PUBLISHED:October 21, 2019

Adler sets forth systematic new framework for assessing government policies


In his new book, Professor Matthew Adler demonstrates how two social welfare function measures — utilitarianism and prioritarianism — can improve the evaluation of governmental policies.

Prof.. Matthew Adler

“How should we evaluate proposed governmental policies?” Professor Matthew Adler asks at the start of his new book, Measuring Social Welfare: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2019). “What methodology should we use to assess whether one policy is better or worse than a second, or than the status quo?”

For nearly 40 years, every regulation of the U.S. government originating in the executive branch has been evaluated using the same standard: cost-benefit analysis. A 1981 executive order signed by President Ronald Reagan requires it. But Adler, whose interdisciplinary research focuses on improving frameworks for policy analysis—and who draws from welfare economics, normative ethics, and legal theory — has long advocated for a different methodology. His framework, known as the social welfare function, significantly improves on cost-benefit analysis by factoring individual well-being into policy evaluation and addressing questions of societal inequity.

In his new book, Adler offers the theoretical underpinnings of two social welfare function measures. The first, utilitarianism, originated with the 18th century philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, and advocates policy choices that would satisfy the preferences of the greatest number of people. The second, “prioritarianism,” is a refinement to utilitarianism that gives extra weight — priority — to the worse off. Through a detailed case-study of fatality risk-regulation, Adler’s book illustrates how both operate and how their outcomes compare to cost-benefit analysis.

Adler, the Richard A. Horvitz Professor of Law and Professor of Economics, Philosophy and Public Policy, is the author of Well-Being and Fair Distribution: Beyond Cost-Benefit Analysis, which systematically discusses how to integrate considerations of fair distribution into policy analysis (Oxford, 2012), and New Foundations of Cost-Benefit Analysis (Harvard, 2006; co-authored with Eric Posner). He also edited the Oxford Handbook of Well-Being and Public Policy (2016) with Marc Fleurbaey. The founding director of the Duke Center for Law, Economics and Public Policy, Adler  is a leading proponent of prioritarianism and has published multiple articles on its application to a variety of policy domains, including climate change, risk regulation, and health policy. He is also the co-founder of the international Prioritarianism in Practice Research Network; affiliates’ work will appear in a forthcoming edited volume from Cambridge University Press.

Fleurbaey, Robert E. Kuenne Professor in Economics and Humanistic Studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, says Measuring Social Welfare “enhances our ability to assess complex social situations, taking into account efficiency and equity simultaneously, and provides a toolkit that increases our ability to assess options, trade-offs, and fairness.” And reviewer Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School, a former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, calls it a “pathbreaking, state-of-the-art exploration of the idea of social welfare, with major theoretical advances and lots of implications for actual practice.”

Adler spoke with Duke Law Magazine about his book and his broader goals to improve policy assessment.

Measuring Social Welfare: An Introduction, by Matthew AdlerDuke Law Magazine: How does the social welfare function framework improve on cost-benefit analysis?

Matthew Adler: Cost-benefit analysis uses money as the central metric for assessing policy choices of all kinds. A policy might improve people’s health; it might reduce pollution and thereby reduce fatalities and improve environmental quality; it might improve infrastructure and ease commutes and traffic congestion; and so forth But none of these benefits are free, so the policy will also likely reduce people’s incomes. Cost-benefit analysis is biased in favor of those who have more money and is completely insensitive to how costs are distributed.  Those with more money tend to be willing to pay more for the benefits of governmental policy.  Moreover, if $100 in costs is involved, cost-benefit analysis doesn’t care whether this $100 falls on a rich person or a poor person — it’s just neutral. But a dollar — or $10 or $100 — has a bigger well-being effect for someone who has a lower income than for someone who has a higher income.

Rather than measuring effects in dollars, social welfare functions measure effects in terms of individual well-being and are sensitive to distribution. So when it comes to imposing costs, social welfare functions prefer that any given reduction of income — by $100, say — is borne by a richer person as opposed to a poor person. In that way, the social welfare function framework is useful for taking account of inequality.

DLM: This book is very much a “how-to” manual. Take us through your fatality risk-regulation case study.

