Should "better safe than sorry" guide our public policy?

It's better to be safe than sorry. We all accept this as a commonsense maxim. But can it also guide public policy? Advocates of the precautionary principle think so, and argue that formalising a more "precautionary" approach to public health and environmental protection will better safeguard human well-being and the world around us. If only it were that easy, says Jonathan Adler, a professor and director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

Simply put, the precautionary principle is not a sound basis for public policy. At the broadest level of generality, the principle is unobjectionable, but it provides no meaningful guidance to pressing policy questions. In a public policy context, "better safe than sorry" is a fairly vacuous instruction. Taken literally, the precautionary principle is either wholly arbitrary or incoherent. In its stronger formulations, the principle actually has the potential to do harm.

  • Efforts to operationalise the precautionary principle into public law will do little to enhance the protection of public health and the environment.
  • The precautionary principle could even do more harm than good.
  • Efforts to impose the principle through regulatory policy inevitably accommodate competing concerns or become a Trojan horse for other ideological crusades.
  • When selectively applied to politically disfavoured technologies and conduct, the precautionary principle is a barrier to technological development and economic growth.

    Source: Jonathan Adler, The Problems with Precaution: A Principle without Principle, The American, May 25, 2011.

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    First published by the National Center for Policy Analysis, United States

    FMF Policy Bulletin/ 07 June 2011
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