Philosophy, Politics

In Praise of Ignorance

I recently had a discussion with a very intelligent woman, a Ph.D fresh from an Ivy League university. We met after the third Clinton-Trump debate, so the conversation naturally turned to race in America, a topic about which my interlocutor felt strongly. She explained that the United States’ criminal justice system is an oppressive apparatus of state racism. Mass incarceration, she told me, is in large measure the product of a war on drugs that unfairly targets African Americans. She painted a picture of prisons overfilled with African American men locked away for nonviolent drug offenses. She was convinced that the US criminal justice system requires dramatic reform or complete dismantling.

My question for her was simple: approximately what fraction of US prisoners are incarcerated for possession — as opposed to pushing or smuggling?

She did not know.

It is worth pausing to reflect on this. There is hardly a fact about the war on drugs that could be more basic. But my interlocutor did not know the answer to this simple question, despite her passionate moral convictions on the topic. As it happens, under 4% of prisoners in state and federal prisons are incarcerated for drug possession. If all of these prisoners were released tomorrow, the total number of people incarcerated in federal and state prisons would fall from approximately 1,560,000 to approximately 1,500,000. By comparison, more than 50% of prisoners are incarcerated for committing violent crimes — crimes like aggravated assault, rape and murder. This information is easily accessible to anyone who wants to find it — they need only Google “national prisoner statistics.”

To take one more example, consider recent popular opposition to the TransPacific Partnership, or TPP. Negotiating and ratifying this trade agreement has been a central goal of the Obama administration. Now if one thing is true about the TPP, it is that the TPP is an enormously complex agreement. Not only does it touch on a huge number of international trade issues — it is over 5,000 pages long — the question of whether ratifying the TPP will promote prosperity in the US and its partner nations is fundamentally an empirical question in economics. But in the recent election, supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump often claimed, sincerely, that they could never vote for a candidate who supported the TPP.

The fact that few Trump or Sanders supporters could pass Econ 101 tomorrow if their lives depended on it was apparently no deterrent to making opposition to the TPP a litmus test of the candidates’ presidential qualifications. Similarly irrelevant was the near-universal agreement among the world’s top economists, liberal and conservative, that U.S. citizens are better off on average thanks to trade. And this is to say nothing about the benefits of trade to the global poor. In 1990, 37% of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty, i.e., on the equivalent of 1.25 US dollars or less per day. (For comparison, in the United States, the poverty line is set at over $30 per day.) In 2016, the proportion of the world’s population living in absolute poverty fell below 10% for the first time. This historic achievement owes relatively little to charitable donations from wealthy individuals and nations — which is not to say that wealthy individuals and nations ought not provide aid for the global poor, but only that we who know little about economics ought to be far more cautious in our opposition to free trade.

This is a situation we all find ourselves in: we sincerely hold strong moral beliefs on topics about which we are almost completely ignorant. Knowledge about difficult empirical questions has become so utterly irrelevant to whether we feel entitled to our opinions, often we do not even notice our own dramatic ignorance. In lieu of the facts we have not bothered to learn, we go to dazzling lengths to justify our opinions with ideology. When I told my interlocutor about the incarceration statistics mentioned above, her reaction was to question the veracity of the Department of Justice statistics. When I told her that multiple data sources present the same picture, she explained that reality is socially constructed.

The world is such a big and messy place, all anyone can do is focus on understanding a tiny slice of it. So most of us can be forgiven our ignorance about empirical questions as complex as the causes of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the likely effects of a particular international trade deal, the costs and benefits of raising the federal minimum wage to $15, and so forth. These questions are so enormously complex, thoughtful people who devote their lives to investigating them do not always reach consensus. But what cannot be forgiven is holding passionate opinions on issues of immense practical significance when we are almost completely ignorant of the facts. It does not matter how strongly we may believe we are factually correct or that we are fighting the darkest forces of evil, when we choose to address a topic that may seriously affect the lives of other people, we incur a correspondingly serious obligation to discharge onerous epistemic duties.

