Whose Voice Is Speaking?
How Opinion Polls and Cost-Benefit Analysis Synthesize New “Publics”

Corner House Briefing 07

by Larry Lohmann

first published 31 May 1998

Summary

Opinion polls and cost-benefit analysis, like public relations, attempt to construct new, simplified “publics” which are friendly to bureaucracies, politicians and corporations. The success of these attempts is limited by popular resistance at many levels.

Contents

Acknowledgements

Larry Lohmann would like to thank the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University in the US and Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Germany for intellectual and financial support, and Sarah Sexton and Nicholas Hildyard of The Corner House for valuable

Introduction

"The twentieth century," the Australian scholar Alex Carey wrote, "has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy."1 Taking up the challenge implicit in Carey's observation, social and environmental activists have recently been looking closely at corporate use of public relations (PR) as a means of reworking popular opinion.2

But PR is only one of the techniques centralized organizations -- whether private or state -- take advantage of to try to make life in complex societies easier for themselves. Two other equally important techniques are public opinion polls and cost-benefit analysis.

The three techniques are parallel. All share similar histories of rapid growth during the heyday of enthusiasm for social engineering in the US during the first half of this century. All trouble and anger many they intimately affect. All enjoy the backing of expert institutions. All are now ubiquitous in industrialized societies, being tolerated in theory even by many who resist them in daily life and used tactically even by many who loathe their anti-democratic aspects. Considering all three techniques together may help clarify their meanings for popular movements.

Crafting Sympathetic Publics

Contemporary public relations helps big organizations adjust the public to their needs and procedures through propaganda and philanthropy. It also helps control public forums, organizes "independent" groups as pro-corporate spokespeople, and tries to divide critics from each other (see Corner House Briefing 6: Engineering of Consent).

Opinion polls complement this work. In addition to monitoring public opinion in a way easy for politicians, bureaucrats and executives to digest, they package it in a way which presents whoever has paid for it in the best light.

They also help create and structure it. The simplified, uniform format of opinion polls leaves little room for respondents to say "that's the wrong question". Questions which are trivial, contextless, or unanswerable, or which pose false choices, still have to be answered, and still guide conversation after the poll. Typical recent US examples include: "Are the poor lazy?" "Will President Reagan get cancer again before he leaves office?" "Do you think Bill Clinton is honest and trustworthy, or not?"3 Few opinion polls ask respondents for their views on the distribution of wealth and power in their society, or what might be done to regulate or limit corporate influence.

But this is only a first step in shaping public opinion. In codifying the hodgepodge of considered views, free-association, and expressions of frustration, boredom, bewilderment or strategic cunning they get in response to such questions,4 interviewers are trained to ignore respondents' demands for more background and discard expressions of protest or uninterest. A Mori handbook instructs interviewers who are asked what a question means to reply, "whatever you want it to mean".5 Another pollster explains that any answers outside the choices on offer "get dumped or written off as 'other'."6

The detritus remaining after the interview is over is then interpreted, aggregated and processed by other professionals into "perceptions", which are in turn scientized into "facts". This product may be suppressed if it does not suit the current needs of whoever has paid for it; otherwise, with the help of newspapers and television, it is hardened into "news".

An Instrument for Deception

Throughout, the original interviewees play little or no role in either the interpretation or the presentation of whatever it is they might have wanted to say. During the 1994 and 1996 US elections, some polltakers didn't even bother tabulating people's responses but simply tried to plant a series of identical ideas in thousands of individuals' minds. One survey, for example, reportedly asked "Would you still vote for Buchanan if you knew he believed that women should not work and that South Korea and Japan should be armed with nuclear weapons?".7 Such "push polls" were castigated as if they were a shocking aberration from normal practice, but their underlying principle is identical with that of more "legitimate" surveys of public opinion. "It's all part of an attempt to keep order," notes Patrick Caddell, a former professional polltaker who quit the business in self-disgust. "The 'coding' process can be designed to prevent people from speaking their minds ... [polling is] an instrument for deception whereby ... the public will is excluded and ignored".8

Yet through the magic of numbers and abstractions, poll results can seem a more authoritative reflection of what people are thinking -- at least to those who have not actually taken part in the interviews -- than an ordinary conversation with them would be. Since the 1930s, at least, polls have been presented as neutral techniques which, in George Gallup's phrase, help "take the pulse of democracy". Politicians have long had to adapt themselves to the "bandwagon effect" which results when a small shift in survey numbers causes many previously uncommitted voters to join the parade of the candidate perceived as holding an advantage. Survey numbers seem so "hard", in fact, that pollsters often get away with projecting their oscillations and contradictions onto individual interviewees, claiming they are "inconsistent", "fickle" or "stupid".

