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Ronald Dworkin on the Good Life

The End of Cost-Benefit Analysis?

Mark D. White

Today, the editors of The Wall Street Journal commented on the fine print of President Obama's recent executive order requiring all regulatory agencies to submit their rules to cost-benefit analysis in an effort to streamline government and reduce regulatory burden on business. They note that the order requires that agencies include in their cost-benfit calculations "values that are difficult or impossible to quantify, including equity, human dignity, fairness, and distributive impacts," which robs cost-benefit analysis of any epistemic value it might have had. They conclude by saying, "this sounds more like the end of cost-benefit analysis than the beginning."

We can only hope. As heterodox economists of every stripe, from social economists to public choice/political economists, have long noted, cost-benefit analysis is fraught with vagueness and ripe for political manipulation. More specifically, by its nature it cannot incorporate values and principles that cannot be quantified, as the language in the executive order states. The administration is to be lauded to some extent for realizing that policy and regulation design must take into account their ethical impacts, but proposing to do this within the context of cost-benefit analysis is self-defeating at best, and a cynical facade at worst.

I do not deny that cost-benefit analysis has its place, even within a system of allocation which is based primarily on principles like dignity and justice. (See my chapter from my fothcoming edited volume, Retributivism: Essays on Theory and Policy, for an example in the context of criminal justice.) But it should never be presumed to work with any precision nor provide any conclusive results, and rather should provide merely one piece of information--the rough balance of quantifiable benefits and costs--which should always be included alongside other factors, such as impact on dignity, equality, and so forth.


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Mark -- this is beautifully said. There is no daylight between our views.

Thanks, Jonathan!

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