Low-Information Voters Always Want More.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent, Hillary-induced fad for increasing the number of low-information voters. It’s been assisted powerfully by Ezra Klein, who wants you to know, no matter how smart you may be, that he personally knows even better than you do. (One of Klein’s peculiar talents seems to be the capacity to say how very much smarter he is than everyone else, and to make a certain class of information consumer feel really good about it.)

But I want to know how this policy might play out in the real world. What are the things that experts of all ideological kinds generally dislike, and that low-information voters generally love? If we increase the number of low-information voters, we can expect to get more of exactly these sorts of policies, and less of the policies on which there is an expert consensus at odds with the typical low-information view. (The impact in other policy areas will likely be a wash; on many of them, there are high- and low-information voters on both sides. Adding more low-information voters won’t matter much, because they’ll tend to cancel each other out.)

Bryan Caplan has already shown in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter that voters of all sorts routinely make serious economic errors, errors that prevent them, even, from acting in ways that would economically benefit themselves: They oppose free trade, even though it’s good for the economy and doesn’t destroy American jobs. They oppose immigration, even though the very same considerations apply. They are biased toward make-work policies that ultimately end up impoverishing workers. And on and on.

Now, it may be that we would not be comfortable with a franchise so narrow that it only included those with a basic competence in economics. Still, it should be said that only a basic competence is needed to address stylized positions outlined above and reject them. This the vast majority of professional economists has already done. We need not throw out democracy. We could say, instead, let the people vote, and perhaps they’ll learn something.

But what price will we pay as they do? It’s not simply an economic one. I’m looking for example at this month’s Cato Unbound, which is a particularly gross example of expert consensus confronting the desires of the low-information voter. From the lead essay by Galen Baughman:

Civil commitment is the legal practice of detaining individuals who are suffering from acute symptoms of severe mental illness so that they can be treated, often in a secured environment. In this model, the state is providing care for individuals who are unable to care for themselves, while protecting the public from individuals who are dangerous due to their psychiatric condition. Sounds reasonable, right? Over the past 25 years, however, new laws have been created, designed to use the traditional model of civil commitment as a way to create secondary prison sentences for people who have already paid their debt to society, dramatically expanding the power of the state and blurring the lines between civil and criminal law…

These new civil commitment laws differ from the traditional model of involuntary commitment in several key ways. First, traditionally the person subjected to civil commitment is not targeted after the completion of their prison sentence as a means to tack on additional incarceration to that which the court had already meted out – instead, the person who has committed an offense is either considered culpable for a crime and therefore punished in our criminal justice system or found to be in need of treatment and diverted to the civil system. The new civil-criminal hybridized version of civil commitment is designed to imprison the person again under a civil “sentence” after completing their criminal sentence.

In short, pre-crime is not some dystopian future. It’s present-day America. My charge is as follows: We got here because low-information voters demanded it, and despite the vigorous dissent of the experts.

I should say that this was a highly unusual issue of Cato Unbound. Typically I strive to stir up an argument among experts. A high-level intellectual exchange, with reasonable and well-informed points all around. The end product is ideally a document that, if read attentively, will leave everyone a little more uncertain. Uncertainty is where I think we all very often belong, even if it’s uncomfortable, and even if we don’t usually spend much time there. Perhaps we should.

I totally failed this month. I just couldn’t start an argument. On civil commitment of sex offenders, the experts are solidly united: It’s a terrible idea. It’s cruel. It’s not scientifically grounded. It doesn’t help them. It doesn’t protect victims. (It may even generate victims, given the conditions in our prisons.) And it doesn’t promise to reintegrate offenders into society, because the typical length of “treatment” is forever. In short, it’s prison in Groucho glasses. David Prescott, Eric Janus, and Amanda Pustilnik have been particularly incisive in supporting these claims, and I suggest that you read them.

That’s what we can get, I think, when we follow the low-information consensus: a moral catastrophe, vigorously opposed by the experts, and it barely even registers on the public’s radar. The public is getting what it wants, so why should it care? (Traffic this month at Cato Unbound has been crap, incidentally.)

The costs take the form of shattered lives. Baughman writes:

Alex [not his real name] is 25 now. He sits in the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation, receiving treatment in a secured setting – a prison masquerading as a treatment facility – because when he was 14 he had sex with his girlfriend, who was 12. The state prosecuted Alex in adult court after he shared with his therapist that he had had his first sexual experience with another kid in his school, a crime under Virginia law because of the age of the younger party. Alex was in foster care at the time. He went to a prison for youth and was released 4 years later, shortly after his 18th birthday. Since he was now on the public sex offender registry and ineligible for any services because he had aged out of the foster care system, Alex found himself homeless and unable to keep a job. In Virginia, those required to register as a sex offender must also list their employers, and the address of their place of work is also displayed on the public sex offender registry, which effectively means no one would hire him. Alex’s probation officer violated him for not having suitable housing, his probation was revoked by a court, and he was sent back to prison – this time an adult prison – for 2.5 years. At the end of his sentence, the Attorney General’s office in Virginia filed a petition to civilly commit Alex as a sexually violent predator.

It sounds good, particularly to low-information voters, when a candidate is tough on crime. How tough do we need to be? Tougher. In the realm of insufficient data, the answer is always tougher, until one day we’re punishing crimes that haven’t even happened yet.

It never enters such a voter’s mind that one can be so tough on crime as to completely gut the civil liberties protections to which all people should be entitled. (And let us be frank for a moment: It may never enter the low-information voter’s mind that specific, time-honored civil liberties protections even exist in the first place.)

Voters enact policies like these not because they have good information, but because they have strongly felt values — with precious little else to go on. What will we get when we pander to values, without a thought to the necessary trade-offs? More. Always more. Of something.

How tough do we need to be on crime? Tougher. Always tougher. And the template carries over into so many other policy areas:

How strong should our national defense be? Stronger. Always stronger.
How clean should our water be? Cleaner. Always cleaner.
How much should the rich pay in taxes? More. Always more. (Or, on the other side: Always less.)

The same might be said, of course, of voting. How much voting do we want? More. Always more!

There’s nary a trade-off in sight, at least in the happy, self-contained world of the low-information voter. Even so, the real world is full of trade-offs, and the mark of an expert is to consider, at some point, whether we could do with a little less of this or that, and what we would get in return for giving it up. Bearing in mind: “a little less” need not denigrate any of the values expressed above. Let criminals be punished and suffer; let us keep invaders out, at great pains to them; let us have clean water and even a progressive income tax if we must. Let us consider, though, that there will be trade-offs, and we need to know what they are before we can make an informed decision.

The implications for democracy are huge, of course, and they run toward the unflattering. In thinking about these matters it becomes understandable why some are so strongly drawn toward neoreactionary politics, which would concede that democracy has been a giant failure from the outset. We need not agree with this conclusion to find that even beyond partisanship, democracy regularly fails in ways that we can all easily describe. What then to do?



3 thoughts on “Low-Information Voters Always Want More.

  1. I’ve let this rattle around in my head for the last day or so, and I still am left unconvinced and with lots of questions.

    What evidence do we have that the example (civil commitment) is a result of the preferences of low information voters?

    Are you actually just using “low information” as a euphemism for “stupid?” I can think of plenty of (hopefully) high information examples of people calling for horrible legislation (FBI’s assistant director of counter terrorism, Michael Steinbach, calling for software companies to “prevent encryption at all costs.”)

    Are “low information” voters and “values” voters really the same thing? Do we actually have evidence that people more moved by values than analytics have a harder time with trade offs? That doesn’t seem intuitively obvious (or even likely) to me; I have multiple values which are often in tension.


  2. I am not calling voters stupid. I am saying that on crime, they have low information. I write exactly what I mean in this space, and no one edits it before publication. If I had wanted to call them stupid, I would have done so, and you would have seen it.

    My evidence that voters have low information on crime is very simple. They think – and that have thought for years – that crime is at a high level, and that it is rising. Both beliefs are false. (Experts debate exactly why crime has been falling, but falling is certainly what it’s done.)

    For evidence that civil commitment is the product of a get-tough-on-crime attitude, I refer you to Galen Baughman’s essay, which details some of the relevant legislative history.

    For evidence that experts are fed up with the civil commitment of sex offenders, I refer you to the entire issue, in which experts in various relevant fields all reach the same conclusion.

    Finally, I do not believe that experts always reach good conclusions. Experts are subject to other forms of error, but err the do.


    • After 9/11, the hype of terrorism amazed me considering that all our soft targets are out there on Google Maps, churches, temples, schools, shopping malls, water supplies, roads, hospitals, railways, power grid. . . easy to identify and for the most part, unmolested.

      We suck at risk assessment, and we get exposed to crime stories looped on repeat. They almost always lack context that this is being reported because it’s unusual.

      If I were queen of the world, I would decree it reporting should give context to unusual events, just as who, what, where, when, and why are reported. How often is also important information, and should be a standard part of ethical reporting.


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