If we do not bother to acquaint ourselves with the most basic facts, to expose ourselves openly to people with whom we are inclined to disagree, and especially to those who have thought the longest and hardest about these topics, then we are not entitled to any opinion. As J.S. Mill wrote in On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” For most of us, the only defensible attitude on most issues is perfect agnosticism.

The problem is, we have little tolerance for agnosticism. A politician who admitted that she held no opinion on the TPP might expect mockery, even though it is as unreasonable to expect the average politician to know about the difficult empirical questions raised by such agreements as it is to expect the average doctor or nurse. And we should all be alive to the possibility that most politicians would not do much better than the rest of us if they had to pass Econ 101 tomorrow. It is even worse that we ordinary people suffer disapprobation when we express agnosticism towards issues about which we know nothing. This intolerance of ignorance threatens to sever both policy makers and ordinary people from reality, harming our best chance at improving our world — scientific knowledge combined with careful, open-minded moral thinking.

Our intolerance of ignorance hides questions of great practical significance behind veils of ideology, turning these questions, and the human lives that ride on them, into mere opportunities to signal our group membership. To have a chance at solving our problems we must not condemn each other for openly stating our ignorance. Those with the audacity to admit that they have nothing intelligent to say about a difficult topic should be praised for refusing to further erode our common epistemic standards, not scorned for failing to toe some party line. To paraphrase Woody Allen, the most beautiful words in the English language are not “I love you,” but “I don’t know.”


Simon Cullen writes about psychology, morality, and improving the quality of public discourse.



  1. What an excellent post. It has nailed me and about 90% (where did I get that number?) of the western world. It includes all the twitterati and Facereaders. My pet subject, global warming, means I am rendered dead, although I have read both sides of the argument.

    The only fly in the ointment seems to be that we feel uncomfortable leaving things to those who are supposed to know, as they are also tainted by power struggles, opinions and ideology.

    The truth of any significant matter should strike us dumb, yet we hold onto something if only a wrong opinion. If only the ignorant would be more prepared to change their minds when new knowledge arrives it might be OK. There seems to be little of that going on.

    We have all been taught that our opinions matter, bit late to shut that gate don’t you think?

  2. I like the article, but my comment is that you seem to have grouped all who are ignorant of the answer to a question together. But I would suggest that your group would include those who are ignorant of the facts because they have never tried to ‘serch”, those who hypocritically pretend to know, and those who think they know because they are self delusional. I would go further and suggest that the most honest answer would be Woody Allen’s “I don’t know” or at least ” I can’t be sure”.( google is a useful tool, but to suggest ” all you need to do is just google your question” sounds spurious to me).
    Incidentally I don’t much like to see you using the word ‘agnostic’ as you do (unless you acknowledge that you are only using it as a figure of speech). Agnostic is not just a word with etemological origins in antiquity the meaning of which is evolving, but a word that was created not all that long ago to mean ‘ believe that it is impossible for man to ever know if there is, or the nature of, a God’.

    • I would suggest that most contemporary cases of such “ignorance” are instead a proxy argument from authority… something that the ubiquity of “answer” engines, such as google, greatly exacerbates. I see most that argue a premise from ignorance are actually uncritically “borrowing” their knowledge from various sources (e.g., news and social media, various wiki sources, cursory google-fu), rather than self-delusion. It’s more a matter of confirmation biases than hypocrisy or delusion.

      I can no longer count the number of times I have had an acquaintance argue with me on a subject that is my own (fully credentialed and professionally proven) specialized area of expertise based on something they have seen or read on the news or facebook or a wiki page.

      AS the meme goes, we are awash in information yet starving for knowledge.

  3. Carmi Turchick says

    Sorry, but the record shows quite clearly that economists know jack all about economics, and if you knew anything much on the subject you would know that too. That you are spouting off about other people’s ignorance while ranting in support of a trade bill none of us ever got to read, including most members of Congress, because they knew it would be too egregiously offensive to the vast majority of us, and while holding up economists as some sort of experts on something is the height of irony.