Astute political elites exploit this illusory "hardness" and air of legitimacy in many ways. A quarter-century ago Richard Nixon tried to discredit antiwar protesters by claiming that their expressions of opinion showed contempt for the polled views of the "silent majority". In the early 1990s, polls showing "support" for the Gulf War and for Clarence Thomas's nomination to the US Supreme Court succeeded in chastening many on the US left. Peter Mandelson, Britain's Minister Without Portfolio, has recently made another move in this game by suggesting that even parliaments are past their sell-by dates when compared with mechanisms allowing for more "direct" mass participation such as plebiscites and focus groups.9

What is at stake is perhaps better described as a trend toward substituting one type of attempted social control for another. If the "voice" of the crowd in the past was often coopted or channeled by demagogues, revolutionary leaders and parliamentarians, the "voice" of today's polled "majority" issues to a large extent from the mouths of those who pay for opinion surveys. A figure like Mandelson sees responsiveness to polls as a more legitimate engine of political change than parliamentary leadership not because he holds the people closer to his heart than do more old-fashioned politicians, but because he imagines he can control poll results -- and align his party to them -- better than he can play more traditional political games.

Pollsters themselves, of course, have seldom been shy, when among friends, about putting themselves forward as social engineers. Lou Harris once boasted that "I elected one president, one prime minister, about 28 governors, and maybe close to 60 US senators".10 Like PR, opinion polling is a method by which money tries to create its own public.

Shifting Accountability

Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) also helps conjure up a new type of public. CBA came into political prominence before the Second World War largely as a way for US engineering bureaucracies to cope with questions from a wide range of other interest groups about which big water developments should have priority.11 In order to be able to argue that an "impartially"-determined public good would be served by a project, proponents learned to assign numbers to as many indirect, "intangible" and far-flung benefits as possible and then, after subtracting or dividing by the costs, present the resulting number to oversight bodies. Thus the Bureau of Reclamation once credited a dam it wanted to approve not only with the value of the wheat grown on the land to be irrigated, but also the gross value of the bread that might be baked from the wheat, as well as increased attendance at local cinemas. To justify a development on the West Coast, an agency might need to quantify its possible effects on the state of Maine, or estimate average prices for goods expected over a project's entire 50- to 100-year life.12

Whether it was used to push water agencies' own pet projects or to harrass Congressional representatives' pork-barrel schemes, cost-benefit analysis's beauty was that it seemed to shift some accountability for decisions onto an impersonal, transparent mechanism representing the welfare of a broad imagined "public" extending into a distant future, yet remained arcane enough for its avatars, when challenged, to be able to invoke professional privilege.

As the technique became more widely-applied, professionalized and institutionalized after mid-century, new routines began to be worked out for measuring values "of any sort",13 whether markets existed for them or not. The values of health, biodiversity, noise, scenery, time, human life itself -- all had to become quantities which could be inspected and weighed against each other from the convenience of a central office.14

Contingent Valuation

One of the leading techniques developed after the Second World War for finding a hypothetical price for such unmarketed goods is called "contingent valuation". The methods it uses in attempting to construct and discipline a new, expert-friendly "public" are remarkably similar to those of opinion polling.

In contingent valuation, a sample of people are quizzed individually to determine the maximum amount of money they would be willing to pay, as individuals, for, say, clean air, the conservation of local lakes, or the survival of blue whales -- or, alternatively, the minimum amount they would accept for the loss of some such good. One survey seeking to monetize the sub-clinical health effects of increased levels of ozone asked people how much money they would be willing to pay to have avoided having been tired easily one time during the last month. In another experiment designed to test hypotheses about how to measure the "intrinsic" value assigned to life, interviewees were asked how much they would pay not to have a researcher kill a potted Norfolk Island pine tree plonked down in front of them.

Possibly the most rational response to such queries is, roughly, "what the hell are you talking about?"15 Even in the most commoditized societies, practices of assigning prices to (or otherwise commensurating) such goods are likely to be unfamiliar, circumscribed, irrelevant or disallowed. The point is not that interviewers cannot try to get such practices going during the interview, nor that interviewees cannot learn to price new things. As Viviana Zelizer documents, the borders between what can and cannot be priced or otherwise commensurated are in constant historical flux.16 The point is, rather, that this is much harder than the contingent valuer imagines. For one thing, starting up such pricing practices is often incompatible with entrenched ways of making choices which involve reasoning about goals which are multiple, mutually irreducible, unclear, only partially determinate, and constantly open to modification (see Box: An Economistic Superstition). Such choices, as Martha Nussbaum stresses, are made on a basis which is "qualitative and not quantitative, and rational just because it is qualitative, and based upon a grasp of the special nature of the items in question."17 The nature of this particular class of reasoned choices is not clarified but rather obscured by attempts to commensurate the options. As one subject of a contingent valuation survey protested after being asked questions aimed at finding out how much households would be willing to pay for a wildlife enhancement scheme in the UK's Pevensey Levels, "I think you can put a value on nature but not a value in money terms. A value is what we teach our children".18 Changing that would take decades, centuries, or longer, not minutes as required by the contingent valuation surveyor.

