Losing at Its Own Game: the Right Retreats from Cost-Benefit Analysis

Amy Sinden —

Over the past four decades, the right wing has painstakingly built an intellectual scheme to try to justify the weakening of regulatory public health protections on the basis of neoliberal economic theory.  But a couple of decades ago, when the EPA began to figure out how—at least sometimes—to beat them at their own game, that edifice began to crumble.  At the 2018  APPEAL conference, I presented a brief sketch of this story. More recently, I developed it in an article that appears in this month’s edition of The American Prospect.

In brief, the story goes like this:

In the 1970s, industry lobbyists and their right-wing allies, disgruntled by the wave of environmental, health, and consumer protection legislation that had just swept through Congress, latched onto an idea that had begun to kick around among conservative economists at the University of Virginia, the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics. Before government is allowed to intervene in the market with regulation, they argued, it should be made to show that the regulation can pass a cost-benefit test.  This idea began to show up in industry briefs challenging EPA’s first efforts at environmental regulation and in white papers from right-wing think tanks.  Its pedigree in neoliberal economic theory lent an air of academic legitimacy to the idea and was a perfect fit with the Right’s larger political strategy of selling the American public on laissez-faire economics.

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