NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Should "Better Safe than Sorry" Guide Our Public Policy?

May 31, 2011

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, 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 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.

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

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