The Systems Fallacy: A Genealogy and Critique of Public Policy and Cost-Benefit Analysis

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This essay identifies the systems fallacy: the mistaken belief that systems-analytic decision-making techniques, such as cost-benefit or public policy analysis, are neutral and objective, when in fact they normatively shape political outcomes. The systems fallacy is the mistaken belief that there could be a nonnormative or scientific way to analyze and implement public policy that would not affect political values. That pretense is mistaken because the very act of conceptualizing and defining a metaphorical system, and the accompanying choice-of-scope decisions, constitute inherently normative decisions that are value laden and political in nature. The ambition of decision theorists to render policy implementation neutral and objective by means of scientific methods was laudable, but there is no way to extract the politics from the method. The minute we are inattentive to this insight and delegate policy making to cost-benefit experts and policy professionals, we move one step closer to the systems fallacy.

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