How safe is the precautionary principle?

Proponents claim that the precautionary principle is harmless but introducing it into public policy making may have dangerous unforeseen consequences

Where an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public bears the burden of proof.

Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle

Mindful of the unforeseen dangers or introducing new chemicals, genetically modified organisms, and technologies into the environment, policy entrepreneurs are advocating a new approach to government regulation – the precautionary principle. According to this principle, the burden of proof would shift from environmental activists to the proponents of the new activity. Instead of activists having to prove that the activity is dangerous in order to have it regulated, proponents would have to prove it was safe in order to have it approved.

The risks posed by genetically modified crops are one example of why policy makers should invoke the principle. Biotech companies have created crops that are resistant to glyphosate (a herbicide). Farmers are sow their genetically modified crops and spray for weeds at the same time. Environmentalists are concerned that genes from herbicide resistant crops will find their way into weeds. The result could be new strains of super weed. If that happened then farmers would have to resort to even more aggressive chemical spraying than they do now.

Like genes for herbicide resistance, the precautionary principle may seem relatively harmless when it’s restricted to regulatory policy on pharmaceuticals, nuclear power, or genetically modified organisms. But what would happen if it inadvertently spread to social policy?

The Wingspread Statement restricts itself to activities that threaten "harm to the environment or human health. But already economist John Quiggin is applying the principle to foreign policy (and here). Quiggin argues that proponents of pre-emptive wars tend to overestimate their chances of victory, and as a result, fail to consider the negative consequences of fighting a war and losing. Because the outcome is almost always uncertain, Quiggin argues that we should apply the precautionary principle when pre-emptive war proponents present us with their cost-benefit analyses.

But if governments were to accept arguments like these what is to stop them being forced to accept conservative arguments against new social policy? For example, conservatives argue that legitimizing gay marriage risks undermining the family. And since the family is a bedrock institution of society the whole social structure may be put at risk. According to this view liberal reformers overestimate their ability to predict the consequences of government led social change. Naturally there’s no social scientific evidence that legitimizing gay marriage undermines the family but if we’re relying on the precautionary principle then we don’t need any. The burden of proof lies with the proponents of change. Same sex marriage advocates must prove the reform is safe.

The welfare state is another area conservatives might want to apply the precautionary principle. Just as environmentalists argue that we should withdraw genetically modified crops from sale until they are proved safe, conservatives could argue that welfare benefits to never-married single mothers should be withdrawn until they are proved non-hazardous to social functioning. After all, the widespread use of income support for alleviating poverty in families where a woman has had a child out of wedlock is relatively recent. Many conservatives believe it has led to an increase in poverty and crime, deprived children of male role models, and deprived young men of the socializing effects of marriage. Again, there’s no strong evidence that increases in crime and single parent families are the result of changes to welfare entitlements but since we’re using the precautionary principle we don’t need any.

Applied to social policy, the precautionary principle would have the same effect it does when applied to chemicals, bio-tech and other new technology. It would stifle innovation and turn back the clock on recent reforms. As soon as proponents demonstrate that one concern is misplaced their opponents come up with another one. The problem with the principle is that there is no agreed way of deciding which "threats of harm" should be taken seriously and which are mischievous. If we don’t use scientific evidence to make this decision then presumably we use a political process. Left leaning proponents of the precautionary principle need to think carefully about how they would fare in political contests over their favorite social policies.

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Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Interesting, Don. But with reference to same-sex unions – can anyone explain to me how you’d measure whether the family was undermined?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

oops – I mean not undermined?

This precautionary principle is confusing!

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Mark – An otherwise unexplained rapid increase in divorce and single parent numbers? But showing causation would be hard.

In the case of social policy, we can often try before we buy. We can experiment on a smaller scale than the whole nation, such as changing the rules for one state. So we are exercising caution, but not paralysed by the fear that something may go wrong.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Andrew, yeah, it’s very hard to see how recognising same sex unions could have any impact on divorce for instance. The willingness of people to see marriage as a life long commitment seems to be eroding, regardless of any issues to do with sexuality. The causes are complex, but I really doubt that “undermining the legitimacy of the institution” is something that happens in a straightforward manner, if at all. As I’ve said before, it would be logical for those who believe that some degree of commitment is laudable in relationships to feel happy that people with a same-sex orientation agree with them.

Peter Murphy
2022 years ago

Wot Andrew said. I like the idea of States setting up their own TAZs to test social policy. Let the libertarians and the hippies run free, and the sociologists and economists research to their hearts’s contents. But in every experiment, you need to have a control as well. That’s what “everything else” is for.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

“Proponents claim that the precautionary principle is harmless but introducing it into public policy making may have dangerous unforeseen consequences”

Ah, Don… that is superb.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Well the humble observa has been telling you brave new worlders for some time now, about this conflict between lefty progressive’s penchant for a natural environment but a peculiar aversion for that penchant when it comes to human relationships. Now we have to be careful about jumping to the conclusion- ‘At the same time therefore because of’, but you may have to be aware of this possibility when you meddle with the social mores and wisdom of ages.

derrida derider
derrida derider
2022 years ago

Of course the precautionary principle is a conservative principle – it is virtually pure Burke.

That is why as a non-conservative I have never liked it. Mind you, an awful of green lefties are conservatively-minded people. They, for example, are the ones who tend to look back at the economy of the 1950s as the epitome of the worker’s welfare state.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

“Where an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health” – the activity itself cannot raise threats. It is the opponents of the activity who do that. Sometimes the threats raised are real, sometimes they are only imagined. Often they are greatly exaggerated while the benefits of the activity are ignored or downplayed. Frankly, the precautionary principle is reactionary nonsense. If it had been adhered to in the past, millions of lives would have been lost due to the failure to implement many of the mainstays of modern medicine. We probably wouldn’t even have implemented clean water supplies in our cities.

Alan
Alan
2022 years ago

Actually the history is that conservatives and property owners desperately opposed the sewering of London and Paris. They argued that compulsory sewage was a threat to freedom of contract and would severely depress property prices. Plus

P.M.Lawrence
2022 years ago

Alan, those conservatives/property owners had a point. Simply obliging them to provide what was a general benefit was an imposition, an impost. While they were the only ones in a position to provide the service – just as the central authorities were the only ones in a position to run postal services – the benefit was however a general benefit. The cost of the changes should not have been imposed on those in place, any more than tram line operators should have had the burden of road maintenance laid on them (that was tried, and whenever it was they went broke leaving the roads in worse condition).

The correct solution was to require those in a position to do the work to do it but not to finance it; they should have been compensated from general funding for taking measures furthering the general benefit. Anything else would have been an off balance sheet form of tax, a huge burden coming up in this unforeseeable way.

I don’t know which approach was adopted, but my guess is that different places tried different variants.

trackback
2022 years ago

The precautionary principle and social policy…

Over at Troppo Armadillo, in response to John Quiggin’s use of a (modified) precautionary principle in , Don Arthur points out that the application of the precautionar

trackback
2022 years ago

Conservationists and conservatives

Don Arthur had an interesting response to my pieces on the precautionary principle and wars of choice1. Don correctly observes that this kind of argument can be used in opposition to reform, and is therefore inherently conservative. He mentions, as…

trackback
2022 years ago

Conservationists and conservatives

Don Arthur had an interesting response to my pieces on the precautionary principle and wars of choice1. Don correctly observes that this kind of argument can be used in opposition to reform, and is therefore inherently conservative. He mentions, as…