Some Benefits and Costs of Cost-Benefit Analysis

Daedalus, Forthcoming

19 Pages Posted: 15 Apr 2021

See all articles by Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein

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

Date Written: April 12, 2021


The American administrative state has become a cost-benefit state, at least in the sense that prevailing executive orders require agencies to proceed only if the benefits justify the costs. Some people celebrate this development; others abhor it. For defenders of the cost-benefit state, the antonym of their ideal is, alternately, regulation based on dogmas, intuitions, pure expressivism, political preferences, or interest-group power. Seen most sympathetically, the focus on costs and benefits is a neo-Benthamite effort to attend to the real-world consequences of regulations, and it casts a pragmatic, skeptical light on modern objections to the administrative state, invoking public-choice theory and the supposed self-serving decisions of unelected bureaucrats. The focus on costs and benefits is also a valuable effort to go beyond coarse arguments, from both the right and the left, that tend to ask this unhelpful question: “Which side are you on?” In the future, however, there will be much better ways, which we might consider neo-Millian, to identify those consequences: (1) by relying less on unreliable ex ante projections and more on actual evaluations; (2) by focusing directly on welfare and not relying on imperfect proxies; and (3) by attending closely to distributional considerations – on who is helped and who is hurt.

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., Some Benefits and Costs of Cost-Benefit Analysis (April 12, 2021). Daedalus, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)

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

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