Book Review: Valuing Life: Humanizing the Regulatory State by Cass Sunstein

From: The London School of Economics and Political Science/Review of Books

In Valuing Life, Cass Sunstein surveys a wide range of practical research and real-life policymaking in his characteristically lucid style, offering a candid and humble account of his administrative tenure in Washington. He performs an invaluable service in revealing how government regulators balance pragmatic concerns of resource scarcity with principled ideals of respect and dignity, writes Mark D. White.

There are many economists, philosophers, and legal scholars who write about the value of human life and how to incorporate it into policy, but few of them have actually put this into practice in a government position. The most prominent scholar to do so is Cass Sunstein, whose latest book, Valuing Life: Humanizing the Regulatory State, provides an invaluable perspective from someone who has experience in both the academic and policy realms. Sunstein served as administrator of the United States’ Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) from 2009 to 2012, and in Valuing Life he draws back the curtain to reveal how such valuations and decisions are made “on the ground.”


Sunstein explains these deliberations from an administrative as well as an academic point of view. In the terms of the former, he details the process of regulation approval and reform within OIRA, and skeptics of government regulation (such as myself) will likely be surprised at the copious levels of safeguards in place within agencies such as OIRA to prevent arbitrary impositions of state power on individuals and firms. In terms of the latter, he provides numerous examples of various configurations of cost, benefits, and probabilities that he encountered; chapter two contains 36 such examples, all of them grounded in actual regulatory problems (with citations to supporting documents).

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