    • You seem seem to be saying that people who know about economics know that economists don’t know about economics. What else does that apply to? The people who don’t know about history are the historians? The people who don’t know about science are the scientists?

      • Steve says

        Richard Feynman said something similar about quantum mechanics. So may have Niels Bohr. Anyone who claims to understand it doesn’t.

        • I realise your tongue is in your cheek, but I can’t resist pointing out that what Feynman and Bohr said is very different to what Carmi said.

    • I don’t know, but I’d be willing to bet that the author would be the first to say that he doesn’t “know anything much on the subject,” and hence WASN’T “ranting in support of a trade bill,” as the record of the article clearly shows. It read rather as an appeal against certainty, considering.
      Triggered by a topic and only further listening to respond, rather than to understand… altogether missing the point. Shame.

    • “economists know jack all about economics”

      Thank you for demonstrating the article’s point. You seem to think that the roller coaster of an economy demonstrates your pig-headed assertion, rather than, say, that an economy is an extremely complex system buffeted by many chaotic (look up the word for its very particular scientific meaning) factors, including the vagaries, ideologies, barriers to action, coarse tools, crowd behaviours, etc etc.

      Do you know, for example, what “money creation” is (or for that matter, what money actually is)? If the answer is “yes”, then you have at least a tiny bit of the knowledge and understanding of an economist. And if you discount such understanding then perhaps you would propose, erm, reading chicken entrails to decide action?

      Also, do you know how much worse economies might have been without the understanding of economists?

      BTW, my questions to you are rhetorical, please do not answer.

    • Kim Cooper says

      Actually, I agree with Carmi to some degree. Economics doesn’t reach the level of a science, and there is a whole “school” of economics that is teaching theories that are dead wrong. That’s how we got into the mess we are in — listening to “Chicago School” economists who are wrong, or evil. Elizabeth Warren knows a lot about economics — as much as anyone — and I will go along with her.

  4. Ecology of Peace culture Objective Truth I have summarized, with a little help from a few honest friends, colleagues, critics, into the following Ecology of Peace Radical Honoursty Factual Reality working hypothesis conclusion:

    [1] Earth is not flat. [2] Resources are finite. [3] When humans breed or consume above ecological carrying capacity limits, it results in ecological overshoot, resource depletion and resource conflict. [4] Some of the socio-cultural and psycho-political consequences of overpopulation & consumption collision with declining resources include: poverty, slavery, unemployment, food shortages, food inflation, cost of living increases, urban sprawl, traffic jams, toxic waste, pollution, peak oil, peak water, peak food, peak population, species extinction, loss of biodiversity, peak resources, racial, religious, class, gender resource war conflict, militarized police, psycho-social and cultural conformity pressures on free speech, etc; inter-cultural conflict; legal, political and corporate corruption, etc. [5] The root cause of humans breeding and consuming above ecological carrying capacity limits is the ‘right to breed and consume with total disregard for ecological carrying capacity limits’ clauses of the Masonic War is Peace international law social contract. [6] If individuals, families, tribes, races, religions, political parties, corporations and/or nations sincerely want to (a) sustainably protect natural resources for future generations; and/or (b) reduce class, racial and/or religious local, national and international resource war conflict; and/or (c) enable honourable, transparent and humane international cooperative de-industrialization and depopulation of the planet to return to living in accordance to ecological carrying capacity limits; they should (d) cooperate to nullify the ‘right to breed and consume with total disregard for ecological carrying capacity limits’ clauses and replace them with Ecology of Peace clauses that restricts all the worlds citizens to breed and consume below ecological carrying capacity limits; or be humanely eliminated from the planetary genepool.

    If Quilette editors and/or readers have any constructive criticism feedback or plain language submissions to make it more plain language easily understood; such constructive criticism is very welcome; and shall along with this comment be documented at: » Correspondence.