MA: Risk regulation is basically doing three things: It's reducing people's fatality risks — for different people in different groups. It may also be improving their health, that is, reducing the non-fatal diseases that people experience. Finally, it's imposing costs — on different people in different groups. So there’s the benefit side (fatality risk reduction and health improvement) and then the income-reduction side. As an example, consider the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations that reduce air pollution. Air pollution causes premature death and health harms; but reducing pollution is costly, since doing so means installing costly pollution-control equipment, and these costs will be incurred in the form of lower incomes for workers, shareholders, or consumers.

This can be thought about a bit more abstractly. Let’s say that in the baseline, each person or each similar group of people faces a sort of longevity-health-income lottery. Basically each has a chance of living to various possible lifespans (a lifespan of 1, 2 … 100 years). For each possible lifespan, there is a chance of various different health states and income amounts during each year alive. What a pollution policy or other kind of risk-reduction policy does is to change the lottery. So people now have better life chances, which means they have a greater chance of living longer and perhaps a better chance for any lifespan of having better health. But they’re also going to have lower income.

How do you make that tradeoff? There are really two things going on. One is just the predictive question of how exactly the policy affects these different groups. But then we have this issue of valuation, and that’s really what the social welfare function framework does. Assume that a policy is going to change people’s lotteries over these ‘packages’ of longevity, health, and income in various ways. How do we value that?

The social welfare function approach says two things. First, we need to figure out what people’s preferences are and measure well-being in terms of those preferences. And then we need to pick a particular form for the social welfare function, whether it’s utilitarian, prioritarian, or something else, and then apply it to value this policy, understood as a kind of change to the longevity-health-income lottery that people in these different groups face.

My case study works through that in a very specific way using actual data, and then I specifically apply the valuation methodology, both of the social welfare function — utilitarianism and prioritarianism — and of cost-benefit analysis. And the case study demonstrates that cost-benefit analysis is biased towards the rich in valuing risk reductions, even as compared to utilitarianism, which already is somewhat biased.. But because cost-benefit analysis measures all effects in dollars and utilitarianism measures them in terms of well-being, cost-benefit is far more biased towards the rich. Prioritarianism goes in the other direction. Depending on the degree of priority for those at a lower well-being level, it may be neutral with respect to income in valuing risk reduction, or prefer that risk reduction be channeled to those with lower income.

DLM: How did you come to put ethics — and inequality — front and center in evaluating policy?

MA: There’s a long story about why we engage in cost benefit analysis. The short version of that is that after World War II, when public economics really becomes influential in the U.S., a lot of economists were skeptical of comparing well-being between people for various reasons. Cost benefit analysis was seen as a way to give policy advice without doing that.

My 2006 book with Eric Posner, which emerged from prior work, offered a new account of cost-benefit analysis. We thought it was silly to think you can’t make well-being comparisons between people. We said: ‘Consider someone who is high income, has a good family life, a good career, and is happy, as compared to somebody who has none of those things. Of course we can say that the one person is better off than the other.’ So you can make an interpersonal comparison, and we should think of cost benefit analysis as a kind of a rough proxy for overall well-being. And that book had a fair bit of impact on cost-benefit theory.

And then, in terms of my own thinking, I began to wonder whether we could do better. In a lot of ways, the story here is back to utilitarianism. It's back to Bentham's idea that we should think about policy in terms of the effects on people's well-being. When Bentham was doing that, he had no doubt that one could make interpersonal comparisons. And I'm sort of bringing us back to utilitarianism, but then moving beyond it, because I’m saying we can be prioritarians. Once we can measure and compare well-being, there are different approaches.

To be clear, the social welfare function approach might not change the kinds of policies that government enacts. But it could or, in my view, should change how the government assesses the set of policy options on the table, be they different possible pollution regulations, infrastructure plans, or tax policies. Just as importantly, shifting from the use of cost-benefit analysis to the use of a utilitarian or prioritarian social welfare function meshes with larger concerns about inequality. 

DLM: What’s the first step in bringing the social welfare function into agency policy deliberations?

MA: Whenever an agency issues a major rule, it has to prepare hundreds of pages of documents about the costs and the benefits. But those documents do not, at least systematically, give information about the distribution of both costs and benefits across different socioeconomic groups and regional groups and so forth. It’s important to find that out. Who will bear the cost of a proposed regulation? Who's going to reap the benefits? How would they be distributed? Is this something which is going to be especially helpful to or especially burdensome for people in lower income groups?

So the first thing is to start getting the information and then once we have a sense of how the policy impacts people both on the cost side and on the benefits side across different socioeconomic groups, we can then think about how to weight those.