Against Historic Preservation II

 In Manhattan, once famed for its ever-evolving skyline, an astonishing 27 percent of the borough’s lots now fall under the purview of the landmarks commission.

That’s from Jacob Andinder’s What Historic Preservation Is Doing to American Cities in the Atlantic. It’s a pretty good history of the movement for historic preservation focusing (of course) on some of the racist motivations and effects. But it has little to say about what to do about the consequent difficulties of building anything new. Similarly, here’s Binyamin Applebaum in the NYTimes correctly decrying the fact that historic preservation laws mean you can’t put solar panels on the rooftops of many homes in Washington, DC. Applebaum suggests a tiered approach.

I am more radical. All historical preservation laws should be repealed.

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.

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