    • Biggest pile of just about everything that is wrong in left wing thinking, apart from the bit about over population. Andrea then ruins even that by claiming “enable honourable, transparent and humane international cooperative de-industrialization”. The only thing that keeps us out of poverty and starvation Andrea wants to get rid of.

      Such a cobbled together bunch of cliches that just reiterate what the Greens have been saying ie ‘kill off the western world’s scientific, industrial wealth, hand the money over to Africans and lets all live in harmony with nature’ with no idea of what they are throwing away as they are mostly under 30 and have never known poverty or starvation – to quote Talking Heads song ‘Nothing but Flowers’ from the 1990’s ‘We killed a rattlesnake, now we have something for dinner’ ‘and as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention’.

      200 years ago (4 generations ago) we did not understand that separating our arses from our mouth/food was a huge life changing event. We had little idea about the scientific world and we have only enjoyed this brief time in the sun, now Andrea and others like her want to go back to a time of ignorance and stagnation. No thank you!

  5. Pingback: 26 Dec: Quillette – EoP RH FR

  6. Pingback: 26 Dec: Quillette – EoP v WiP NWO Neg

  7. John A Turner says

    There is one major problem with the TPP Agreements, the ISDS clauses therein. Those clauses allow a foreign corporation to sue a government if that government takes any action, in the interests of its citizens, if that action adversely effects the profit of the corporation.
    The Australia Commonwealth Government passed laws forbidding advertising that promoted smoking and an attempt was made by a cigarette company to sue the Australian Commonwealth Government using a free trade agreement with Hong Kong. That agreement contained ISDS type clauses.

    • Wow this is rude. The author clearly only wanted to present a small carefully selected set of facts that agree with his narrative. Anyone can see that. Why are you ruining it for him? He doesn’t ask what % of the lobbyists who wrote the TPP could pass Econ 101 right now, or a class on public health, or a class on environmental regulation. He’s got his two statistics about the criminal justice system and he isn’t interested in hearing anything else. Let him have his facts, he’s got an important armchair philosophical point to make.

      • Robert says

        Joftius, maybe that anger is getting in the way of your reading comprehension? He isn’t endorsing the TPP himself or mass incarceration.

    • Yergen says

      I think you have misunderstood the basics of ISDS clauses and you kind of prove the point of the article. The clauses usually allow a foreign corporation to sue if a government takes any action that discriminates foreign companies over domestic ones.

      In your example the arbitration court actually said the case was not part of their jurisdiction and declined to hear the case. That means that in your particular example, ISDS clauses do not apply. Of course, anyone can file a suit anywhere, but that does not mean that foreign companies will win, or even be heard, every time.

  8. jenny fG says

    The TPP was designed to help corporations make more profits. Democracy is undermined if corporations can tell governments what to do. The TPP should be opposed by every nation which respects its own sovereignty.

  9. MAZMAINIAC says

    “The fact that few Trump or Sanders supporters could pass Econ 101 tomorrow if their lives depended on it”–this could be extended to the majority of Members of the House and Senate as well

    • Maz: And just about everyone outside of those studying economics.

    • John Aronsson says

      It has been said by Robert Tombs that in the 17th C. politics was a branch of religion and in the 21st C. politics is a branch of economics.

      The author’s two factoids confirm that observation. The author is either unbelievably naïve or intentionally lying if he thinks that his 4% rate for simple possession of drugs and his average income value for the distribution of income accurately describe harm being done by the war on drugs and the economic system that has been imposed by the globalist kleptocracy.

      On a good day in any decent community college the author’s post would deserve an “F” with the word “sophomoric” scrawled in red on the cover of his blue book.

      • Marty Holdin says

        I think his point in bringing up the incarceration rate for possession, and the average income value was merely to illustrate that the average joe is ignorant about even the most basic statistics concerning complex issues, although the average joe happens to be steadfast in their beliefs about the issues. I don’t think he was trying to quickly sum up the harm being done by the war on drugs in one statistic. Your reading comprehension would garner you a nice big F as well! Judging by your profile on the Guardian, you are a nasty troll. You are a highly educated troll, but still a troll.

