Encourage or impose: the drift of the precautionary principle

Posted on September 13, 2022


Interestingly, overt moral condescension and Pharisee-style imposition of justice tends to have the opposite effect, with people reacting against these dictates, even if ” everyone knows it’s good for us “. You can’t force them to change their habits or beliefs (and the opposite is usually the norm).

Much of public policy theory was about gently modifying (improving) the behavior of individuals (sin taxes, traffic restrictions, protection from crime…) while protecting civil rights and liberties and avoiding backlashes negative of the population.

Today, fanatics seem to use the precautionary principle to force behavioral change. The reactions against such obligations are predictable.

On a superficial level I could say that my mother taught me right from wrong and that I don’t need to be lectured by people like you, thank you very much. Our social media silos confirm our biased views in a comfortably harmonious way.

We are looking for information we want to hear, not what someone with a moral agenda is forcing into our ears. Somehow, in the age of digital information, freedom has turned into a freedom of not having to listen to what we don’t want to hear. I trust people like me, those who inspire me, who deserve my attention. Not to virtuous fanatics (unless, on a particular issue, I am with them against the infidels).

A nudge or a punch?

I would buy into what you want me to do and accept it if you inspire me, attract me, or offer me a compelling story. I need to be empowered, trusted, and made to believe that I am making my own good choices. But if you come from outside of my storytelling, if I can’t relate to you (i.e., if I can’t trust you), anything you force on me is likely to hurt me. to make react.

A decade ago, the risk world was drawn to a concept called nudging, which is about finding subtle ways to gently change people’s behavior in a positive way. These could be anything as benign as painting a fly in a urinal to keep splashing to a minimum or making bins for recycling waste larger than those for general waste.

I was first attracted by the nudging because of its peaceful efficiency. I have always been wary of the risks of forcing behavior change on individuals, but the nudging left me the possibility to choose (believe that I choose) for myself.

the nudging was best represented by the book Nudge – The Soft Way to Inspire the Right Decision by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. This book has recently been the subject of a second edition, but has not had more impact. Why ? As a risk management policy tool, the theory of nudge has all but fallen into disuse from the activist strategy of doomsday emergency (now used in every campaign they run).

This rendered the softer choice architecture approach ineffective. If humanity is believed to be wiped out by a cataclysmic climate collapse in eight years, small steps to reduce energy consumption will not achieve the “ Goals “.

Welcome to the land of Gilead where crisis, urgency and intensity matter more than the freedom to choose.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, it would have been necessary to resort to nudging to reduce the risk of long-term infection. Instead, draconian measures have been imposed on populations petrified by stories of slow, horrific and lonely deaths. But by imposing data-defying restrictions over an extended period, the population reacted against expert advice at the earliest opportunity. As coronavirus infections continue to spread, people in the West are no longer willing to accept lockdowns, masks or social distancing.

If I had been kindly left to make (believe that I was making) my own decisions when it came to preventing viral infections, these masks wouldn’t be sitting at the bottom of the top shelf of my closet today. I would also have more respect for the authorities and for the upcoming vaccine recall campaign.

When each situation must be presented as a crisis (saving the planet, saving lives, fighting the infidels, stopping the explosion of cancers, etc.), the techniques of the boost theory will not make it possible to impose the desired behaviors. With a manufactured crisis, militants can stop people in their tracks, lock them up, and strip them of their goods and services. This is where the precautionary principle comes in: not with a nudge, but with a punch!

No time for the gentle method! Invoke caution…

The theory of nudge can it coexist with the precautionary principle?

Precaution is a type of approach all or nothing to restrict our activities in the face of uncertainty. If it cannot be determined with certainty that a substance, system or activity is safe, then it should be stopped.

