Philosophical Origins of the Social Rate of Discount in Cost-Benefit Analysis

The social rate of discount-that is, the way decision makers today evaluate future consequences of collective activity-raises difficult issues of intergenerational justice. When benefits are discounted at the present rate the United States government requires, serious efforts to promote public health over the long term will fail cost-benefit tests. No consensus exists among theorists to establish fair rates; philosophers support discounting with economic arguments that economists reject, while economists no less paradoxically support the concept using philosophical arguments that philosophers disavow. A new emphasis on the role of consumers’ and citizens’ time preferences, however, will keep open rather than close debates on the social discount rate.

Author(s): James C. Robinson

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Volume 68, Issue 2 (pages 245–265)
Published in 1990