      • Marty Holdin says

        I think his point in bringing up the incarceration rate for possession, and the average income value was merely to illustrate that the average joe is ignorant about even the most basic statistics concerning complex issues, although the average joe happens to be steadfast in their beliefs about the issues. I don’t think he was trying to quickly sum up the harm being done by the war on drugs in one statistic. Your reading comprehension would garner you a nice big F as well! Judging by your profile on the Guardian, you are a nasty troll. You are a highly educated troll, but still a troll.

  10. Johann Spurzheim says

    Your proposed solution to the important and intractable problem of ill-informed opinion is touchingly naive. To urge that we should all be nicer to people who confess their ignorance is like saying we should all donate more to charity in order to solve world hunger. Why didn’t you practice what you preach and admit that you don’t know how to solve this problem?

    • Marty Holdin says

      I think the point is that those who confess their ignorance would no longer be holding an ill-informed opinion: I think it is inferred in that confessing their ignorance, they are also dropping their previously held opinion (what fool would still hold onto an opinion after admitting they have no foundation?). What you would be left with is a person who has no opinion and is hopefully able to start fresh on educating themselves on the topic at hand. While being ignorant is not a virtue, at least they aren’t doing any harm by swaying people to agree with an ill-informed opinion, or voting ignorantly. I also would agree that you can be nice to people who just don’t know anything about a certain topic, as the author is explaining that is hard to expect everyday citizens to have expertly informed opinions on a multitude of subjects which require a lifetime of studying in order to understand. If I were to throw out the topics of sustainable fishing in the gulf of mexico, water desalination in the middle east, sub-saharan african economics, and pollution associated with agriculture, I’m sure you wouldn’t be well informed on all 4 (maybe i’m wrong), but I could still be cordial to you and encourage you to educate yourself. I would definitely respect you more if you said “I have no idea about any of those subjects,” than if you had ill-informed opinions.

  11. Brian Warden says

    Why on earth would anyone consider just those convicted of possession? Selling/distributing/etc are no worse, in and of themselves. Just like a bartender during prohibition.

  12. Jay Phillip says

    Was the essay about criminal justice, international trade, or intelligent people having “beliefs” on issues when they don’t understand the “facts”. Especially when the issue is outside of their area of expertise?

  13. DJA’s issue with the author’s use of the word ‘agnostic’ is a textbook example of what Scott Adams calls ‘word thinking’.

    • Mitch23,
      I feel I must reply to you regarding ‘word thinking’ . If a word has evolved over time then its present day popular meaning is what it is, but when a word has been created with a defined meaning then I don’t see how popular usage can be used to create a new meaning.OK to use the word metaphorically if it is clear that is what you are doing, but not attempt to create a new meaning. Virtually all scientific reporting would become meaningless if this idea was accepted.

      • Gah! You’ve missed the whole point. I’m sure you understand the difference between literal and figurative language, even if you don’t seem to have much command of the latter. Quillette is not a scientific journal, and so is not bound by the strict language usage expectations of one.

      • In your original comment you, literally *heh*, used the words “etemological origins in antiquity”. For your sake, I’m sure you have a lot of big ideas in your head you’d like to convince others of the merits of; please accept everyday people do not talk like this. Publications like Quillette are filling a much needed void in higher order thinking that, by not burying itself in gratiuitous specialised language, they make accessible to us plebs.

        It’s a start-up, dependent on Patreon instead of advertising. Please stop shitting on it.

  14. Ignorance is indeed a problem, but knowledge is a long way out. The author demonstrates this.

    We are trying to get some Federal prisoners out (by making Obama forgive them). They were initially arrested for “possession” (tiny amounts in their rooms, too small for the quantity to be measured). However, along the long judicial route they were submitted to, years ago, some judges added the label “violent” (without discernible cause, and not from initial arrest) . So now such prisoners don’t fall under the simple classification of “possession”.

