Public Perceptions of Regulatory Costs, Their Uncertainty and Interindividual Distribution

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Abstract

Public perceptions of both risks and regulatory costs shape rational regulatory choices. Despite decades of risk perception studies, this article is the first on regulatory cost perceptions. A survey of 744 U.S. residents probed: (1) How knowledgeable are laypeople about regulatory costs incurred to reduce risks? (2) Do laypeople see official estimates of cost and benefit (lives saved) as accurate? (3) (How) do preferences for hypothetical regulations change when mean-preserving spreads of uncertainty replace certain cost or benefit? and (4) (How) do preferences change when unequal interindividual distributions of hypothetical regulatory costs replace equal distributions? Respondents overestimated costs of regulatory compliance, while assuming agencies underestimate costs. Most assumed agency estimates of benefits are accurate; a third believed both cost and benefit estimates are accurate. Cost and benefit estimates presented without uncertainty were slightly preferred to those surrounded by “narrow uncertainty” (a range of costs or lives entirely within a personally-calibrated zone without clear acceptance or rejection of tradeoffs). Certain estimates were more preferred than “wide uncertainty” (a range of agency estimates extending beyond these personal bounds, thus posing a gamble between favored and unacceptable tradeoffs), particularly for costs as opposed to benefits (but even for costs a quarter of respondents preferred wide uncertainty to certainty). Agency-acknowledged uncertainty in general elicited mixed judgments of honesty and trustworthiness. People preferred egalitarian distributions of regulatory costs, despite skewed actual cost distributions, and preferred progressive cost distributions (the rich pay a greater than proportional share) to regressive ones. Efficient and socially responsive regulations require disclosure of much more information about regulatory costs and risks.

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