Objective or Multi-Objective? Two Historically Competing Visions for Benefit-Cost Analysis
As they embraced benefit-cost analysis during the mid twentieth century, economists faced several challenges. One challenge was to reconcile two visions for the place of the economist in policy analysis, one limited to providing positive analysis for decision-makers, the other allowing normative judgments. This tension came to a crisis when, in the 1960s, the Water Resources Council introduced multi-objective benefit-cost analysis. The surrounding debate highlights the way philosophical differences can drive the technical details of policy analysis, the way political debates can overshadow academic ones, and the way even social scientists in a narrow subfield can profoundly misunderstand one another.
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