Policy Documents

The Paralyzing Principle

Cass R. Sunstein –
November 2, 2003

All over the world, there is increasing interest in a simple idea for the regulation of risk: the Precautionary Principle. Simply put, the principle counsels that we should avoid steps that will create a risk of harm; until safety is established through clear evidence, we should be cautious. In a catchphrase: Better safe than sorry.

In ordinary life, pleas of this kind seem quite sensible. People buy smoke alarms and insurance. They wear seatbelts and motorcycle helmets, even if they are unlikely to be involved in an accident. Should rational regulators not follow the same approach as well? Many people believe so.

In many ways, the Precautionary Principle seems quite sensible, even appealing. To justify regulation, a certainty of harm should not be required; a risk, even a low one, may well be enough. It makes sense to expend resources to prevent a small chance of complete disaster; consider the high costs, pecuniary and otherwise, that are spent to reduce the risk of terrorist attack. On reasonable assumptions, the costs are worth incurring even if the probability of harm — in individual cases or even in the aggregate — is relatively low.

The Precautionary Principle might well be seen as a plea for a kind of regulatory insurance. Certainly the principle might do some real-world good, spurring us to attend to neglected problems. Nonetheless, the principle cannot be fully defended in those ways, simply because risks are on all sides of social situations. Any effort to be universally precautionary will be paralyzing, forbidding every imaginable step, including no step at all.