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.