A Public of Individuals

In addition, the contingent valuation survey poses its questions to an odd unit of society: the individual. Asking individuals for their "ill-considered preference[s] for one site in isolation", many of the Pevensey survey's respondents considered, was "to insult their intelligence",19 since they were well aware that other places and the communities who lived in them also had valid claims on available resources -- claims which they would also need to learn about and discuss with the people concerned before expressing their values to a central authority. The tendency of cost-benefit analysis is toward forging a "public" of individuals legible to, responsive to, and instructed by centrally-located experts and officials. It does not encourage horizontal links, mutual learning, and the social use of reason among individuals in local areas with similar problems.

It is perhaps not surprising, accordingly, that the responses contingent valuation surveyors get are seldom the responses they need. One number may be "a defensive reaction to a perceived threat", another a "random number produced under the social constraints of a questionnaire interview".20 Zero bids may come from people who value the item in question but are too poor even to imagine paying for it, and may also come from respondents too disgusted with the survey scenario to fall in with the pricing game.21 For most respondents to a New Zealand survey testing people's

willingness to pay to prevent development of an island, the figures they offered were "gestures in a political process".22 When another survey asked what Wyoming residents would accept in monetary compensation for loss of visibility due to pollution from a power

plant, most interviewees rejected what they saw as the surveyors' assumption that they could be "bought off to permit pollution" and either refused to cooperate or entered what surveyors call "protest bids" requiring infinite compensation.23 In six Scottish contingent valuation studies, it was obvious even to the surveyors that between one-quarter and one-third of respondents could not be made to take the questions seriously.24

Processing Responses

Like pollsters, cost-benefit economists are professionally obliged to try to suppress this diversity and indeterminacy.25 The number they come up with must be seen to be "hard" enough for the calculational needs of office-bound analysts, or they are out of a job.26 Getting that number means subjecting respondents' statements to a cascade of institutional processing.

The first round of processing takes place in the interview room or on the questionnaire sheet itself, where "the great majority of respondents will subordinate themselves and their ways of making sense to those of the survey designers. If [the survey] does not make sense ... respondents will see these 'failings' as their own", many of them coughing up numbers largely out of a desire to please or impress.27

The resulting mass of figures are then further firmed up and sculpted into consistency back at the economist's office through unilateral reinterpretation and editing. People who balk at answering questions about how much money they would be willing to accept for, say, the loss of their homes, may be interpreted, or pushed into interpreting themselves, as making straightforward demands for infinite compensation. Naturally, these have to be rejected as absurd, since they would trump all others automatically, leaving no room for weighing alternatives against each other and thus no policy pointers.28 They are therefore either thrown out as manifestations of the subject's "irrationality" or edited down to what he or she "must have really meant". For example, the Roskill Commission considering sites for a third London airport unilaterally reinterpreted bids for infinite compensation for homes which would be destroyed by a new airport as demands for compensation of 200 per cent above the market value.29 Other so-called "outliers" reflecting people's strongly-held views can be eliminated from the data set using justifications from statistical theory. Alternatively, a new interview team can be dispatched to brief recalcitrant subjects more thoroughly or reassuringly so that when they are questioned again they disgorge preferences which can be fed more easily into the computational process and so that there is no "perception of interviewer pressure" [sic].30

A third round of processing occurs in the meeting room or on the printed page where experts or their patrons summarize the cost-benefit analysis to the public -- and where, again, the original study subjects have little bargaining power over how their opinions are interpreted. Here anyone urging that discussion on the issue at hand be opened up outside the CBA framework is likely, paradoxically, to be dismissed as wanting to "opt out of the debate".31 The anti-democratic implications were recently set out clearly by one angry survey subject:

"The way they can manipulate this is basically by saying, 'well, right. We're not going to fund [this conservation scheme] any more'. Then there'll be a public outcry saying 'Why not? You're supposed to be looking after the environment!' And they could directly turn round and say, 'well, we took public opinion'".32

The point of "scientizing" people's values -- transforming them from practical, evolving capacities to live with others into quantifiable "facts" -- is that the people themselves are no longer qualified to say what they are.33

