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.
For text: http://www.american.com/archive/2011/may/the-problems-with-precaution-a-principle-without-principle
For more on Government Issues: http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_Category=33
First published by the National Center for Policy Analysis, United States
FMF Policy Bulletin/ 07 June 2011
FMF Policy Bulletin
Publish date: 07 June 2011
The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.