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Maybe we will take such a principle seriously when it is consistently applied – such as to when the government regulates market activity, or in how much power to entrust to the politicos in the first place. But of course as Obama Administration official Cass Sunstein smartly recognizes:

The precautionary principle has been highly influential in legal systems all over the world. In its strongest and most distinctive forms, the principle imposes a burden of proof on those who create potential risks, and it requires regulation of activities even if it cannot be shown that those activities are likely to produce significant harms. Taken in this strong form, the precautionary principle should be rejected, not because it leads in bad directions, but because it leads in no directions at all. The principle is literally paralyzing – forbidding inaction, stringent regulation, and everything in between. The reason is that in the relevant cases, every step, including inaction, creates a risk to health, the environment, or both. This point raises a further puzzle. Why is the precautionary principle widely seen to offer real guidance? The answer lies in identifiable cognitive mechanisms emphasized by behavioral economists.

And speaking of the topic: here’s our government throwing (pre)caution into the wind.

2 Responses to “The Precautionary Principle”

  1. Harry says:

    WC wins the Daily Metaphor Prize.

  2. Harry says:

    One would think something called The Precautionary Principle, given the reverence it gets today, carries the weight of a fundamental axiom, like the law of gravity. It is, however, a loose concept used mostly to justify dismissing clear thought, as in, say, the kind of thinking Aristotle or Socrates did. Its root comes from the saying, “Better be safe than sorry.”

    Not that there is not some wisdom in that saying. It is better to be safe carrying a rifle to the outhouse in grizzly country. Fill up your tank with gasohol before going on a five hour trip. Don’t dig deep with your backhoe unless you are certain that a high pressure natural gas pipeline does not run near your hole.

    But the PP goes further. It says do nothing or, alternatively, anything, if a group of experts are uncertain, and given that one can assemble a group that will support any desired action or inaction , the PP means nothing and is not a principle. No wonder it has become the fashion in international law, a kinder, gentler version of The Will to Power.

    Thus, we get the Kyoto Treaty sold as an insurance policy without the actuaries calculating the chances and the premiums. We get regulations to protect bait fish at heavy cost. We subsidize, in WC’s example, the wind turbine business and end up killing birds who eat bait fish. We get the New York Governor standing against fracking to protect people from fiery faucets.

    As they say, you never know what might happen. For all we know, the bear might wash in on the tide in Coral Gables unless we put up sand bags to guard against rising sea levels. Keep the rifle loaded, but in a childproof case.

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