Moral Commitments in Cost-Benefit Analysis
29 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2017
Date Written: March 8, 2017
The regulatory state has become a cost-benefit state, in the sense that under prevailing executive orders, agencies must catalogue the costs and benefits of regulations before issuing them, and in general, must show that their benefits justify their costs. Agencies have well-established tools for valuing risks to health, safety, and the environment. Sometimes, however, regulations are designed to protect moral values, and agencies struggle to quantify those values; on important occasions, they ignore them. That is a mistake. People may care deeply about such values, and they suffer a welfare loss when moral values are compromised. If so, the best way to measure that loss is through eliciting private willingness to pay. Of course it is true that some moral commitments cannot be counted in cost-benefit analysis, because the law rules them off-limits. It is also true that the principal reason to protect moral values is not to prevent welfare losses to those who care about them. But from the welfarist standpoint, those losses matter, and they might turn out to be very large. Agencies should take them into account. If they fail to do so, they might well be acting arbitrarily and hence in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. These claims bear on a wide variety of issues, including protection of foreigners, of children, of rape victims, of future generations, and of animals.
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