GMOs in Happyville

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.

Further reading:


8 thoughts on “GMOs in Happyville

  1. The case of Happyville is rather clear – the major has to treat the water only for the nocebo effect (

    The GMO-case is more difficult but eventually applies to very many (maybe most?) political issues. The distinctiveness of GMO compared to other issues is not its dilemma-nature but its popularity. Disparities between the point of view of a professional politician and the electorate are rather the rule than the exception – i.e how many percent of the electorate have profound knowledge concerning the pension policy, the Crimea-crisis or public debt? Even if the public happens to agree with the official public standpoint this agreement more often than not will be the purely accidental result of two different lines of reasoning (the public one and the professional one).

    But still the question remains: What to do in case a dilemma like GMO has become so popular? One solution of course is trying to make the public understand its error. Quite tedious work, usually results in political death.
    More promising is the Merkel-strategy: Do only talk platidutes, signal pseudo-understanding (“we take the public concerns very seriously”), go on like before and state more platitudes when the matter is settled just in the opposite direction (“we have taken the public concerns very seriously and found a common solution”). If pointed to the contradiction with the public opinion by some nasty journalist refer to the symbolic concession you have made in this respect (“We may have legalized GMO but corporations have to label the respective products in at least 2 point charakters, given the product belongs to the dairy-category, does not contain vitamin B, its market-admission comes at a time of full moon and… [audience stopped listening already minutes ago]”).
    If the resistance should be too strong for the standard Merkel solution, found an “enquete commission” and let them brabble for years until everybody is asleep or so fed up with the topic that s/he has reached a state where s/he begs for any kind of solution, no matter what kind, as long as you don’t bother him/her with it anymore. Ask Merkel for countless other strategies of that kind…

  2. the major has to treat the water only for the nocebo effect

    Do you really think so? This is a quite problematic normative recommendation, I think… In the end, the mayor would thus neither follow public opinion (one possibly defensible normative option), nor would he follow the rule of serving the “true” interests/welfare of those whom he represents (the other possibly defensible normative option). He does a bit of either, additionally being dishonest. I don’t think that this is morally defensible.

    I guess, you are right in pointing out that in most cases of policy there is a discrepancy between the approaches of politicians on the one and the public on the other hand, and that convergence of views is rather incidental. However, I think you are overly optimistic with regard to the politicians’ ability to distinguish between where the “truth” is–they may be professionals, but for numerous reasons, ranging from lack of time resources to deal with every single issue thoroughly to opportunism and lack of will to deal with them in such a way, they are as fallible in their judgements as the public is–which adds a further dimension to the problem we are discussing… But, of course, the Happyville dilemma assumes for the sake of the argument that public authorities actually do “know better”.

    One solution of course is trying to make the public understand its error. Quite tedious work, usually results in political death.

    Well, here you hit the nail on the head. Indeed, I guess this is the only morally acceptible strategy–but, as you say, it mostly is equal to political suicide. Actually, higher-level politicians are unlikely to have achieved their position by following this morally defensible approach, so it is rather naive to expect them to even think of it as a true option… Which leads us to Angela Merkel and her supreme form of modern opportunistic Machiavellism. And what do learn from all that? That the Happyville problem is a nice exercise in political ethics but has nothing to do with the real world…?

    • I just realized that I might have understood your nocebo recommendation wrongly… Do you mean by it following the public opinion in spite of knowing better? (that would, of course, annulate the first paragraph of my above comment)

  3. An addendum to my previous comment: I thought about the futility of attempts to convince the public that it’s wrong (or the other way around…). I am currently working on deliberative methods of economic valuation–those are “borrowed” from politology and might present one option how to deal with GMO-like problems (not by means of valuation, but the more general idea of deliberative fora). There is a nice paper on that here (interestingly, it reports, among other things, on two cases–in the UK and in Australia–, where deliberative fora have actually been deployed in the context of GM food).

  4. To be frank, though I like to play with moral indifference in the end I am usually quite moralistic. Thus I’d like my previous comment to be read rather as being descriptive than a normative statement.

    In a democracy the rule of the thumb is and has to be that the people has the last word, though the concept of representative democracy has not been invented for nothing. Professionalized representatives have the right to interpret the people’s will and make certain adjustments when transforming it into policy. They must not, however, fully neglect it, even if they are sure another way would be more prosperous or in any other way beneficial to society (which, as you already pointed out, they can never exactly be). If the people errs, this error has to be made and the consequences have to be born by the people, hopefully providing a learning effect.

    Hence Merkels strategy is as effective as it is wrong (more precise: not legitimate). The only institution that may legitimely oppose a clear political opinion of a majority of the people is the constitutional court, which can be considered as “watchdog of democracy” or as institutionalized means of people’s self control (esp. regarding the protection of minority rights). And even this is not uncontested, as the constitutional courts have faced fierce debates on this so called “countermajoritarian difficulty” for decades now.*

    However, it is easy to see the weak point of this stance: If people’s error involves something that we call “new risks” – risks that are characterized by spatial/temporal limitlessness, irreversibility, impossibility of (financial) compensation or similar devastating characteristics – it is a folly to let them have their will. Our carbon-based economy for example which leads to climate change is such a risk. Our current political system (or theory/paradigm/ideology), which has no convincing alternative, clearly faces its limits in such cases and forces us to make the inconvenient decision between potentially devastating political heresy (eco-dictatorship) or devastating scrupulousness (self-induced extinction). Any suggestions for solving this matter please via E-Mail to me.

    * Further reading: Bickel, A. (1986): The Least Dangerous Branch. The Supreme Court at the Bar of Politics, New Haven/London.

  5. Just stumbled across a current example for the problem addressed in this post:

    In early 2013 politics tried to solve a problem with life insurances which basically centered on a restriction of payments for certain insurance policy holders in a certain time period. The background was that due to altered accounting circumstances a small circle of these holders was about to unjustly gain large profits at the expense of the majority of policy holders. This should be prevented by law for reasons of general fairness. However, somehow the dynamic produced media coverage suggesting that politics were about to inflict losses on all policy holders together. Thus public resistance sprang up and was absorbed by Seehofer and other politicians usually trimming their sails to the wind. In the end the law proposal was put to the ground.

    However, those who followed the news lately will have recognized that this exact law was now accepted approx. one year later. What happened? Politics just waited for the storm to settle down and simply introduced the law-proposal once again, obviously now accompanying it with a heavy information campaign on what this reform was truly about. In this case this appears to have worked despite the not so easy nature of the the underlying issue…

    Found in: DIE ZEIT from March 20th, p. 27.

  6. In a way, this strengthens the point that providing exhaustive information is one way of how such conflicts might be solved/approached. On top of that, of course, your example shows how terribly opportunistic and hypocratic our democratic representatives are–but that’s not really news…


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