Public opinion polling has partly transformed what counts as "popular opinion" from a social process emerging from the give and take of crowds or communities of individuals in streets, coffeehouses and meeting-halls -- as it tended to be viewed in 18th-century England -- into an aggregation of yes-no or multiple-choice responses of well-mannered, isolated private individuals to prepared, standardized questions.34 In a similar way, the spread of cost-benefit analysis and similar developments in economic thinking has nudged the popular image of "rationality" away from what philosopher Richard Rorty calls "reasonableness" -- tolerance, respect for the opinions of those nearest one, willingness to learn, nondefensiveness, and reliance on persuasion rather than force, which are traits over which no one has a monopoly -- toward that of a ritual of measurement, calculation and aggregation which is the special province of an economic and bureaucratic priesthood.35

The Persistence of Resistance

As the tribulations of contingent valuation exemplify, the pursuit of a simplified, monitorable, regulatable public by public relations experts, opinion pollsters and cost-benefit analysts is constantly thwarted by custom, complex local reality and popular resistance. No contingent-value interview, for example, could actually succeed in compelling people to try to make life decisions through measurement and computation; it is simply not that easy to make people stupid who need intelligence in their daily lives. While public relations, polling and cost-benefit analysis are often vaguely tolerated in theory, their more intimate practices are not. In fact, it is often the case that the better acquainted people become with these practices, the more they oppose them.

PR's claim to be merely another form of "communication" or "free speech" may be seldom contested in the abstract, for example, but as soon as the strategy of any particular PR effort is exposed, whether it is hiring scientists to praise a dangerous drug or sabotaging a publicity tour for a muckraking book, it immediately loses much of its force.36 Similarly, as political scientist Susan Herbst remarks, while "politicians, citizens and journalists monitor [opinion] polls closely, [they] also decry the authority ascribed to survey results. ... instead of becoming tools for the resolution of ideological or policy conflicts, quantitative data have often been the source of such struggles throughout American political history".37

Cost-benefit analysis may have had the roughest ride of all. As British geographer John Adams observes, "far from resolving controversy, cost-benefit analysis generates it"38 -- not only in contingent valuation surveys but also in hearings, commissions, professional bodies, even the streets. When the Roskill Commission began its inquiry in 1968, for example, the Commissioners hoped that undertaking a huge cost-benefit exercise would help cool the political heat generated by the issue of where to locate the new London airport. Great labour was expended at the start to ensure agreement among all the contending parties on the premises of the analysis. For each prospective airport site a long list of items was costed including rail construction, surface access, noise, meterology, and losses to property, recreation and agriculture. As the Commission went about its work, however, and what cost-benefit analysis meant in practice became clearer, conflict sharpened. Objections were made to the fact that air travel could be treated as a want on a par with others, and that the poor's money was given equal weight with the rich's. Ultimately the Commission was attacked as concocting a "horse and rabbit stew" (one rabbit, one horse) in that it mixed a painstaking cardinally-based ranking employing precise sums of quantifiable factors relating to each site with a cursory ordinal ranking of the sites according to broad social and environmental impacts of air traffic growth, waving its hands to aggregate the two. Attracting special ridicule along the way were the Commission's use of the fire insurance value of a Norman church (£50,000) and its costing of hypothetical airport-caused human fatalities (£9,300 each). The government had little difficulty in disregarding its final 1971 recommendation.39

Official attempts to investigate or regularize cost-benefit practice in the US, similarly, whether that of the Second Hoover Commission of 1955 or a recent attempt to canvass the potential of CBA in evaluating uses for military land, often lead to so much argument that researchers throw up their hands and advise backing off from the quantification of "intangibles".40

Because cost-benefit analysis attempts to overthrow deep-laid patterns of rationality and social life, hundreds of attempts to "debug" it have not made any progress in overcoming resistance to it in more than 50 years of attempts.41 This fact has often driven frustrated economists committed to promoting and developing the technique to succumb to the occupational hazard of constructing ordinary people as "ignorant" and "irrational" -- and themselves as arrogant and elitist. This side effect only throws into sharper relief CBA's structural antipathies to democracy.

Illusions of Refinement

The idea is still often heard, however, that both opinion polling and CBA might somehow be "purified" and carried out "responsibly" and "without bias". If only the messiness caused by corruption, influence and imperfect technique could be cleared away, the theory goes, the "true" public opinion could be found, as well as the "real" price of global warming, people's "underlying" preferences for clean air and water, and the "correct" algorithm capturing and depoliticizing rational choice. Coming up with these items, it is assumed, would be a great boon to society.

