Is the cost-benefit administrative state sociologically illegitimate? Does transparency into the consequentialist foundations of policy-making undermine trust in regulatory institutions? This seminar addresses these questions by presenting results from three survey experiments fielded on over 6,000 respondents. In so doing, it makes three contributions to the study of law and policy.
Theoretically, the project resolves the tension between the idea that some values are sacred and the impossibility of pursuing these values to the exclusion of all others by introducing the concept of cost-benefit norms. Cost-benefit norms are behavioral rules identifying the circumstances that require a symbolic affirmation of a sacred value through the performative rejection of any trade-off. These norms are contingent, and they explain why the same trade-off may be odious in one context and anodyne in another. Empirically, the experiments find that regulatory trade-offs between fatal risks and money are not usually regarded as an expressive denial of the sanctity of human life. Taken as a whole, the data indicates that people are not generally opposed to a cost-benefit analysis, even for life-saving regulation. The third experiment also demonstrates the ambiguity and hence malleability of cost-benefit norms. It thereby illustrates the importance of guarding against experimenter demand effects and social desirability biases in surveys investigating social norms.
While the results do not establish the normative desirability of the cost-benefit paradigm, they suggest the absence of any broad opposition to consequentialism in public life. This finding has implications for the democratic legitimacy of the administrative state and its institutional design.