15 Pages Posted: 27 Jul 2020
Date Written: July 22, 2020
When policymakers focus on costs and benefits, they often find that hard questions become easy – as, for example, when the benefits clearly exceed the costs, or when the costs clearly exceed the benefits. In some cases, however, benefits or costs are difficult to quantify, perhaps because of limitations in scientific knowledge. In extreme cases, policymakers are proceeding in circumstances of uncertainty rather than risk, in the sense that they cannot assign probabilities to various outcomes. We suggest that in difficult cases, it is useful for policymakers to consider a concept from poker: “freerolls.” A freeroll exists when choosers can lose nothing from selecting an option but stand to gain something (whose magnitude may itself be unknown). In terms of social justice, John Rawls’ defense of the difference principle is grounded in the idea that behind the veil of ignorance, choosers have a freeroll. In terms of regulatory policy, one of the most promising defenses of the Precautionary Principle sees it as a kind of freeroll. Some responses to climate change, pandemics, and financial crises can be seen as near-freerolls.
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