On January 30, 2009, US President Barack Obama issued a memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies expressing an intention to study and revise the manner in which the White House Office of Management and Budget conducts regulatory impact review, including economic cost–benefit analysis (CBA) of proposed rules. Opened to public comment after pressure from non-governmental organizations, the review process revealed a deep split in civil society regarding the desirability of regulatory CBA as a tool for evaluating proposed policies. Numerous commentators focused their suggestions on incremental methodological improvements to CBA, expressing unequivocal support for the evaluation of policies based on their predicted overall impacts for human well-being. Others, however, raised serious practical and ethical objections to the use of CBA. They offered instead a vision of policy making much more pluralistic in its conception of value and much more pragmatic in its assumptions regarding the availability and certitude of empirical knowledge regarding policy effects. Although these commentators tended not to invoke the principle by name, their recommendations followed a course that internationally has come to be associated with the Precautionary Principle (PP), one that counsels erring on the side of safety when scientific uncertainty exists over the potential consequences of an action.
In a recent book, I defended the conceptual coherence and normative desirability of policy approaches, such as those associated with the PP, that reject the idea that environmental, health, and safety law can be adequately addressed from an assumed viewpoint of objectivity. The danger, I argue, is that the attempt to render environmental, health, and safety regulation fully determinable through empirical assessment and formalized decision-making models – an attempt found most influentially in the methodology of CBA, but associated more generally with the economic regulatory reform project of the last three decades – obscures the relation of agency and responsibility that the political community bears to its decisions. Even robust institutional actors such as nation states confront forces that lie beyond complete prediction and control, including the operations of complex natural systems, the actions of foreign nations and other non-subjects that depend on and impact shared resources, and the future needs and circumstances of unborn generations that are a necessary but unknowable feature of any policy decision involving intergenerational consequences. I argue that, within such a decision-making context, the political community must always in a nontrivial sense stand outside of its tools of policy assessment, maintaining a degree of self-awareness and self-criticality regarding the manner in which its agency is exercised. The PP encourages such conscientiousness by reminding the political community, as it stands poised on the verge of a policy choice with potentially serious or irreversible environmental consequences, that its actions matter, that they belong uniquely to the community and will form a part of its narrative history and identity, helping to underwrite its standing in the community of communities that includes other nations, other generations, and other forms of life. Such considerations, in contrast, hold no clear or secure place within the logic of CBA, tending as it does to deny the political community a view from within itself and instead to ask the community, in essence, to regulate from nowhere.