Sanjeev Sabhlok: Why The Precautionary Principle Is Bad Policy
The Times of India, 23 July 2019
We have evolved as a species to be curious about scary things. Newspapers love to publish scary reports, which are like click-bait: they catch our attention. Health scares fascinate us the most. Environmental scares grab our interest, as well. Most scares, however, turn out to be false.
For every true scare, there are hundreds of false ones. The failure of a scare is generally not reported because such information doesn’t quite excite us. So most false scares linger on in the public consciousness.
For example, in 1981 it was said that coffee causes 50 per cent of pancreatic cancers. But the scientists who made this claim retracted it in 1986. Despite that, the International Agency for Research on Cancer took until 2016 to reverse its claim that coffee is a possible cause of cancer. It is likely going to take much longer than that to dissipate the scare from the public mind.
The problem with these scares is, of course, that we do not know in advance which of them is false. But in most cases the harm caused by believing false scares is small. Some of us might stop drinking coffee, but that doesn’t matter much.
It is when governments get involved in scares that things can take a sinister turn. Vast amounts of public money can be then wasted or irrational prohibitions imposed.
We know how hard it is to stop governments from interfering in our lives. The cost-benefit test was devised specifically to stop bureaucracies from running amuck at the slightest scare by forcing them to confess all costs and all benefits.
The cost-benefit test can often be tortuous and is hated by all bureaucrats and ministers, but it is invaluable in imposing a crucial discipline on them.
The cost-benefit test is particularly well suited to dealing with scares. Its demand for unequivocal proof of harm (or at least the best available proof of harm) and analysis of scenarios with different levels of risk can help determine a reasonable and prudent way forward.
Since most scares will end up being found to be false anyway (such as the AGW scare and the GM scare), it is important to keep governments on a tight leash.
Unfortunately, the hard-earned improvement to the policymaking process through the cost-benefit approach was cast aside after the introduction of the precautionary principle in the 1990s. Perhaps its best-known formulation – in relation to the environment – is Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration which states: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”.
This exhorts governments (the “States”) to act vigorously if they suspect something may go wrong – a suspicion is enough. It doesn’t require governments to understand the harm thoroughly or even be sure that it will eventuate.
It doesn’t exhort governments to undertake better scenario analysis and pick the option with a net benefit to society. Instead, it is effectively an appeal to discard the cost-benefit approach and a carte blanche for strong action.
In this manner, the precautionary principle gives bureaucrats the freedom to only count benefits (e.g. the alleged benefits of renewable energy) and ignore costs, or to only count imagined costs (e.g. in the case of GM technology) while ignoring benefits.
This principle reverses the burden of proof of harm for regulatory intervention. It undermines reason and the Enlightenment itself, taking us to the Dark Ages. It is impossible to argue with the precautionary principle because it specifically excludes the use of logic.
Had this principle been applied in the past, scientists wouldn’t have been allowed to develop vaccines or antibiotics which inevitably have some side effects and can even, in rare circumstances, kill.
While the precautionary approach would have prevented a few side-effect harms, the main benefit – of saving hundreds of millions of lives – would have been lost. Only a social cost-benefit analysis can help us pick up the full suite of costs and benefits.
Likewise, the precautionary principle wouldn’t have allowed scientists to research the atom because of the risk of creating an atom bomb. But atomic research has led us not only to the atom bomb but to nuclear energy (and potentially fusion energy in the foreseeable future), nuclear-powered spacecraft to Mars, nuclear medicine, imaging and radiotherapy.
By exploiting our fears, the precautionary principle gives the power over our choices and decisions not only to national governments that are hungry for power but to unaccountable global mega-bureaucracies. The IPCC is just one such example.
This principle has been a godsend for the left after the fall of communism. The beauty of the precautionary principle for the socialists is that lets them occupy the moral high ground while they demand complete control over society. The Green New Deal being canvassed by socialists in the USA is one of the most brazen examples to date of this approach. And it is based entirely on the precautionary principle.