15 Pages Posted: 27 Jul 2020

See all articles by Annie Duke

Annie Duke

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Cass R. Sunstein

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

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.

Suggested Citation

Duke, Annie and Sunstein, Cass R., Freerolls (July 22, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Annie Duke

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts Ave
Areeda Hall 225
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-2291 (Phone)

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

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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