    How many cases like that? We don’t know.

    Too little a knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing.

    Now as far as the international treaties in trade are concerned, they all suffer from the same problem: law is local, trade is global. The TPP accentuates this, as it allows fascist corporations to sue democracies and their democratically installed laws.

    It’s true the poor overseas have been more employed than before, but then the quality of life and employment throughout Europe and America has gone down dramatically.

    Life expectancy is steadily going down among whites in the USA, since Clinton passed NAFTA (whereas it is much better, and steadily going up among US hispanics). Real median family income is down since 1998, cost and quality of basic services (health, education) are going steadily the wrong way, etc.

    The spirit of the article is excellent. However the two examples it uses are self-contradicting.

    Economy, in particular has long become plain propaganda for the globalocracy installed by the .1%. After all, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, the prima donna of international trade, widely viewed and self-described as a “the conscience of a liberal”, started his career at the White House under Ronald Reagan! Installing Ronald Reagan trade policy (which Trump criticized readily at the time). If the latter fact was better known and understood, it would be clear that the Econ 101 credo is just how the multitudes were made into modern slaves.

  15. The problem with the article is that we often *have* to make a decision on an issue, without any sort of full understanding. So we fall back on our biases. The author of this piece has a bias toward free trade. I have the same bias. Thus I am not irrational if I’m in Congress and vote for TPP, notwithstanding that I can’t figure it all out. Of course, there are good biases, and bad biases. A bias against people of another race is a bad bias. But caring for people of another race is not, unfortunately, guaranteed to make anybody better off. It could lead to bad policies.

    • “A bias against people of another race is a bad bias.” – Not always.

      “caring for people of another race is not, unfortunately, guaranteed to make anybody better off.” – Not always.

      You define the difficulty of making decisions, there is no black and white when it comes to decision making. Our politicians show exactly how it should not be done ie generally after the time when a decision could have made a difference and/or with too many inputs to ensure that the decision will always ride off on a camel!

      Occasionally a decision is the correct one, which could be equated to ‘do not step out in front of a bus’ but the majority have so many unknowns that you just have to make them and hope. It is better to use Krishna’s advice than a politicians.

  16. Ian Deal says

    Great article. There is a corollary to people’s lack of facts and information and it is the overwhelming amount of information that is being generated. There are more PhDs generating more research in more countries than ever before. Citizen journalists are using high-def mobile phones to record video of events all around the world. Even top experts in narrow fields find it difficult to stay on top of all the new research. I think the heavy reliance on ideology to shape our opinions is in part a response to this tsunami of data that assails us every day. This is evident in the media response to completely missing the possibility that Donald Trump might actually win the election. Rather than dig deep to figure out how they got it so wrong, they throw up trope after trope to rationalize their errors. It was Comey, the Russians, racists, fake news, etc. We need to develop the skills necessary to understand the world (especially a good knowledge of statistics) and the humility to know that no matter how smart we are, no matter how well read, the best we can hope to do is develop a good working knowledge of a subject and be open to learning more and understanding better.

  17. Thomas Breznau says

    Whatever Life will be interesting fro all of u in next 6 months, 1 year, 4 years whatever

  18. John Wright says

    I want to compliment the author for a thoughtful and thought provoking post. Indeed, as a criminologist it is not unusual to hear people make rather strong pronouncements about crime and the criminal justice system that are simply untrue. As you point out, a few Google sessions would provide basic answers to some basic questions. But alas, few are willing to accept that their views are incomplete or wrong.

    I once had a conversation with a Harvard trained sociologist who kept saying to me “Well, at Harvard we were taught……..” As you might imagine, the person was bright, articulate, and especially passionate about matters of crime and justice. She was also a parrot and simply echoed what she had been told. She equated holding specific views with knowledge and critical thought and didn’t understand how others could think differently.

