Beyond Cheneyism and Snowdenism

17 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2015

See all articles by Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: April 3, 2015


In the domain of national security, many people favor some kind of Precautionary Principle, insisting that it is far better to be safe than sorry, and hence that a range of important safeguards, including widespread surveillance, are amply justified to prevent loss of life. Those who object to the resulting initiatives, and in particular to widespread surveillance, respond with a Precautionary Principle of their own, seeking safeguards against what they see as unacceptable risks to privacy and liberty. The problem is that as in the environmental context, a Precautionary Principle threatens to create an unduly narrow view screen, focusing people on a mere subset of the risks at stake. What is needed is a principle of risk management, typically based on some form of cost-benefit balancing. For many problems in the area of national security, however, it is difficult to specify either costs or benefits, creating a severe epistemic difficulty. Considerable progress can nonetheless be made with the assistance of four ideas, calling for (1) breakeven analysis; (2) the avoidance of gratuitous costs (economic or otherwise); (3) a prohibition on the invocation or use of illicit grounds (such as punishment of free speech or prying into people’s private lives); and (4) maximin, which counsels in favor of eliminating, or reducing the risk of, the very worst of the worst-case scenarios. In the face of incommensurable goods, however, the idea of maximin faces particular challenges.

Keywords: Precautionary Principle, loss aversion, terrorism, cost-benefit analysis, probability neglect

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., Beyond Cheneyism and Snowdenism (April 3, 2015). University of Chicago Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)

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Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

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