MEASURING LAW'S IMPACT
A rather rich literature of evaluation of actual and proposed programs of law has developed, using criteria derived from economics as its standard. This literature takes certain economic goals as its basic values and assesses legal programs as good or bad depending upon whether they most efficiently or rationally achieve the economic goals or make use of theoretically correct economic means. Of course, it is fairly easy to calculate the dollar costs of a particular policy when it is stated as the actual number of dollars spent on a program, its share of total government expenditures, how efficiently the funds are allocated, and so on. Other economic costs are, however, difficult to measure. For example, it is difficult to discover the expenditures by the private sector for pollution-control devices that are necessitated by air pollution control policy. Moreover, economic standards are hardly applicable to the measurement of social costs of inconvenience, dislocation, and social disruption resulting, for instance, from an urban renewal project. At the same time, it is also difficult to measure the indirect benefits of particular policies for the community. For example, the Social Security program may contribute to social stability as well as the retirement incomes of recipients. The problem of measurement is again apparent.
In addition to the difficulties inherent in the measurement of indirect costs and benefits, other complexities arise because the effects of a particular law may be symbolic (intangible) as well as material (tangible). Intended symbolic effects capitalize on popular beliefs, attitudes, and aspirations for their effectiveness. For example, taken at face value, the graduated income tax is a symbol of equality and progressiveness in taxation and draws wide support on that basis (Reed and Swain, 1997). In reality, the impact of income tax on many people, particularly the rich, is noticeably reduced by provisions such as those for tax shelters. The result is that effective tax rates for the rich are substantially lower than commonly believed. What is symbolically promised is quite different from what materially results.
These are some of the difficulties that need to be taken into consideration in measuring the impact of a particular law. There are several possible research approaches that can be used for measuring impact. One approach is the study of a group of individuals from the target population after it has been exposed to a program that had been developed to cause change. This approach is referred to as the one-shot study. Another possible approach is to study a group of individuals both before and after exposure to a particular program.
Still another possibility would be the use of some kind of controlled experiment. But noted earlier in this chapter, in measuring the impact of law, one serious problem is the absence of control groups. As a result, it is difficult to say with confidence what behavior would have been had a law not been passed or had a different law been passed. Outside of a laboratory setting, it is difficult to apply an experimental treatment to a group that one has matched in all significant respects to another group that does not receive the treatment, so as to control for all possible sources of distortion or error. This difficulty is further accentuated by ethical problems that often arise from such research methods as the random assignment of persons to different legal remedies.
A final consideration of evaluation research involves the use of results. As James S.
Coleman (1972:6) stated, “The ultimate product is not a ‘contribution to existing knowledge’ in the literature, but a social policy modified by the research result.” In many instances, however, those who mandate and request evaluation research fail to use the results of that research. These people may feel committed to particular ways of doing things despite evidence that a program is ineffective. This is particularly true in instances where programs were established because of political pressures, such as various efforts in corrections and crime policy. As public interest waned in the later stages of these programs, there was no real pressure to incorporate the results of evaluation studies into the ongoing activities (Vago, 2004).
It is apparent that sociological expertise can be made relevant to social policy. Of course, it is a question of choice whether one would want to pursue primarily disciplinary or a policy-oriented applied sociology, although the two are not mutually exclusive. Sociology undoubtedly has a good potential to play an active, creative, and practical role on the formulation, instrumentation, and evaluation of social policy (Babbie, 2017). At the same time, as sociological knowledge and methods become relevant to and influential on policy, they become part of politics by definition. In such a situation, the contributions of sociology can become a tool for immediate political ends and even propaganda purposes by justifying and legitimizing a particular position. Ideally, the objective should be to insulate, but not isolate, sociological contributions from the immediate vagaries of day-to-day politics, and to strike some sort of balance between political and sociological considerations, permitting neither to dominate.