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DIMENSIONS OF POLICY IMPACT

Thomas R. Dye (2008) suggests that the impact of a policy has several dimensions, all of which must be taken into account in the course of evaluation. These dimensions include the impact on the social problem at which a policy is directed and on the people involved. Those whom the policy is intended to affect must be clearly defined—that is, the poor, the disadvantaged, schoolchildren, or low-income mothers. The intended effect of the policy must then be determined. If, for example, it is an antipoverty program, is its purpose to raise the income of the poor, to increase the opportunities for employment, or to change their attitudes and behavior? If some combination of such objectives is intended, the evaluation of impact becomes more complicated, because priorities must be assigned to the various intended effects.

At times, as Friedman and Macaulay (1977) note, it is difficult to determine the purpose of a law or a program of regulation. They suggest that the determination of intent is complicated because many individuals with diverse purposes participate in the policy-making. Will consideration be given to the intention or intentions of the persons who drafted the statute or the judge who wrote the opinion creating the rule? To that of the majority of the legislature or court who voted for it? To that of the lobbyists who worked for the bill? To that purpose openly discussed or to the purpose that is implicit but never mentioned? They add that sometimes one can only conclude that a law has multiple and perhaps even conflicting purposes, but this is not to say that one can never be sure of the purpose of a law. However, one must be aware of the complexities of determining “purpose.”

It should also be noted that a law may have either intended or unintended consequences or even both. A guaranteed-income program, for example, may improve the income situation of the benefited groups, as intended. But what impact does it also have on their initiative to seek employment? Does it decrease this, as some have contended, or does it mainly improve the health and well-being of low-income families, as others have contended? Similarly, an agricultural price support program intended to improve farmers’ incomes, may lead to overproduction of the supported commodities.

The difficulties of measurement of impact are most acute for those areas of conduct where the behavior in question is hard to quantify and where it is hard to tell what the behavior would have been without the intervention of the law. The laws against murder illustrate the difficulties here. There is a fairly good idea about the murder rate in most countries, but no information at all exists about the contribution that the law makes to this rate. In other words, there is no way of determining how high the murder rate would be if there were, for example, no severe legal penalties.

The extent to which the legal profession is familiar with a new law affects this law’s potential impact. For example, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975 was heralded as a major piece of legislation intended to protect the consumers against defective products. Did the new law help consumers with specific complaints about faulty products? Not much, according to research findings. Two years after the passage of the new law, one study concluded that “most lawyers in Wisconsin knew next to nothing about the Magnuson- Moss Warranty Act” and “many had never heard of it” (Macaulay, 1979:118). The fact that many lawyers know little about laws that are intended to protect consumers obviously impairs the effectiveness of such laws. As this example shows, another problem confronting impact research is the assessment of knowledge of a particular law by those who are involved in its interpretation and application.

A given legislation may also have impact on future as well as current conditions. Is a particular policy designed to improve an immediate short-term situation, or is it intended to have effects over a longer time period? For example, was the Head Start program supposed to improve the cognitive abilities of disadvantaged children in the short run, or was it to have an impact on their long-range development and earning capacity? The determination of long-term effects stemming from a policy is much more difficult than the assessment of short-term impacts.

 
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