The Public Interest

The costs and benefits of cost-benefit analysis

Adam Wolfson

Fall 2001

ARGUMENTS over public policies have a way of taking on a life of their own, coming to exist almost without reference to the policies themselves. Before a policy has been adopted, when everything is still up for grabs and the stakes are high, the participants in the debate put forward carefully reasoned arguments meant to convince. There is no room for recondite analysis or pedantry. Once a policy is decided upon, the debate has a tendency to subside, though occasionally it does not, and then not infrequently the arguments have a way of becoming ever more exquisite and divorced from reality.  Since the basic positions have already been stated and restated and are familiar to all sides, the debate takes on a stylized character. The debaters play their assigned roles but with a nod and a wink, for they know that the policy under question will continue more or less as before, regardless of the debate’s outcome. This can encourage all sorts of elaborate, scholarly commentary, but is also a sign of the inconsequentiality of what is being said.

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