Precautionary Principle

Precautionary Principle: Will False Rationality Stop Progress?



While working on a chapter dealing with the precautionary principle for a new book, I came across a superb essay in The Freeman from economics Nobelist Friedrich Hayek, The Case for Freedom. Taken from his The Constitution of Liberty (1960), Hayek explained how progress is only possible if people are free to engage in a process of trial-and-error. In fact, we advance most by learning from our errors. What worries me is that strong version of the precautionary principle endorsed by so many progressives permits only trials without errors. The canonical version is the Wingspread Statement that reads:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, 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, should bear the burden of proof.

In other words, proponents of the precautionary principle require innovators to foresee basically all of the effects their new products and services before they will be permitted. In his essay, Hayek explained almost four decades before the Wingspread Statement how the demand for perfect human foresight would bring an end to progress:

It is worth our while to consider for a moment what would happen if only what was agreed to be the best available knowledge were to be used in all action. If all at­tempts that seemed wasteful in the light of generally accepted knowl­edge were prohibited and only such questions asked, or such experi­ments tried, as seemed significant in the light of ruling opinion, man­kind might well reach a point where its knowledge enabled it to predict the consequences of all con­ventional actions and to avoid all disappointment or failure. Man would then seem to have subjected his surroundings to his reason, for he would attempt only those things which were totally predictable in their results (emphasis added). We might conceive of a civilization coming to a stand­still, not because the possibilities of further growth had been ex­hausted, but because man had suc­ceeded in so completely subjecting all his actions and his immediate surroundings to his existing state of knowledge that there would be no occasion for new knowledge to appear. …

In the past, the spontane­ous forces of growth, however much restricted, could usually still assert themselves against the or­ganized coercion of the state. With the technological means of control now at the disposal of government, it is not certain that such assertion is still possible; at any rate, it may soon become impossible. We are not far from the point where the deliberately organized forces of society may destroy those spon­taneous forces which have made advance possible.

Reading Hayek's whole essay is well worth your time. See also my article, "A Precautionary Tale," on the horrors of the precautionary principle.

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  1. “Hayek explained almost four decades before the Wingspread Statement how the demand for perfect human foresight would bring an end to progress”

    But…. Progressives?

  2. In other words, proponents of the precauationary principle require innovators to foresee basically all of the effects their new products and services before they will be permitted.

    Well that’s only fair since we require all lawmakers and regulators to foresee and forestall any negative effects before any new law is enacted.

  3. Fuck the precautionary principle.

    Proaction is the only ethical stance.

  4. It really is amazing how terrified of change progressives are.

    1. Fear of unknown or uncontrolled change drives their entire thought process.

    2. It really is amazing how terrified of change progress progressives are.


      1. It’s not just their fear of progress that’s amazing; it’s their refusal to accept it when it happens. Often I have had progressives respond with anger and hostility when I point out some area in which efforts to make things better have actually worked, or where some human ill is in decline. They become indignant at the suggestion that they might actually be succeeding at something.

        1. Their political mythology is based on the idea that they’re the permanent underdog. Don’t you dare suggest otherwise.

    3. I really liked VP’s take on dynamists vs. stasists, which is a good way to view players in certain debates. It also explains to some extent how strange bedfellows often aren’t as strange as you initially thought.

  5. It is not “false” rationality. Rational is not the same as true or real. The precautionary principle is not “irrational” it just makes rational conclusions from assumptions that are not true; namely that the risk of potential harm from an unknown action always outweighs the potential reward. If you assume that, the precautionary principle makes perfect sense. The problem is that assumption does not line up with reality.

    1. A rational argument based upon false premises is a fallacy.

      1. Sure it is a fallacy, but it is not irrational. It is just not true. If it were irrational, every time we make a mistake because we didn’t understand the facts of the situation and acted on what turned out to be false assumptions, we could be said to be acting irrationally. No, we acted rationally, we just were mistaken about what was going on.

