Could We Test Legislation Before Enacting It?

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You're one of the lucky 10,000. For the next, let's say, two years, you've been chosen to participate in a randomly assigned clinical trial sponsored by the federal government. The experiment? You'll have your tax rate lowered, giving you more than a little extra cash on hand. At the end of this period, researchers, social scientists and economists will convene to dissect your fiscal behavior and have a bit more hard data to determine whether tax cuts can helpful in stimulating the economy. Armed with the study's results, legislators will be better equipped to make decisions about whether to enact similar tax cut legislation for the entire nation.

Sounds like an interesting--albeit optimistic--concept, doesn't it? Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow examines it in an Ideas piece for The Boston Globe. She documents the "growing chorus" of academics who believe that clinical trials are an excellent way to test if potential legislation will be effective policy. If clinical trials like the one above became a reality, there could be experimentation with gun control laws, environmental regulations, securities rules and others, the writer notes. Proper experimentation could provide a foundation for "evidence-based" governing and help society reveal "the true costs and benefits of legislation" before these laws are adapted to society at large.

But the caveats to the experimentation (and there's an endless list--think: your neighbor might not be too happy that he didn't receive a tax cut also) might whittle away at the potential usefulness of idea. "The problem is, we're dealing with laws that have a huge impact on people's lives," says Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University to the Globe. "These aren't casual tests. ... Here we're talking about basic benefits and fundamental rights." Citizens, of course, also might not take to kindly to being treated like "lab rats" and being subjected to the experimental whims of an overreaching government.

And yet, Americans wouldn't consume a new type of prescription drug without clinical testing, either, notes one of Tuhus-Dubrow's experts. Why should our nation's laws be any less rigorously inspected?

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