The Cost-Benefit Revolution

The Cost-Benefit Revolution

By Cass R. Sunstein

Why policies should be based on careful consideration of their costs and benefits rather than on intuition, popular opinion, interest groups, and anecdotes.





Why policies should be based on careful consideration of their costs and benefits rather than on intuition, popular opinion, interest groups, and anecdotes.

Opinions on government policies vary widely. Some people feel passionately about the child obesity epidemic and support government regulation of sugary drinks. Others argue that people should be able to eat and drink whatever they like. Some people are alarmed about climate change and favor aggressive government intervention. Others don't feel the need for any sort of climate regulation. In The Cost-Benefit Revolution, Cass Sunstein argues our major disagreements really involve facts, not values. It follows that government policy should not be based on public opinion, intuitions, or pressure from interest groups, but on numbers—meaning careful consideration of costs and benefits. Will a policy save one life, or one thousand lives? Will it impose costs on consumers, and if so, will the costs be high or negligible? Will it hurt workers and small businesses, and, if so, precisely how much?

As the Obama administration's “regulatory czar,” Sunstein knows his subject in both theory and practice. Drawing on behavioral economics and his well-known emphasis on “nudging,” he celebrates the cost-benefit revolution in policy making, tracing its defining moments in the Reagan, Clinton, and Obama administrations (and pondering its uncertain future in the Trump administration). He acknowledges that public officials often lack information about costs and benefits, and outlines state-of-the-art techniques for acquiring that information. Policies should make people's lives better. Quantitative cost-benefit analysis, Sunstein argues, is the best available method for making this happen—even if, in the future, new measures of human well-being, also explored in this book, may be better still.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262038140 288 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


$23.95 T ISBN: 9780262538015 288 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • One of the very best Cass Sunstein books, the product of decades of reflection, remarkably well thought out on every page to an extent which is rare these days.

    Marginal Revolution

  • In the excellent historical sections describing the (non-partisan) spread of CBA in US government, Sunstein gives some persuasive examples of how to use CBA well... It's worth the read for anyone interested in the role of reason in policy making.

    Diane Coyle, The Enlightened Economist

  • Clear, well-argued....As Sunstein notes, cost-benefit models have become progressively less wrong and more useful over time, and will surely continue to improve. The cost-benefit revolution may be incomplete and its pace of progress uncertain, but it's far from over. ¡Viva la revolución!

    Forbes Online

  • The book makes three valuable contributions: it relates the history of cost-benefit analysis in US policymaking; it tackles the economist Friedrich Hayek's argument that technocrats simply don't know enough to weigh costs and benefits; and it makes a case that cost-benefit analysis could reduce political tribalism.

    Financial Times

  • [Sunstein's] insights and conclusions are broadly applicable to wherever benefit-cost analysis is practiced...Sunstein thinks deeply, writes engagingly, and is often provocative...[The Cost-Benefit Revolution] is likely to lead to much interesting debate as well as to new developments in the field.

    Lisa A. Robinson

    Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis


  • Only Cass Sunstein could present cost-benefit analysis as a prism for understanding democracy, an exciting research frontier, and a route to a better world. The world will be a better place if the next president of the United States thinks hard about this important book.

    Lawrence H. Summers

    Charles W. Eliot University Professor and President Emeritus, Harvard University

  • Cost-benefit analysis may not have all the answers, but Cass Sunstein's eminently readable The Cost-Benefit Revolution addresses all the right questions. No one in America has thought more deeply about the strengths, weaknesses, and underpinnings of cost-benefit analysis from both a theoretical and practical level than Cass Sunstein. This book will surely pass your personal cost-benefit test.

    Alan Krueger

    Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, Princeton University

  • Cass Sunstein's enlightening volume makes a compelling case that systematic assessments of benefits and costs should become even more ingrained in government policymaking. In addition to drawing on his substantial regulatory expertise, Sunstein deftly explores novel policy terrain ranging from national security to free speech.

    W. Kip Viscusi

    University Distinguished Professor, Vanderbilt University; author of Pricing Lives: Guideposts for a Safer Society and Economics of Regulation and Antitrust

  • Sunstein has been leading the cost-benefit revolution, and here he explains how it is making the world a better place. If that weren't enough, this must-read lets readers into one of the world's most important minds.

    Michael Greenstone

    Milton Friedman Professor of Economics, University of Chicago