Laying this idea to rest once and for all could well help clarify thinking about social activism.

In glancing at the history of polling in domesticating and suppressing labour unions and other unruly elements, journalist Christopher Hitchens notes that "opinion polling was born out of a struggle not to discover the public mind but to master it."42 As usual, Hitchens's thrust is on target, but the wording courts a false dichotomy. No one ever either discovers or invents public opinion. If such a thing can be said to exist, it emerges continually from the encounters of people with different ends, different means, and different access to power. Similarly, it is either self-deceptive or cynical for cost-benefit analysts to claim that they can become neutral conduits of correct information and passive, unbiased recorders of people's valuations of their own lives and surroundings. In reality, as geographer Jacquelin Burgess and her colleagues point out, questioner and respondent will always be "locked in dialogue",43 each acting on the other. No matter how hard they try, pollsters and contingent valuation surveyors can't make themselves invisible as political actors, nor turn their questionnaires into "nonpolitical" arenas. Every interview is a step in the evolution of society's views.

Nor should anyone expect it to be otherwise. In a survey, as in any other conversation, passivity is not only unattainable but also, as a pose, undesirable. No one can avoid influencing the person they are listening to (even silence conveys a meaning). To attempt such detachment is usually disrespectful. The question is not whether researchers act on their subjects, but how. Do they open themselves to questioning or do they take the utterances of their interlocutors and place their interpretation and aggregation under the control of experts, managers and owners? Do they assume that all of their questions must have answers or do they respect their interlocutors' desire to reframe or discard them? Do they exploit people as means or treat them as ends? Do they manipulate them or are they answerable to them?

There can be no uncontested method for finding answers to these questions, nor for defining what a nonexploitative, nondistorted conversation might be. Conceptions of what a set of answers might consist in, moreover, will continue to change along with that growth in the awareness of oppression which psychologist and social critic Ashis Nandy defines as progress. What is striking about PR, opinion polling and cost-benefit analysis, however, is that they are structured in advance not even to be much interested in the questions.

The Problem of Tactics

Polling and cost-benefit analysis are too widespread, and the spaces they offer to activists too tempting, for activists not to have to fight some of their battles on their turf. Given the power of opinion surveys, how many environmentalists would disdain referring to the 1997 survey which reported that Australians were more concerned about global warming than the threat of an economic crisis? How many, faced with an official benefit/cost estimate for the Tehri dam of 1.25, would not welcome economist Vijay Paranjpye's finding that using a different method of evaluation, the ratio would come out at 0.63?44 Who could deny the utility of delving into bogus figures in order to reduce them to absurdity? Or even the usefulness of acquiescing to discussing a doomed project in cost-benefit terms if that was what was required to give a respected political opponent a chance to avoid losing face?

Doing any of this effectively, however, requires remembering that polls and cost-benefit analysis cannot substitute for, represent, model, or clarify the central aspects of either public opinion or decision-making. Each is, instead, an independent form of political intervention in its own right, with its own specific effects, uses and central institutional bases.

"Using" CBA for popular environmentalist objectives, accordingly, is unlikely to be effective unless one is also working both "outside" and "against" it -- not necessarily in propria persona, but as part of a varied movement.

Working concurrently "outside" it is necessary because it is only when cost-benefit analysts become answerable to broad-based movements external to the bureaucratic and academic institutions which are home to the technique that they will find numbers to fit and reinforce the decisions taken through open debate. Unless those movements exert pressure on cost-benefit analysts from "outside", CBA figures cannot be relied on not to reflect the vested interests of political elites.

Working "against" cost-benefit analysis, meanwhile, is necessary because, in addition to reasons touched on above, the treatment of issues such as biodiversity in terms of commodity or market norms "itself is part of our environmental crisis":

"The appropriate [strategic] response to the erosion of ... the boundaries that separate the 'free' unpriced world of knowledge, the body and so on from the market ... is not to make sure that, as they disappear, the best price is achieved. It is rather to resist the disappearance. ... Protection of our environment is best served, not by bringing the environment into a surrogate version of the commercial world, but by its protection as a sphere outside the world of commodity exchange and its norms."45

From a tactical point of view, the notion that people in power can be "reached" by cost-benefit analysis just because it is phrased in a numerical "language they can understand" and uses the word "dollars" is childish. As John Adams notes, "treasuries and big business are better equipped than most to notice when someone is speaking nonsense in their own language".46

It is not merely that cost-benefit analysis's surrogate prices turn no gears in an economy in which market prices are what count. Nor is it merely that the fantastical nature of CBA figures handicaps them as "rhetorical devices in arguments with governments to persuade them to intervene in markets to protect environmental goods".47 The crucial point is that without independent political pressure backing these unbelievable prices up, governments and corporations, like everyone else, have little reason to pay attention to them. Cost-benefit numbers do help rationalize projects pursued for other reasons (since the Reagan era, big business and its state backers have used them to justify attempts to roll back regulation), and are often useful to bureaucrats as devices to gesture with while their minds are occupied elsewhere. But the monetary idiom does not by itself make CBA figures more compelling to powerful elites than other political statements.