    There is safety in being a parrot and the more I thought about it, I believe many of us now parrot what we agree with. Case in point: Climate change. I have no doubt that many climatologists understand the varied and complex issues surrounding climate change, its measurement, and the physics and chemistry involved. I do not and neither do many others who mindlessly but enthusiastically parrot what they hear or are told.

    In the age of mass and instantaneous communication we seem to believe that we SHOULD have an opinion about everything. We seem to have forgotten that “I don’t know” is not only an honest answer but also one that leads to learning.

  19. Tamara says

    In following your link a little further the best I can do is locate data indicating that 16% of state and Fed prisoners are incarcerated for drug offences. Given the ‘thesis’ of this piece, I find this oversight (intentional or not) rather gratifying.

  20. Thomas Lionel says

    I am reacting about TTP / TTIP …
    As an European, there are two things I really dislike about TTP (even though) I don’t know much of it :
    1°. It is negotiated secretly by European technocrats. This is more based on how the European Commission works …. but bottom line IT DOES NOT SUITE me any more ! These not-elected people are discussing an agreement without the necessary control of the European Parliament (to avoid unnecessary burden or so they said). This is just unacceptable.
    2°. Every removal of impediment to reach a global economy as been until 20-30 years ago a good thing. However tin the last 20-30 years, as the economies where becoming more and more equals, the free-trade have just promoted bigger & bigger companies that could squash down prices, automate more and more things … giving more time for the well-educated but removing jobs for the less-educated. If you remove economic barriers between countries /regions that lack something, this is good. If you put competition between equivalent places, you will just have one of them closing and leaving the other one as an economical desert ! I can give you thousands of examples where the biggest won … leaving the other area dead.


  21. Simon Cullen says

    To clarify, I did not mean to take a stand on whether the war on drugs is just. It’s irrelevant to the point of the essay, but for whatever it’s worth, I tend to think that responsible adults should be free to go about their lives however they see fit, including taking whatever drugs they like, so long as they’re not harming other people. So, I don’t support punishing people merely for possession or consumption.

    I distinguished between possession and other drug offenses (trafficking, pushing, manufacturing) because the idea that possession charges account for a significant proportion of people serving time for drug offenses is widespread among lay-people. But the idea is false. Possession sentences account for 3.6% of people in state prisons, and, as of 2014, only 247 people in federal prisons (or 0.1% of the federal prison population) are serving time for possession. I suspect the reason people find these figures so surprising is that they believe that to incarcerate someone merely for consuming drugs is one thing, but to incarcerate him for pushing or manufacturing drugs is quite another.

    In his comment above, Brian Wardon simply asserts that such people are mistaken. On his view, “selling/distributing/etc. are no worse, in and of themselves [than possession]. Just like a bartender during prohibition.” The analogy may be more apt than Brian suspects, if the bartender is working for Al Capone or Johnny Torrio. It is consistent to hold that it was wrong to punish people for consuming alcohol during prohibition, but not wrong to punish people involved in the underworld that made that consumption possible. My guess is that that’s the common view. To be clear, I’m not *defending* that view, I’m suggesting why people who oppose the war on drugs may focus, mistakenly, on possession.

    Tamara links to “gratifying” FBP data. The problem is that these numbers describe the federal prison system, which holds only ~200,000 people, as compared to state prisons which hold ~1,250,000 people. The second website she links to does gives data for state prisons, but as is common, does not disaggregate the various categories of drug offenses, although it does disaggregate every other offense category.

    Lastly, I don’t pretend to know whether *the TPP* is a Good Thing Overall. Ryan Caldwell is exactly right on this. Unfortunately, the comments above didn’t help me to understand things any better. But if you got the impression that I tend to favor trade generally, you aren’t wrong about that. I think its effects have been, overall, extremely good. Take a look at these charts – If you think trade plays an important role in any of these global trends (as I do), then you’ll favor trade, even if you think (as I do) that it has also brought with it some real costs.

