The Politics of Precaution: Regulating Health, Safety, and Environmental Risks in Europe and the United States

The Politics of Precaution: Regulating Health, Safety, and Environmental Risks in Europe and the United States

The Politics of Precaution: Regulating Health, Safety, and Environmental Risks in Europe and the United States

The Politics of Precaution: Regulating Health, Safety, and Environmental Risks in Europe and the United States


The Politics of Precaution examines the politics of consumer and environmental risk regulation in the United States and Europe over the last five decades, explaining why America and Europe have often regulated a wide range of similar risks differently. It finds that between 1960 and 1990, American health, safety, and environmental regulations were more stringent, risk averse, comprehensive, and innovative than those adopted in Europe. But since around 1990, the book shows, global regulatory leadership has shifted to Europe. What explains this striking reversal?

David Vogel takes an in-depth, comparative look at European and American policies toward a range of consumer and environmental risks, including vehicle air pollution, ozone depletion, climate change, beef and milk hormones, genetically modified agriculture, antibiotics in animal feed, pesticides, cosmetic safety, and hazardous substances in electronic products. He traces how concerns over such risks--and pressure on political leaders to do something about them--have risen among the European public but declined among Americans. Vogel explores how policymakers in Europe have grown supportive of more stringent regulations while those in the United States have become sharply polarized along partisan lines. And as European policymakers have grown more willing to regulate risks on precautionary grounds, increasingly skeptical American policymakers have called for higher levels of scientific certainty before imposing additional regulatory controls on business.


The idea behind this book originated during the 2000–2001 academic year, which I spent on sabbatical in France. The almost daily media accounts of new food safety scares and the haste with which French politicians were competing with one another to propose ever more risk-averse regulations to address them made me feel as if I was in a time warp. I felt I was back in the United States during 1970, when President Richard Nixon and Democratic presidential aspirant Senator Edward Muskie of Maine had competed with each other over who was a stronger supporter of stringent emissions standards for motor vehicles. Living in Europe for a year made me more aware of the extent to which the salience of health, safety, and environmental risks had declined in the United States during the previous decade. This was in marked contrast to France, where Parisians, faced with renewed outbreaks of mad-cow and foot and mouth disease, were now asking each other, “what did your dinner have for dinner?” rather than asking, “what did you have for dinner?”

In 2003, I published an article in the British Journal of Political Science and a lengthier essay in the Yearbook of European Environmental Law that described how and explained why the politics of consumer and environmental risk regulation had changed on both sides of the Atlantic. In the fall of 2004, Chuck Myers, the political science editor at Princeton University Press, invited me to expand these essays into a book. Its completion has been considerably delayed by three other projects: a book and several essays and articles on corporate social responsibility, a co-edited volume on food safety regulation in Europe, and a co-edited volume on transatlantic regulatory cooperation. But this delay has proved fortuitous. It has enabled me to draw on a considerable body of research published in the interval as well as more recent political and policy developments.

“The Hare and the Tortoise Revisited: The New Politics of Consumer and Environmental Regulation in Europe,” British Journal of Political Science 33, part 4 (October 2003): 557–80. Reprinted in Environmental Risk, vol. 2, ed. John Applegate (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004) 481–504; Andrew Jordan, ed., Environmental Policy in the European Union, 2d ed. (London and Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2005), 225–52; Cary Coglianese and Robert Kagan, eds., Regulation and Regulatory Processes (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), 101–26; Martin Levin and Martin Shapiro, eds., Transtlantic Policymaking in an Age of Austerity (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004), 177–20. “Risk Regulation in Europe and the US,” in The Yearbook of European Environmental Law, vol. 3, ed. H. Somsen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 1–42.

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