August 1, 2014

Role Reversal: New Book by Prof. Vogel Illustrates How the U.S. Lost Its Lead in Risk Regulation to Europe

Prof. David Vogel
Prof. David Vogel

Air pollution, climate change, food additives, pesticides, cosmetic safety, and electronic product hazards all pose global consumer and environmental risks, but the regulatory controls to manage them vary by country and by region. In recent decades, Europe has taken the lead over the US in comprehensively managing such risks, according to a new book by Berkeley-Haas Professor David Vogel.

In The Politics of Precaution (Princeton University Press, April 2012), Vogel argues that there has been an overall shift towards greater regulation to manage risk in Europe than in the United States in the last five decades. Vogel, who holds the Solomon P. Lee Chair in Business Ethics at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, examined case studies and risk regulation over this period and found regulations–once more stringent in America–have become less comprehensive and innovative than those in Europe since that time.

Vogel recently answered questions about his book in a short interview:

Why did you want to compare the politics of consumer and environmental risk regulation in the United States and Europe?

Vogel: I have always been fascinated by how countries decide differently which risks they choose to worry about and regulate. Over the last five decades, Europe and the United States have perceived and regulated many similar risks differently, and I wanted to understand why. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, why did Americans take the risks of ozone depleting chemicals more seriously than did most European governments? Or, more recently, why are the safety and environmental risks of genetically modified food very controversial in Europe, but not in the United States?    

To what do you attribute global regulatory leadership shifting from the U.S. to Europe over the past decade? What are the implications?

Vogel: I think two big factors explain this shift. The first is the growth in the regulatory role of the European Union. In order to increase public support for its single market program, the EU has been highly responsive to public and political pressures, which have demanded higher levels of consumer and environmental protection. In the United States, a key factor has been the decline in partisan cooperation on regulatory policy making. Since the early 1990s, regulatory politics in Washington have become highly polarized, with Republicans increasingly opposed to enacting stronger regulations. The result has been two decades of policy gridlock. Because the EU’s market is not larger than that of the U.S. and its regulations more stringent, other countries are now following the regulatory lead of the EU rather than the U.S.          

You write that American policymakers face a climate of critics who claim the U.S. is over-regulated. Please elaborate.

Vogel: While the extent of partisan gridlock is frustrating to both Democrats/liberals who would like to make many regulations stronger, and to Republicans/conservatives who would like to make them weaker, poll data suggests that many Americans are not very dissatisfied with the regulatory status quo. Compared to the three decades before 1990, there is a notable lack of strong public support for strengthening many health, safety, and environment standards. At the same time, there is also little public support for Republican and business efforts to weaken them. However, as I discuss in my book, California is a notable exception: The state has adopted so many EU regulations that it could almost qualify as the 29th member state of the EU!  

The bovine book cover is quite eye-catching. What was the inspiration?

Vogel: The design was inspired by the fact that several of the important differences between food safety regulations in the U.S and the EU described in the book involve cows and cattle. For example, the use of beef and milk hormones and antibiotics in animal feed has been banned in Europe but not in the U.S. In addition, during the 1990s, public anxieties over mad cow disease in Europe played an important role in strengthening public demands for more precautionary food safety standards. I hope that readers find the book's content as engaging as its cover.

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