Against Historic Preservation

Larry Summers asks:

How…could our society have regressed to the point where a bridge that could be built in less than a year one century ago takes five times as long to repair today?

As I wrote in Launching:

Our ancestors were bold and industrious–they built a significant portion of our energy and road infrastructure more than half a century ago. It would be almost impossible to build the system today. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the infrastructure of our past to travel to our future.

Summers alludes to the regulatory thicket as a cause of the infrastructure slowdown but doesn’t have much to say about fixing the problem. Here’s a place to begin. Repeal all historic preservation laws. It’s one thing to require safety permits but no construction project should require a historic preservation permit. Here are three reasons:

First, it’s often the case that buildings of little historical worth are preserved by rules and regulations that are used as a pretext to slow competitors, maintain monopoly rents, and keep neighborhoods in a kind of aesthetic stasis that benefits a small number of people at the expense of many others.

Second, a confident nation builds so that future people may look back and marvel at their ancestor’s ingenuity and aesthetic vision. A nation in decline looks to the past in a vain attempt to “preserve” what was once great. Preservation is what you do to dead butterflies.

Ironically, if today’s rules for historical preservation had been in place in the past the buildings that some now want to preserve would never have been built at all. The opportunity cost of preservation is future greatness.

Third, repealing historic preservation laws does not mean ending historic preservation. There is a very simple way that truly great buildings can be preserved–they can be bought or their preservation rights paid for. The problem with historic preservation laws is not the goal but the methods. Historic preservation laws attempt to foist the cost of preservation on those who want to build (very much including builders of infrastructure such as the government). Attempting to foist costs on others, however, almost inevitably leads to a system full of lawyers, lobbying and rent seeking–and that leads to high transaction costs and delay. Richard Epstein advocated a compensation system for takings because takings violate ethics and constitutional law. But perhaps an even bigger virtue of a compensation system is that it’s quick. A building worth preserving is worth paying to preserve. A compensation system unites builders and those who want to preserve and thus allows for quick decisions about what will be preserved and what will not.

Some people will object that repealing historic preservation laws will lead to some lovely buildings being destroyed. Of course, it will. There is no point pretending otherwise. It will also lead to some lovely buildings being created. More generally, however, the logic of regulatory thickets tells us that we cannot have everything. As I argued in Launching:

There are good regulations and bad regulations and lots of debate over which is which. From an innovation perspective, however, this debate misses a key point. Let’s assume that all regulations are good. The problem is that even if each regulation is good, the net effect of all the regulations combined may be bad. A single pebble in a big stream doesn’t do much, but throw enough pebbles and the stream of innovation is dammed.

It’s time to blow the dam. Creative destruction requires some destruction.


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