by Dr. Donald R. van der Vaart
Former Secretary, North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality
Most of us understand the necessity of making a cost/benefit analysis (CBA) when considering a more restrictive regulation or law or thinking of making a major expenditure. The decision to move forward is supported when its benefits far outweigh the costs.
Most of us understand the concept of CBA because we use it in our daily lives, albeit in a more informal way. Does Johnny need a new bicycle? Well, will he ride it enough to justify the purchase? Are the costs of repairing the old bike similar to the cost of the new one? When government agencies seek to impose restrictions, larger and more complex challenges are being considered.
When we lack a full understanding of how a proposed action may alleviate a problem, however, estimating the costs and the benefits of the action can be difficult. Sometimes officials will invoke the precautionary principle to argue for taking action. The idea is to favor taking the action despite uncertain costs and benefits if a supposed benefit is to avert alleged catastrophic outcomes. The precautionary principle is a philosophical approach that seeks to take steps regardless of the understanding of their impact because the potential harm of not doing so may be so severe.
Recent examples where significant actions were made on the basis of the precautionary principle include global warming and mandated widespread use of face masks for COVID. Should the claims of voter fraud in the last election be investigated on the basis of the precautionary principle as well?
The impact of manmade greenhouse gases (GHG) on global warming (GW) relies on complicated science. A tremendous research effort has led to a better understanding now, but not very long ago the precautionary principle was being cited as a reason to impose new rules.
In the mid-2000s, North Carolina and other states were contemplating the need to reduce manmade GHGs despite a still-incomplete understanding. Indeed, in the 1970s scientists were studying the warming effects of GHGs and the cooling effects of fine particulate matter. At that time, the impact of the particulate matter was thought to be more important, and scientists worried about global cooling. By 2000, however, scientists were focusing on warming, though few government officials believed that manmade GHG emissions had been tied convincingly enough to global warming. So those who desired government action to reduce manmade GHGs invoked the precautionary principle instead.
The UN stated the principle explicitly as early as 1992 when it admonished officials to proceed while the understanding was still incomplete (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change):
The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. [Emphasis added.]
One result in NC of the efforts in 2007 was the commitment of billions of taxpayer and customer dollars for solar power.
More recently I discussed the lack of any CBA in developing the restrictions we are now under to help combat the COVID. Instead of hearing from North Carolina’s Secretaries of Commerce or Revenue to get a fuller picture of costs, however, Gov. Roy Cooper imposed many restrictions and shut down much of the economy. Even though much of the science has been questioned and is uncertain, the precautionary principle allowed “restrictions in the absence of scientific consensus.” Even for the specific question of whether masks should be required, experts have invoked the precautionary principle: the relatively modest inconvenience and cost are deemed “worth it” even if the masks are found later to be of limited value.
We are now faced with the possibility of nationwide voter fraud after the November elections. Remember that through lawsuits amongst friends here in NC (and elsewhere), various absentee voting protections were voided just weeks or months prior to the election without legislative action. In addition, digital voting machines were deployed throughout the country despite having been condemned from both sides of the aisle just two years ago.
Finally, lest we attempt to convince ourselves that voter fraud is largely a fiction, recall that our own federal election for the 9th Congressional District in 2018 was overturned based on affidavits as evidence.
Nevertheless, was voter fraud so pervasive in November to have possibly affected the Presidential race? Certainly there are investigations ongoing. Until the evidence is clearer, a case can be made for continued investigation — and even first steps taken to correct fraud in the future — based on the precautionary principle.
If voter fraud was actually as pervasive as some are claiming, the future of free and open elections would be in serious doubt. Indeed, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others warned that problems with electronic voting machines “threaten the integrity of our elections.”
The precautionary principle would argue that the integrity of our elections is worth some action prior to a complete understanding. Former Vice President Al Gore challenged the 2000 election results for a full 37 days after election day even though his challenges were confined to irregularities in a handful of counties in one state. The allegations of nationwide irregularities are surely worth at least equal patience.