That much was evident, for example, during the controversy following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Faced with possible fines for "intangible" values lost as a result of the spill, Exxon declined to be bewitched by the prospect that contingent valuation could attach definite monetary figures to the losses. Instead, the corporation sponsored a Washington conference attended by over 300 economists at which contingent valuation was attacked as "the dartboard of valuation techniques -- a dartboard with numbers so inflated they seriously skew the scoring".48

In the abstract, cost-benefit numbers may have a certain magical "hardness". Anyone whose interests are directly threatened by CBA, however, whether rural villager or corporate executive, is unlikely to be charmed by the conjurer's bag of tricks.


Box 1: An Economic Superstition

Many economists are given to saying that "measurement is essential, since trade-offs are inescapable". The idea is that all rational choices are made by quantifying the alternatives and then choosing the one with the highest value. On this view, cost-benefit analysis only makes explicit what everyone already does implicitly, and so should be uncontroversial.

Although this idea finds a natural home in neoclassical economic theory, it is also widespread in popular culture. Thus an environmental journalist:

"Knowingly or unknowingly, people who decide that they would rather pay more for electricity than destroy a forest to build a dam are implying a valuation of the forest -- crudely put, somewhere between the increased cost of electricity and 'priceless'."

Or spy novelist James Buchan in Heart's Journey in Winter:

"I said into her ear: 'You are blessed with an education and the capacity for rational judgement. What you do is you put everything in one scale of the balance -- job, husband and all that -- and me in the other. See which goes down. Take the one that goes down.'"

The claim that "measurement is essential, since trade-offs are inescapable", however, is in fact what logicians call an invalid argument. Even if the premise ("trade-offs are inescapable") is granted, the conclusion ("measurement is essential") does not follow. The argument confuses one aspect of reasoning characteristic of simple bureaucratic procedures with the whole of rationality.

Criteria for measuring certain ranges of choices are often simply not part of a society's repertoire. The society may even deliberately work to keep it that way. Peasants who oppose commercial logging in their community forests, for example, need not necessarily be weighing the advantages of cash against the disadvantages of losing water, food or spirits of place; or the "opportunity costs" of lost income against the benefits of subsistence or spiritual well-being. Instead, they may be applying a moral or religious rule in a way that such comparisons never get started. This is not to "opt out of the debate" over forests or agriculture. It is, rather, to insist on ground rules for that debate which respect certain community ends as being, although perhaps sacrificable, not commensurable with others. Making them commensurable would not clarify but change them.

Criteria for assessing the relative values of a range of alternatives, where they do exist, are useful mainly within the confines of certain techniques in which a goal has been fixed for a special purpose within a wider enterprise. Comparing weights, for example, is usually a part of a larger process, whether it is selling vegetables or checking babies' health. Similarly, it is mainly for specialized purposes of exchange, accounting and accumulation that people have learned to use monetary value to commensurate such diverse items as land, corn, cotton, iron, labour-time and microchips. Looking to criteria such as weight and monetary value to define rational choice is insufficient in broader contexts in which people need to reason not just about means but also about clusters of interlocked, mutually irreducible ends and how to develop them in light of those means.

Here rational decisions are more likely to be made, for example, by deciding, like a court, if and how a rule applies; or by acquiring, like a critic, student, artist or revolutionary scientist, a new language, taste, perception or goal which shares no criterion of value with the old but, rather, recontextualizes or comments on it. As David Wiggins notes, the "deliberative specification of ends" constitutes "most of what is interesting and difficult in practical reason". That means treating the experienced and perceptive person, not just sets of criteria, as an indispen-sible touchstone of rational choice. No one believes that scientific or judicial opinions can be validated by calling in experts to measure judges' or scientists' willingness to pay for being counted right.