        1. Tomayto tomahto.

          1. The people who believe in the precautionary principle are not as a rule crazy. They are just stupid.

            1. I won’t argue with that.

            2. A thing I have often found is that stupid people are quick to use the word stupid to describe that which they do not understand. Kind of funny in an ironic way.

              Like when I joke about how in the future old people will have tattoos and body piercings. I’ve had people say “No they won’t! That’s stupid!” which tells me that I am dealing with a stupid person.

              Unfortunately, stupid people seem to excel in politics.

              1. Do they think the young people who have them today won’t someday be old people? That is funny.

                1. Picture nursing home Juggalos. Now that is funny.

                  1. Old Juggalos don’t die, they just Faygo away…

        2. Sure it is a fallacy, but it is not irrational.

          It is a fallacy, but it *may* not be irrational.

          I did a bunch of irrational stuff when I didn’t know any better.

          1. It only seems irrational now that you know better. Back then, it made perfect sense.

            1. You have to think about something for it to make sense. Acting on impulse doesn’t count.

      2. No it’s not. A fallacy is a flaw in the reasoning, not in the truth values of the premises.

        1. fal?la?cy
          noun: fallacy; plural noun: fallacies

          a mistaken belief, especially one based on unsound argument.
          “the notion that the camera never lies is a fallacy”
          synonyms: misconception, misbelief, delusion, mistaken impression, error, misapprehension, misinterpretation, misconstruction, mistake; More
          untruth, inconsistency, myth
          “the fallacy that the sun moves round the earth”
          a failure in reasoning that renders an argument invalid.
          faulty reasoning; misleading or unsound argument.
          “the potential for fallacy which lies behind the notion of self-esteem”

          Well what do you know, it’s both.

  6. The thing about private innovation efforts is that if it doesn’t deliver as promised it runs out of money. With government innovation, failure to deliver as promised is proof that it needs more funding.

    If I ever get to be dictator, in addition to requiring a “None Of The Above” option on ballots, I’m going to require all legislation to be in the form of a contract with a falsifiabilty clause – some statement as to what the law is going to accomplish and a cost/benefit analysis and if it doesn’t accomplish its goals within the parameters of the cost/benefit analysis it gets automatically repealed. And whatever legislators came up with the law have to sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap and keep their mouths shut for a week during the next session of Congress.

  7. Really the precautionary principle is just lazy thinking and question begging. Of course if we know with some certainty that taking an action is going to cause more harm than good, we shouldn’t do it. But that is really the whole question isn’t it? All the precautionary principle does is say we can relive ourselves of the burden of speculating about the consequences of our actions and making rational assumptions of risk by just assuming it is all bad and doing nothing. Well, that is one way to do it I guess. It is a pretty stupid and counter productive way however.

  8. Denying the consequent has use as a logic game, but seems a wholly fucked way to order the innovations of a free society.

    1. Contraposition?

  9. The precautionary principle is a textbook example of the fallacy of switching the burden of proof.

  10. Remeber: nothing , not fire, not the wheel, not stone tools, passes the precautionary principle.

    1. Our kid goes to a daycare that is literally five hundred feet into another town. Once school starts we’ll need to figure something else out because the bus won’t go there. Why? Because one woman on the school board employed endless what-ifs regarding allowing the bus to drop kids off outside the school district. What if other daycare centers start to spring up just outside the district border? What if this, that or the other thing? Endless. So in the name of precaution, the bus must turn around in sight of the daycare center when the kids have been going for years. Fucking cunt. I hope she dies in a fire.

      1. Why not have them drop your kid at the county line. I’m sure your kid can walk 500 feet without serious harm.

        (Yes, this is rhetorical).

        1. Actually, you should really do this. Then you can get arrested for child abandonment and we won’t have to sit through you spamming the DailyMail every morning.

    2. The precautionary principle doesn’t even pass itself.

  11. Failure is not an option!

  12. Ronald, nice find.

    Hayek’s observation pertains to the growing regulations in my own business.

    FYI, please correct the spelling typo in “…proponents of the precauationary principle….”

    Thank you.

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

    Sounds like global warming/climate change/climate disruption/extreme weather to me.

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