Regulation, it perhaps goes without saying, is a tricky business. It necessarily involves a small number of politicians, bureaucrats, and technical advisors devising and implementing rules on a staggering range of activities and products and services.
The number of issues is nearly infinite, and the amount of human energy (and money) that can be expended on regulation is quite finite. Add to that the fact that regulation, while often necessary, always involves an intrusion into someone’s freedom, and we quickly see that some principles and rules of thumb are required if regulation is going to be both effective and fair. One of those guiding principles is that of “proportionality,” namely the idea that the degree of scrutiny and control needs to be justified based on the degree or scope of harm or risk, broadly speaking.
A recent example is the UK government’s response to the issue of cloning animals for human food.
Here’s the story, Andrew Hough, for the Daily Telegraph: Banning cloned meat and milk ‘disproportionate’, government signals
Banning cloned meat and milk would be an overreaction, the Government has indicated.
Ministers consider a ban, or temporary suspension, of cloned meat “disproportionate in terms of food safety and animal welfare” due to a lack of evidence.
The comments, contained in a Food Standards Agency board document, represents the clearest indication yet that the controversial farming practice could be accepted officially and pave the way for such milk and meat to be made available in British shops….
Agree or disagree with the British government’s decision, here. The thing that’s of interest to me in this story is the idea of a “proportionate” response to risk, and that utterly banning cloned animals from the food supply would be a disproportionate response the risk involved in such foods. Another way of seeing this is to say that the response should be similar in scale to the response to other, similarly-risky technologies.
To see this better, compare the risks of cloning to:
1) The huge amount of animal suffering implied by large-scale animal agriculture. (Cloning may contribute to that, but I suspect it will contribute about the way tossing a pebble into a lake raises the level of the water.)
2) The risks inherent in certain nanotechnologies, in particular nanomaterials. One of the very premises of nanotechnology is that nanoparticles of certain materials (such as titanium dioxide) behave very differently than larger particles of those same substances. Nano-scale particles can be highly potent, chemically, in ways that makes them potentially very useful but also potentially very dangerosu. So the use of nanotechnology in food immediately raises serious issues. (See more on nano-ethics here.)
3) The human-health risks involved in poorly-executed factory farming.
It seems to me that what the British government is saying is that, compared to issues like the ones just noted, cloning just doesn’t seem to involve harms and risks that are bad enough to warrant an extreme regulatory response such as a ban.