased administrative costs for postsecondary institutions, which are resisted in many academic circles and have contributed to the demands for modification of a variety of laws affecting higher education.

In addition to the direct cost of a particular change effort, the way costs and benefits are distributed also affects resistance. For example, when costs and benefits are widely distributed (as in Social Security), there is minimal resistance to programs. The cost to each taxpayer is relatively small; the benefits are so widely distributed “that they are almost like collective goods; beneficiaries will enjoy the benefits, but only make small contributions to their retention or growth” (Handler, 1978:15). Resistance will be forthcoming in situations where benefits are distributed while costs are concentrated. For example, automakers still resist (although not too successfully) legal attempts to impose more sophisticated pollution- control measures on cars.

Although a particular change through the law may be desirable (such as an effective and comprehensive universal health insurance plan in the United States), limited economic resources often act as barriers to such change efforts. Of the four sources of resistance to change, the economic factors are perhaps the most decisive. Regardless of the desirability of a proposed change, its compatibility with the values and beliefs of the recipients, and many other considerations, it will be resisted if the economic sacrifice is too great. Simply stated, regardless of how much people in a society want something, if they cannot afford it, chances are they will not be able to get it. As George M. Foster (1973:78) suggests, “Cultural, social and psychological barriers and stimulants to change exist in an economic setting . . . [and] economic factors . . . seem to set the absolute limits to change.”

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