This principle can easily be applied to activities or products considered morally offensive, such as energy produced from coal, plastics, synthetic chemicals, pesticides… Trying to encourage people to use less Plastic straws wouldn’t work in a world where activists are desperate to eliminate all plastics.

the nudging is still used to reduce unhealthy preferences like alcohol, sugar, coffee, salt and tobacco, the benefits being too strongly identified to allow the virtuous to intervene. The precautionary people would like to solve “more effectively these” problems but politicians with a sense of self-preservation are not, to this day, willing to be so suicidal. Activists have learned that any campaign needs an apocalyptic threat (climate collapse, massive sterility, disappearance of bees, widespread cancers…) for precaution to be favored over softer solutions like the theory of death. nudge. Activists must generate a dystopian world with palpable fear, moral outrage, virtuous alternatives to an identifiable source of evil… In other words, activists must lie and misrepresent.

Caution is called for in situations where trust is non-existent and social assets can easily be taken away. If we try to gently nudge someone to change their behavior, we empower individuals and trust that most of them can make the right decisions.

Lack of trust or moral outrage

Politicians who impose the precautionary principle do not trust citizens to make reasonable decisions.

Twenty years ago, it was enough to affix on an effective chemical cleaner the words ” handle with care ” and ” keep out of reach of children consumers were confident and could enjoy the benefits of the product. Today, if you cannot prove that the chemical is 100% safe, the precautionary principle is invoked and the product is withdrawn from the market (forget the advantages…).

In itself, this lack of confidence is not sufficient for the precautionary approach to develop. Not every bad choice is a major problem that I need to stop myself from making. But if my choices provoke moral outrage (among a vocal and judgmental minority), then I must be stopped. That herbicide sprayed near a school, that piece of plastic presumably meant to choke the ocean, that bee that didn’t return to the hive, that careless person who coughed on a bus…can generate enough outrage moral to allow a risk manager to abandon the process of trust and impose a radical change in behavior via the precautionary principle. And who would dare to challenge the righteous who are trying to save humanity, the planet, the victims…

This is where the precautionary principle stands today.

It is a political tool that can be applied when people are sufficiently frightened of the potential consequences and filled with moral outrage at those responsible. The role of the activist is simple: to generate a toxic balance of fear and outrage in order to apply the precautionary principle and win in the political arena:

  • fear of environmental and health devastation and outrage at industry;
  • fear of pesticides and GMOs and outrage towards farmers;
  • fear of cancer and outrage over chemicals and plastic;
  • the fear of meltdowns of nuclear cores and the indignation towards the capitalists and their scientific community;
  • fear of cataclysmic climate change and outrage over fossil fuel-funded lobbyists…

It is interesting to note that in the cases of risks where the benefits are widely identified (coffee, mobile phones, alcohol, salt, internal combustion vehicles, tobacco, meat…), the moral indignation cannot be raised to the level at which the precautionary principle would be tolerated. There is a lack of integrity and hypocrisy in the way precautionary bans are enforced.

Fear and outrage are too emotionally charged to focus on less important factors…like facts and data. Faced with an impending catastrophe, Prevention is better than cure » has more resonance than « calculated, correct and safer “. I’ve argued before that science is concerned with the difference between being right and being wrong, while precaution is about being safe (and if, in the end, you weren’t right, then being in safety counts more than being wrong).

The precautionary principle defies scientific logic, is able to ignore facts, identifies uncertainty with fear, encourages an apathetic population to believe that they can live without risk, systematically removes benefits, leads to environmental consequences and worse sanitation and – we may add now – creates a trustless environment where, given the choice, people refuse to do what is probably best for them. Precaution disempowers individuals, distancing them from dialogue and destroying relationships of trust.

Worse still, precaution has created a political arena where activists, playing the game of fear and outrage, endlessly cry out to their petrified communities: There’s no time to lose ” and : ” We must act to stop this now “.

The only option for the political decision-maker is then to abandon the process of dialogue and trust and to impose precaution. Decision theory no longer places importance on gently pushing for a better situation. The trade-off, however, is that most people don’t like decisions being forced upon them by a benevolent regulator, so individuals will even react against what is good for them. The preacher’s daughter syndrome.

the nudging was a clever theory… but completely impractical in the land of Gilead of precaution.

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Encourage or impose: the drift of the precautionary principle