Commentary

The Precautionary Principle Strikes Back

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The Precautionary Principle has been used by progressive environmental  and public health advocates to justify climate change, energy, food  and chemicals policies that damage economic freedom and prosperity while imposing extreme risk aversion and technophobia. It was something of a guilty pleasure watching the progressives squeal for freedom as Governor LePage applies that same precautionary principle to Ebola and public safety.

One version of the Precautionary Principle appeared in the 1992 Rio Declaration on the Environment, “When there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”  When applied to Ebola, even this “better safe than sorry” weak version would justify the Governor’s efforts  to quarantine potentially infected  individuals. While the scientists may be certain (where have I heard “settled science” before?), the fact is that the Ebola story has played out like the beginning of a Stephen King story, replete with government ineptitude and expert hubris. Public confidence in our scientific and governmental “protectors” is not terribly high.

The 1998 Wingspread Declaration was much stronger: “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 established scientifically. In this context the proponent of the activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden the proof.” This version reverses the burden of proof, is not limited to serious or irreversible damage and omits cost effectiveness.  That nurse is lucky she hasn’t been committed to Riverview. Under this version of precaution, returning health care workers would have to prove that they are “safe”, just like advocates demand that genetically modified foods or chemicals like BPA be proven “safe”.

The Precautionary Principle damages individual and economic freedom in the name of public health and safety. Progressives have happily embraced it when it suited their ends. Perhaps now that  it has bit them in the ass they might reconsider, but betting  on that wouldn’t be prudent.

About Jonathan Reisman

Jon Reisman is an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine at Machias. He was chair of the Professional Studies Division, which houses the Education program, for a decade. He speaks for himself.

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