If each person's values are to some extent mutually incommensurable, the range of irreducibly plural ends across individuals is even greater, and that across societies greater still. Speakers of different languages often do not share common adjudication procedures when looking at the same set of alternatives. The problem here is not just one of not being able to quantify "intangibles" but also of democracy. One of the attractions of commensuration for modern managers (as it was for Plato) is that it allows a good deal of discussion to be sidestepped. Once criteria have been set, "correct" data dissem-inated and preferences polled, a manager can add up the columns of a cost-benefit analysis and say that the result expresses the common will. To block this sort of brutality on the intercultural level, it is not enough to say (with Aristotle) that rational choice rests on the bedrock of individual judgement. It is necessary to go further and locate reasoned deliberation in discussions of groups of people using their relevant languages in an egalitarian atmosphere.


Source: Nussbaum, M. C. The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986; O'Neill, J, Ecology, Policy and Politics, Routledge, London, 1993; Wiggins, D., Needs, Values, Truth, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987.


Notes and References

1 Alex Carey, Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Propaganda in the US and Asutralia, University of South Wales Press, Sydney, 1995, p.1.

2 Corner House Briefing 6: Engineering of Consent:Uncovering Corporate PR, March 1998.

3 Christopher Hitchens, For the Sake of Argument, Verso, London, 1994, p.48; CNN Inside Politics, 14 October 1996.

4 Anyone who has doubts about the nature of the raw material which polls manufacture into "facts about public opinion" might consider an example from a New York Times/CBS News Poll of 1992, which asked about the level of spending for "assistance to the poor". Two-thirds of the respondents said it was "too little." The question was then immediately repeated, with one tiny change: the word "welfare" was substituted for "assistance to the poor." Only 23 percent then said the nation was spending "too little" on welfare (The New York Times, 5 July 1992). Similarly, many if not most women who refuse to identify themselves to a pollster as "feminists" will nevertheless agree on most individual feminist issues.

5 Peter Barnard, "So That's Your Opinion, Is It?", London Times, 20 March 1992. As Andrew Ross observes, "how people respond to a slate of surgically prepped questions tells virtually nothing about the opinions they might find they held in common if the conditions of a properly radical democracy permitted them to do so" ("What the People Want from Art?" in Real Love: In Pursuit of Cultural Justice, Routledge, London, 1998, p.152).

6 Patrick Caddell, quoted in Hitchens, op. cit. 3

7 The New York Times, 19 February 1996.

8 Quoted in Hitchens, C., op. cit. 3.

9 The Guardian (London), 16 March 1998.

10 Quoted in Hitchens, C., op. cit. 3, p.46.

11 Theodore Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995.

12 Krutilla, J.V. and Eckstein, O., Multiple-Purpose River Development: Studies in Applied Economic Analysis, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1958, pp.199-264; Hammond, R.J., Benefit-Cost Analysis and Water-Pollution Control, Food Research Institute, Stanford, 1960, pp.22-23.

13 Dorfman, R., Measuring Benefits of Government Investments, Brookings Institution, Washington, 1965.

14 Cost-benefit analysis is one example of the "state simplification" or "high modernism" autopsied by James C. Scott in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998. Like Prussian forestry science or Tanzanian "villagization", it involves an attempt to impose new classifications on society or nature to render them more "legible" to centralized state agencies bent on achieving a restricted set of goals.

15 Burgess, J., Clark, J., and Harrison, C., "'I Struggled with This Money Business': Respondents to the Wildlife Enhancement Scheme CV Survey Discuss the Validity of their WTP Figures" and "Culture, Communication and the 'Information Problem' in Contingent Valuation", forthcoming in Ecological Economics. Burgess et al. report that one contingent survey's subjects confided that they had been mystified by "a question I couldn't answer ... didn't understand ... struggled with". See also Fischoff, B., "Value Elicitation: Is There Anything in there?", American Psychologist 46, 8, 1991, pp.835-847.

16 Zelizer, V., Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children, Basic Books, New York, 1985. Zelizer's work also suggests, however, that money may be incapable of imposing the single metric that cost-benefit analysis would seem to require even on long-marketed goods. Because people tend to break money up into discrete, incommensurate categories (pin money, clothes money, education money), the analysts' question "Would you be willing to spend X dollars for Y?" can always be complicated by the counter-question "Which kind of dollars?" See The Social Meaning of Money: Pin Money, Pay Checks, Poor Relief and Other Currencies, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1997.

17 Nussbaum, M., Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990, pp.60-61.

18 Burgess, J. et al., op. cit. 15.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Levy, D.S., Hammitt, J.K., Duan, N., Downes-LeGuin, T., Friedman, D., Conceptual and Statistical Issues in Contingent Valuation: Estimating the Value of Altered Visibility in the Grand Canyon, RAND, Santa Monica, pp.28-30.

22 Vadnjal, D. and O'Connor, M., "What is the Value of Rangitoto Island?", Environmental Values 3, 1994, pp.375.

23 Rowe, R.D., D'Arge, R.C., and Brookshire, D., "An Experiment on the Economic Value of Visibility", Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 7, 1980.

