The precautionary principle and smallpox vaccination

Advocates of the “precautionary principle” tend to speak as if their position grew naturally out of a reasonable risk aversion. Their opponents tend to suspect that “precaution” is really a cover for technophobia and mixed with a desire to justify intrusive regulation. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that precaution really reflects a sort of Taoist preference for inaction over action. Not that motivation really matters — a principle can be a sound one even if urged for unsound reasons — but here’s what I think is a bit of evidence.

If precaution were simply an inference from risk-aversion, then one would expect its advocates to be in favor of acting, as well as abstaining, to reduce small risks of large disasters. For example, they should be arguing, if not for the immediate mass administration of smallpox vaccine, at least for the stockpiling of such vaccine in case of a bioterrorist attack and for a crash program to develop better vaccines (one more versatile against possibly resistant strains and having fewer side-effects). Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. The precautionary principle arises out of the same “bioethics” frame of mind that opposes vaccination because it is certain to cause some deaths while the threat against which it protects is only speculative.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: