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?



First Off, I Was Wrong

I consider it a mark of intellectual maturity to admit error. It doesn’t need to happen all the time, and it won’t. And of course it’s a cheapo to demand it on the grounds that you’re not intellectually mature until you admit your error and agree with me. I don’t care at all for folks who say stuff like that.

But when I’m wrong, I’m wrong. And what better way to kick off a new blog than by admitting it? So here goes: I was wrong in some very significant ways about the beliefs of Nick Land.

Nick Land is a neoreactionary. (If you don’t know what that is, then don’t read this post. Start here instead.) It is unlikely that you will find Land a sympathetic character, and I certainly don’t. It’s not likely that he even wants you to find him a sympathetic character. If you are reading this, he most likely thinks that you are wrong, and a fool, about nearly everything you believe about the society you inhabit, starting with democracy and moving on down the line through racial differences, the liberal conception of rights, the Enlightenment idea of progress, and so, so, so much else.

One thing Nick Land is not, however, is an ethnonationalist. I had accused him of as much here.[1] Shortly after, I stopped reading him entirely and gave him essentially no further thought. I recently had reason to take a second look, and when I did, it was obvious I’d made a mistake. Land does not advocate ethnonationalism.

How did my error arise? Partly it’s the company that, as a neoreactionary, Land appears to keep. In reading him early on, my lenses consisted of stuff written by Michael Anissimov and others of a decidedly ethnonationalist bent. Whenever I could, I fit ethnonationalist implications in as I read. Often I fit them in edgewise. I now see that this was far less than helpful, and I am finding that I may need to pick these implications back out again, a costly and time-consuming process. Anissimov might wear the label of ethnonationalist with pride, while also wearing the neoreactionary label, but Land is only the latter. Not the former.

Since I wrote that piece, I’ve learned a great deal about this new and – let’s be fair – frequently obscurantist movement. It no longer looks nearly as unified to me as it formerly did. It’s maybe not even all that interested in being unified. Land’s own very clear recent disavowals of ethnonationalism, even from those who seem like closely aligned neoreactionaries, have done a lot to convince me. I often insist on the importance of divisions within my own small, new, and often obscurantist ideological sect. It’s only fair that I recognize the divisions in others of the same ilk. Nick Land, I’m sorry. I screwed up.

I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’d like to hit the reset button. We certainly aren’t going to see eye to eye, but a productive conversation might still be possible. Who knows. (Would it help if I wrote up my critique of the Laws of the Cathedral? I’ve been accused by others of championing these laws, while mostly I find them to be various flavors of nonsense.)

I’m left with lots of questions, to be sure. For example, Land aligns himself with the Atlanteans, but I don’t feel like I quite understand what this means to him. I wonder whether the concept is not so big, and so vague, as to be unhelpful. (It may of course be true and unhelpful; and it may be helpful to others, just not to me. Neither is quite to the point. I want to know: What kind of thinking does this Atlantean grouping enable?) Whenever I try to imagine the Atlanteans, I find that I’m imagining a very big, very vague ethnicity, but again, I know that can’t be right. I would welcome more about what it means to him, or simply some further pointers about it. (And yes: I know I’ll have to get around to reading Alexander Dugin, who originated the term in its present usage, even if I expect to find him repulsive.)

Anyway. What follows is mostly unrelated to the above. I’ve put it here lest my friends come to fear that I am turning neoreactionary. I am not.

If there is one thing all neoreactionaries believe, it’s that democracy has been an unmitigated disaster. I am not nearly so pessimistic. I think democracy has very often failed to secure individual liberty, but its failure has clearly not been total, and there is reason to believe that things may get better after all.

Moreover, even if I am wrong to be hopeful, my sense is that neoreaction has not yet produced anything like the calm, rigorous, empirical examination of democratic institutions to be found in public choice economics. This seems a vastly more promising avenue of critique than any other to me. Yes, neoreaction is still young, and maybe it will come up with something more interesting and useful in time, but I’m not optimistic. As a group, their biggest pie-in-the-sky policy idea seems to be returning to monarchy.[2] This strikes me as foolish – perhaps for reasons that at least some neoreactionaries would appreciate.

The public choice school and neoreaction both criticize democracy for what amounts to its capture by perverse interests: Venal rent-seekers and demagogues alike take over the process, and the outcome is predictably stupid and horrible. This much is very often completely true. To the extent that it pains the advocates of democracy, well, it certainly should.

But here’s my problem. If I were to point to a rent-seeking society par excellence, it would be… Old Regime France. (See this, for example.) The Old Regime had a monarchy, thanks very much, a purportedly good, old-fashioned, pre-Enlightenment monarchy, with no admixture whatsoever of liberal ideology or of democracy. If this is how you propose to solve the problem of rent-seeking idiocracy… then you have not even begun to understand the problem.

I personally fear that the United States is coming more and more to resemble the French Old Regime, and particularly in this respect: To do nearly anything now increasingly requires the permission of the government, which by the very same token is increasingly the arbiter of social status. In the Old Regime, status prevailed over contract. The way to get ahead in life was in Tocqueville’s words to cut an official figure. Commerce and most forms of entrepreneurship were apt to be tagged with the French cognate word vil: They were the vile professions, at least as the official ideology had it. (Sound familiar? It should.)

Eventually all came to depend on the state. The result was not some sort of grand pride-in-hierarchy utopia. It was all the people of real ability conspiring to get out of business and turn themselves into a bunch of idle, sniveling, powdered-wigged courtiers. Why did the Industrial Revolution come so late to France? Rent-seeking.

Monarchy is not an effective defense against what the public choice school would call rent-seeking, or against what neoreactionaries would call demotism, which I take to be the rule of those who shortsightedly grab whatever they can, always in the name of the people.

Those disposed to either one will be perfectly happy if you throw them into the monarchist briar patch. As we all know, the French Old Regime did not end well, and plopping a monarchy down on top of American society, or on top of any subset thereof, will not make it resemble the Old Regime any less.



[1] If this seems like splitting hairs to some of you, particularly given that Land is generally persuaded by the claims of the human biodiversity movement, well, fine. Call it what you like. Human biodiversity enthusiasts are generally considered cranks by the scientists who know this stuff better than I do. Cranks they may be, but they are not identical to white or any other ethnonationalists.

As for me, I continue to think that even while there are some genetic differences that correlate to some degree with race, the optimal society remains color-blind. Comparative advantage and gains from trade swamp any possible effects to the contrary, and to find those gains, we need people to mix things up without fear of crossing any color lines. I am not aware of any differences that are innate, racially correlated, and also tending in their effects to erode the principle of gains from trade, a principle that is so robust that we are essentially powerless to annul it.

[2] The runner-up is the corporate state, more or less as found in anarcho-capitalism. I am not an anarcho-capitalist, for reasons I will get around to explaining in time. I don’t know whether it would work better or worse than democracy, but the attempt to institute it seems very dangerous in itself and likely to fail.