24 Hanley, N. in association with ECOTEC, The Valuation of Environmental Effects: Stage II, Scottish Office Industry Department/Scottish Enterprise, 1991.

25 The diversity here is not of numbers, but rather of social practices. The numbers obtained by surveys are, predictably, variable, but even if the figures yielded by different methods were identical, the question would still arise of what they meant, and whether contingent valuation were suppressing certain practices necessary for the exercise of rationality.

26 It is unclear how seriously cost-benefit analysts take any particular CBA figure when among themselves. What is important is maintaining some public belief in the overall process of measurement and computation.

27 Burgess et al., op. cit. 15.

28 Helm, D. and Pearce, D., eds., Economic Policy Towards the Environment, Croom Helm, London, 1991; Turner, R.K., "Environment, Economics and Ethics" in Pearce, D., ed., Blueprint 2: Greening the World Economy, Earthscan, London, 1991.

29 Adams, J.G.U., "London's Green Spaces: What Are They Worth?", London Wildlife Trust and Friends of the Earth, London, 1989.

30 Hanemann, W.M., "Valuing the Environment through Contingent Valuation", Journal of Economic Perspectives 8, 4, Fall 1994, p.24. For a delightful debunking of the fantasy that interviewer influence can be eliminated, see Lewontin, R.C., "Sex, Lies and Social Science: An Exchange", New York Review of Books, 25 May 1995, pp.43-44. Lewontin has additional dispiriting news for the "objective" social science surveyor: people often do not even "tell themselves the truth about their own lives".

31 Common, M.S., Letter to The Ecologist 22, 1, 1992, p.39.

32 Burgess et al., op.cit. 15.

33 Cost-benefit analysts' attempts to claim privileged status for their interpretation of people's views are not confined to contingent valuation. Economists on Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, under attack for having calculated the value of a statistical life of a US citizen at $1.5 million and that of a statistical life of a "developing country" citizen at $100,000, responded that they had merely been reading off "people's appreciation for a risk-free environment" using published economic data. "Developing country" citizens who contested this interpretation of their appreciation for safety in the United Nations were implicitly dismissed by economist Samuel Fankhauser as being ignorant about their own preferences (letter to The Ecologist 25, 4, 1995, p.167).

34 Herbst, S. Numbered Voices: How Opinion Polling Has Shaped American Politics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993. See also Habermas, J., The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans T. Burger and F. Lawrence, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1989.

35 Rorty, R., Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, p.37.

36 Stauber, J.C. and Rampton, S., Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, Common Courage Press, Monroe, ME, 1995.

37 Herbst, S., op. cit. 34, p.ix.

38 Adams, J.G.U., "Cost-Benefit Analysis: Part of the Problem, Not the Solution", Green College, Oxford, 1995.

39 Self, P., Econocrats and the Policy Process, Westbview, Boulder, 1975; Adams, J., "The Emperor's Old Clothes: The Curious Comeback of Cost-Benefit Analysis", Environmental Values 3, 2, 1994, pp.247-60.

40 Porter, op. cit. 11; Eckstein, O., Water Resource Development: The Economics of Project Evaluation, Harvard Economic Studies 104, Vol CIV, 1958, p.41.

41 What economists Steve H. Hanke and Richard A. Walker wrote a quarter of a century ago remains valid today:"In spite of years of refinement in the theory of cost-benefit analysis no one has succeeded in making it impartial or indisputable ... the basic error [is] trying to do the impossible: to reconcile incommensurable values in one quantitative objective figure ... no amount of technical wizardry will succeed in absolving us of the need to resolve ... conflict through political processes" ("Benefit-Cost Analysis Reconsidered: An Evaluation of the Mid-State Project", Water Resources Research 10, 5, 1974, pp.898-908).

42 Hitchens, C., op. cit. 3, p.44.

43 Burgess et al., op. cit. 15.

44 Vijay Paranjpye, Evaluating the Tehri Dam, INTACH, New Delhi, 1988.

45 O'Neill, J., "Managing without Prices:The Monetary Valuation of Biodiversity", Ambio 26, 8, December 1997, p.550.

46 Adams, J., "Cost-Benefit Analysis: Part of the Problem, Not the Solution", p.18.

47 O'Neill, op. cit. 45.

48 "'Ask a Silly Question ...': Contingent Valuation of Natural Resource Damages," Harvard Law Review 105, June 1992, p.1990.

End Note

A conference bringing together activist and academic critics of cost-benefit analysis is being planned for the autumn of 1999 at Yale University.

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