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Precautionary principle is a non-starter

par Cécile Philippe
mercredi 30 juin 2004.

Article published in French in Les Échos on June 30, 2004.

Leaving it up to experts to decide on the use of resources, which do not belong to them does not eliminate the uncertainty factor. It enables the legislator to decide which risks he deems most probable while ignoring the rest.


It was rather a surprise to see the right wing parties in the “Assemblée Nationale,” (UMP and UDF) vote the precautionary principle into the Constitution, whilst Greens voted against and communists and socialists abstained. I was rather comforted by the idea that the vote was not unanimous and that it was raising a number of reservations and necessary questions, a rare fact for a government more likely to reach for consensus. The latter won the day once more.

First enacted during the biodiversity conference of Rio (1992), the precautionary principle in the Constitution states that “ if a prejudice likely to happen, even though uncertain with regard to scientific knowledge, were to have major and irreversible consequences on the environment, public authorities will ensure that temporary and appropriate measures are adopted to avoid prejudice and evaluate risks.” It is fundamental to determine whether abiding by this principle is not likely to have the opposite effects than intended and whether its defenders are not trying to avoid using the principle further by voting it into the Constitution.

Economic theory can provide illustrations of this. Any action has a cost and uncertainty is a fundamental condition of our environment, which man cannot avoid. The cost of any action, in particular a precaution, amounts to the satisfaction one has to give up. Adopting temporary and appropriate measures to avoid a given risk will also prevent the realisation of another outcome for which resources could have been allocated.

The implementation of a precaution relies on subjective views and an incomplete selection of risks to consider, based on predictions and available data. Uncertainty is a component of any course of action. If this were not the case, man would not have to choose between several alternatives and would be like a machine. Uncertainty forces each one of us to act like an entrepreneur to try and measure whether the cost of a precaution will be higher or lower than the benefit that can be expected. This procedure of choice is entirely subjective and is determined by each individual’s view. Only the main protagonist can evaluate how to avoid a potential prejudice and benefit best from the use of these resources.

Leaving it up to experts to decide on the use of resources, which do not belong to them does not eliminate the uncertainty factor. It enables the legislator to decide which risks he deems most probable while ignoring the rest. By eliminating individual appreciation of use of resources, ownership and responsibility are no longer connected, thereby substituting the precautionary principle to natural caution.

The Kyoto protocol is here particularly relevant. As a direct application of the precautionary principle, its aim is to reduce greenhouse gases emissions, which are presumed to be the cause of global warming. However, no consensus exists within the scientific community. The consequence of this precaution, designed to prevent harmful effects likely in the future, is measured in advantages linked to the abandoned production such as cheaper heating, traffic…. As a result of the precautionary principle, fundamental products of our everyday life become scarce, which can only be detrimental to the poor.

Moreover, as illustrated in Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist, concerns of environmentalists are exaggerated in light of statistics. He demonstrates that the environment has improved continually with economic development. It is very alarming to know that such a principle, which can harm entrepreneurship and innovation, is left to people so averse to taking risks.

Cécile Philippe est la directrice de l’Institut Economique Molinari

Le principe de précaution consiste à renoncer à celui-ci
Type : PDF (158.2 ko)
Mis à jour le : 30 juin 2004

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