International Perspectives: "The Politics of Precaution"

By Ashley Clark

Last week, the International Policy, Development and Practice Speaker Series welcomed David Vogel, Professor at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley.

Professor Vogel’s speech, entitled “The Politics of Precaution,” began with two startling case studies. Mr. Vogel talked about the differing reactions of The United States and Europe in regulating two potential risks: ozone chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). When the first dangers of ozone chemicals emerged in the 1970s, the United States was quick to respond with boycotts and increased regulation, ending a $3 billion dollar domestic industry. In contrast, European governments did not respond and there were not public outcries for regulation. He contrasted that to the response to GMOs; here, the EU has responded with increasing GMO regulation, almost destroying the entire industry in Europe. The US, on the other hand, has passed no federal regulation.

What accounts for this change, where two sets of risks were met with opposite responses with enormous consequences?  Why is the US no longer one of the most stringent, risk-adverse, and innovative regulators, a title that now is held by the EU? Professor Vogel points out three broad factors that have caused the EU to emerge as the dominant example of regulatory standards in the world. First, public opinion in both areas has changed. Whereas Americans are now more trusting of the government’s regulations and status quo, Europeans, after the ill-handled “Mad Cow disease,” are more likely to see a dearth of regulation by the government. Secondly, there has been a serious shift in the opinions of policy makers in the US and the EU. Starting after the presidential loss in 1992, the Republican Party in the US has given up on earning the Green Vote, contrary to their previous position, and both parties have become increasingly polarized. The EU, in contrast, came about in the 1990s through a commission led by elites and businessmen. As a concession to those who feared that the price of a single market would be decreased health and safety standards, politicians strengthened EU commitment to more stringent standards.

Finally, the way risk is assessed in both countries has changed. Risk assessment comes with two potential falsities: a false negative and a false positive. In a false negative, the government tells people a product is safe when it is not. In a false positive, the government warns its citizens about the danger of a product that turns out to be safe. In the US, the rise of the cost-benefit analysis has put the burden of proof on those who would propose regulation, emphasizing the use of numbers. This is due to the aversion of false-positives, not wanting to cause an unnecessary stir. The EU, on the other hand, favors a precautionary principle, which seeks to avoid false negatives and puts the burden of proof on those opposed to regulation. Interestingly, Professor Vogel saw that, on the elite-political level, the precautionary principle portrays a systematic distrust of science, as opposed to the US cost-benefit analysis method, which embraces scientific demonstrations.


Ashley Clark is a MPP/MA-IAS student at UC Berkeley.