In a paper published in 1992, Paul R. Portney told a nice story about a fictitious town called Happyville. In that story, the director of a local environmental protection authority faces an uneasy task: he has to make a decision about whether to treat water to remove a natural contaminant Happyville’s residents believe to cause cancer. However, according to experts, it is highly unlikely that the contaminant has any adverse health effects–which the residents refuse to accept. Water treatment imposes costs. Eventually, it is the science-denying residents who would pay them. But the director knows that this would be irrational. What should he do, then? Refuse following the irrationality of the public? Or accept people’s will despite knowing that they are effectively harming themselves? There is no simple answer to that. And, obviously, Portney’s story is not just a nice gedankenexperiment, as it has, e.g., obvious relevance for policies related to genetically engineered food crops.
The state of the art of scientific knowledge on genetically engineered crops (commonly going under the somewhat imprecise name of genetically modified organisms, GMOs) is that they pose no significant threats to either human health or natural environment. Nonetheless, especially in Europe the public is still reluctant to accept the introduction of “Frankenfoods”, as they are sometimes called. The reasons mostly have little to do with science and include the fear of environmental “contamination”, health hazards and the increasing power of multinational corporations. As a result, some 60 per cent of EU inhabitants are not willing to support GM food (see the Eurobarometer’s report here, pp. 36-41). So, there are parallels with Portney’s Happyville story. The main difference–an important one–is that the refusal to introduce genetically engineered crops is unlikely to harm the people of the EU substantially. There may be negative long-term consequences if GM bans inhibit the development of truly beneficial crops (which has yet to be achieved), but in the short- to middle-term, the cost of not adopting GM crops is unlikely to be significant.
Nevertheless, GM crops have some potential which cannot be captured due to mostly irrational opposition and fears. The question is then, What should regulators do? Should they allow for introduction of genetically engineered (food) crops despite the widespread opposition from citizens? This question is not entirely hypothetical, as evidenced by the recent controversy around the admission of TC1507–the European Commission is expected to follow the recommendations of the European Food and Safety Agency EFSA and approve the introduction, even though the governments of most (19 of 28) EU member states were against the introduction of this genetically engineered corn variety (which was, however, not enough to reach the needed majority, as in the EU’s Council of Ministers not only the number of voting states counts, but also their respective populations, which was decisive in this case).
So, what to do about the “Frankenfoods”? Should the relevant decision-makers just follow their voters’ (irrational) fears and ban them? Or should they rather act in the society’s best interest as they understand it, despite there not being a “majority” for this? (I abstract here from the other factors that actually play decisive roles in political decision-making in representative democracies, such as populism on the one hand and lobbyism on the other. This is meant to be a normative analysis of the political process, not a descriptive one, so to speak.) This is, actually, a very old debate with many facets. In some cases, people are irrational but when their attention is drawn to their cognitive fallacies and biases, they may be willing for the government to adopt measures to correct them–this is, e.g., one of the arguments of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. There is not much room for controversy here, but our GMO case is obviously different. It is not about minor cognitive biases but about general attitudes and worldviews–even though these are influenced heavily by cognitive biases. Nevertheless, the opponents of “Frankenfoods” clearly do not want their representatives to overrule them “for their best”.
Edmund Burke, the idol of many modern conservatives, wrote once: “Your representative owes you, not only his industry, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” If we take his argument literally, this would mean that the European Commission is right to ignore the irrational fears of EU citizens and to allow the introduction of TC1507. But this appears to me to be a rather extreme stance. Burke was right in pointing out that the idea of representative democracy is that we entrust politicians to make choices for us–a very pragmatic idea. But there are cases when listening to the citizens might be a good idea, not just because they are those who decide whether one will retain his office, but also because this is the right thing to do. Indeed, there are a few cases in the recent European history of governments actually doing just that–refraining from their original position as a result of widespread public protest. Just think of ACTA and, in Germany, nuclear power phase-out.
However, this is not meant as an argument in favour of always listening to the loudest voices on the street. Indeed, a few caveats are in order. First, if a decision-maker believes that the decision favoured by the citizenry would harm them, she should at least try to explain the issue and her interpretation. Second, it is important to bear in mind the costs of following the irrationality of the people. As I already suggested above, banning GMO might not be as big a deal as some proponents of biotechnology claim. It is not obvious that the benefits of genetically engineered crops are so large as to justify “overruling” public opinion. But this is not always the case. For example, some people (not the majority, happily) irrationally fear vaccines. There is no evidence that their arguments are justified in any meaningful sense, plus vaccines are an extremely important component of a functioning public health system. If the vaccine-bashers ever become the majority, I am not sure what I would recommend for a decision-maker to do. I certainly would not be as “easy” with just following the irrationality as I am in the case of GMOs.
In the end, as often is the case in life, the GMOs in Happyville and similar dilemmas are a question of balance–here, a balance between coping irrational self-harming and the obligation to be the representative of the people. A general answer to the class of dilemmas Portney meant does not exist. We have to deal with every new case individually.
- James K. Hammitt: Positive v. Normative Justifications for Benefit-Cost Analysis, Harvard University Working Paper, 2012.
- Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin, 2012.