Le Principe de Prcaution

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I have lived in France more than 4 years now and I am still learning about the culture. For example, I am now on vacation in Brittany. The whole country takes off the month of August. How can seemingly all the people take vacation at the same time for a whole month? That question will take more reflection; now I will describe another aspect of French life that I experienced recently.

Back in April my colleagues and I were caught up in the travel mess caused by the Icelandic volcano and exacerbated by the European authorities. I could not stop myself from expounding on the practical and moral necessity for freedom for individuals and institutions to deal with risk in light of the blanket ban on all air travel. A typical response was simply “le principe de précaution.”

Le principe de précaution, or the precautionary principle, was spawned in the environmental movement and applied to the ozone hole scare and restated at the various environmental conferences over the years. In 2005 a Charter for the Environment was incorporated into the French constitution that contained a version of the principle.

As Wikipedia defines it, “the precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those who advocate taking the action (emphasis in the original).” The necessity to prove the negative makes the application of the principle available virtually without exception. Thus, the Principe de Précaution should more accurately be called the Le Principe de Propaganda. The noted political philosopher Rahm Emmanuel has perfectly described the principle’s operational characteristics as, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” So whenever there is a danger, or a danger can be manufactured, use it as an opportunity to grab more power and use the excuse that it is to protect the people. Of course it should be emphasized that the principle is virtually never applied so as to reduce the scope of government action that do so much to cause real dangers to the public.

Even if you have not known of the precautionary principle by name before, you might have recognized its corollary application in many ways. As bad as the left wing environmentalists (or typical French bureaucrat) are in using the precautionary principle for applications such as climate change, the right has been perhaps worse. I say this guardedly, but after all war is the health of the state, and it is on the precautionary principle that the military-industrial-intelligence complex has been built. What could fit the precautionary principle more than the Bush doctrine of preventive war?

History and current events are full of examples, from bank bailouts and drilling bans to the threat of bombing to prevent bombs in Iran. With the empire perhaps in its death throes we can expect more and more; but hopefully with more and more people recognizing the absurdity of the claims, this old slight of hand will lose its effectiveness for the ruling class.

Ira Katz [send him mail] lives in Paris and works as a research engineer for a French company. He is the co-author of Handling Mr. Hyde: Questions and Answers about Manic Depression and Introduction to Fluid Mechanics.

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