The Problems with Precaution

The American has posted an essay of mine on the precautionary principle, “The Problems with Precaution: A Principle without Principle.” The underlying paper was prepared for a conference on pesticide regulation at the American Enterprise Institute and was included in an AEI book, Crop Chemophobia: Will Precaution Kill the Green Revolution?. The essay begins:

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 formalizing 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.

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 operationalize 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 disfavored technologies and conduct, the precautionary principle is a barrier to technological development and economic growth.

It is often sound policy to adopt precautionary measures in the face of uncertain or not wholly known health and environmental risks. Many existing environmental regulations adopt such an approach. Yet a broader application of the precautionary principle is not warranted, and may actually undermine the goal its proponents claim to advance. In short, it could leave us more sorry and even less safe.