Areas of law dominated by government agencies haven’t taken advantage of the rich literature on property rules and liability rules, which are “workhorse concepts that permeate every corner of the economic analysis of law.” In their 1972 article Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Inalienability: One View of the Cathedral, Calabresi and Melamed observed that there are fundamentally two types of remedies: (1) property rules, such as injunctions or disgorgement, which aim to deter, and (2) liability rules, like compensatory damages, which aim to compensate. This framework has paid rich dividends in areas like torts, property, IP, contracts, and conlaw — but seems to have bypassed areas of law dominated by agencies.
Government agencies’ remedies can be classified as either property rules or liability rules. For example, if a business has a permit from the EPA but violates the permit’s conditions, the remedy could be either taking away the permit (a property rule), or requiring proportional compensation (a liability rule). Similarly, if a broker has a license from the SEC and violates securities law, the remedy could be either yanking the license (a property rule), or requiring compensation for the harmed parties (a liability rule).
I apply the property rule and liability rule framework to my favorite agency — the IRS — in a forthcoming Virginia Law Review article. When a taxpayer violates a tax-law requirement, the remedy can be either yanking the taxpayer’s favorable tax status (a property rule), or requiring compensatory additional tax (a liability rule). Counterintuitively, anecdotal evidence shows that property-rule remedies may be less effective at deterring violations, because the threat of political and media blowback may make the IRS unwilling to impose a draconian property-rule remedy. As a result, when Congress protects a requirement with the property-rule remedy of yanking a favorable tax status, politically-powerful or sympathetic taxpayers are rarely deterred from violating the requirement. The IRS doesn’t dare impose it. Surely similar problems plague enforcement by other agencies.
Anyone working in any agency-dominated area of law could consider how the property-rule/liability-rule framework fits into their area.