Should Public Policies Be Tested Like Drugs?

We previously reported on New York City’s randomized experiment on the homeless. Turns out, there have been other such experiments:

In 1930s, the Cambridge/Somerville Youth Study, designed to reduce delinquency, randomly assigned over 500 boys to either a treatment group, which received visits from a counselor and other services, or a control group, which received neither. A 30-year follow-up found that the intervention had not diminished criminality and, strangely, seemed to have slightly exacerbated it… In the 1980s, police departments in Minneapolis and Milwaukee randomly assigned the mandatory arrest of domestic violence offenders to assess its effect on recidivism. They initially found that arrest deterred future offenses, but over time a more complex picture emerged; particularly in areas with high unemployment, arrests appeared to provoke further battery.

In a paper to be published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review this spring, Yale professors Ayres and Yair Listokin and George Washington University law professor Michael Abramowicz advocate the systematic introduction of randomized trials throughout government — in legislatures and administrative agencies, at the state and federal level… Michael Greenstone, an MIT economist, laid out this case in a chapter in the 2009 anthology New Perspectives on Regulation… Safety regulations, such as new rules for cars or cigarette lighters, could be randomly tried in some areas and evaluated after a designated period. If the benefits exceed the costs, they should be expanded; if not, they should be scrapped.


Comments (6)

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  1. Vicki says:

    I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t we experiment on policy wonks?

  2. Bruce says:

    I second Vicki’s suggestion.

  3. Brian Williams. says:

    Why doesn’t this violate the equal protection clause in the Constitution?

  4. Erik says:

    What experiment do you have in mind for John and the gang here at John Goodman’s Policy Blog?

  5. Virginia says:

    I think Brian is onto something. It seems like a good way to discriminate against certain people.

    But, in general, the idea of testing public policy seems like a good idea. Although, I think it’s harder to assess results than it is to know if a drug harms someone. However, I could be wrong.

  6. Devon Herrick says:

    I would be nice if policy wonks at least understood they do not automatically know more than the people they want to regulate.