    As a side note, the TPP was negotiated privately, but I don’t know of any large trade agreement that has not been negotiated privately, or even what it would be mean to negotiate a trade agreement publicly. The agreement must be ratified by the relevant governments, including the US congress, and it is definitely available for anyone with an internet connection (and a huge amount of time on their hands) to read for free—just Google “TPP full text” and click on the first link.

    Thanks to all the constructive comments. I definitely see JSC’s worry — my plea that we embrace ignorance might suggest that we should just “deffer to our betters,” and there’s a long history of that not working out well. I’m not sure what the best response to that concern is, but as a tentative suggestion, I’d recommend not total deference but greater respect and consideration, greater acknowledgement of the complexities, and of course a greater willingness to suspend judgment, especially about empirical questions. I agree with John McAdams’ that there are situations in which we cannot afford to remain agnostic; I think he and I may only disagree about how many of our not-very-well-justified beliefs meet this condition.

    Some links that may be of interest:

    Hans Rosling’s GapMinder: is great. I especially like the visualization tools: and the Ignorance Project: For people who are interested in population growth, I recommend Rosling’s BBC documentary:

    Our World in Data is another awesome effort to visualize data that’s relevant to a wide variety of big questions.

    • Tamara says

      In consideration of your reply (did you change the content of your article BTW-to become more specific??), I think that your argument has reduced to a strawman. No one believes that a considerable proportion of people are simply incarcerated for possession of drugs, instead drug dealing is widely held to be the most likely cause of the high incarceration rates. Nonetheless, possession and dealing are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

      Furthermore, you point out the differences in state vs. federal rates which is an important distinction. I think that for many people (especially for those outside of the US) it is not unreasonable for them to get these stats confused…it doesn’t mean that people are ignorant.

      Moreover, on the basis of federal statistics your ‘very intelligent woman’ is basically correct.

  22. Pingback: Links - Week of December 31st - Dave Bondeson

  23. harrync says

    From what I have read [OK, mostly Dean Baker], the TPP has minor reductions in tariffs on goods, major increases of protections for copyright and patents. That is, if you include intellectual property, it may actually reduce free trade. But I am just one of those ignoramuses who supported Sanders and couldn’t pass Econ 101 – oh wait, I got an A in Econ 101 [or whatever they called it at Stanford in 1960].

  24. Drug Stats says

    This was an interesting read — thank you for writing it.

    One clarification:

    – Less than 4% of the COMBINED state and federal prison population was convicted of drug POSSESSION (~20% of the combined population was convicted of a drug crime of any kind, including distribution)

    – BUT over 50% of the FEDERAL prison population was convicted of a drug crime

    Prisoners convicted of violent offences (robbery, murder, assault, etc.) tend to be held in state prisons. It’s federal policy that’s driven the incredibly high incarceration rate for drug offences.

    It’s misleading to suggest that this recent PhD graduate was significantly off base with her analysis. Federal drug policy has swelled federal correctional facilities with nonviolent drug offenders.

    Source: US Department of Justice
    Page 17

    • Reader1 says

      It’s not misleading at all… the article points out that she’s happy to sprout on about racism and federal policies when she in fact knew close to nothing about it.
      The example could’ve been made on many other topics that people know nothing about but defend with such veracity and passion, yet cannot give you anything more in-depth than what they read on a tweet or facebook post!

  25. Reader1 says

    Superbly written, extremely well argued, and… on point!!!

  26. John says

    I recall an episode of celebrity “who wants to be a millionaire” where the comedian Jack Black decided to use one of his lifelines by polling the audience. Before the audience was asked to vote, Jack Black said “I want only those who know the answer to vote”.

    I thought that was so funny, because I’m sure many people really have no idea, but they just feel it would be fun to press one of the A, B, C, D buttons just for the thrill of participating. It makes me wonder how many citizens proudly carry out their civic duty of voting with a similar lack of knowledge.

    I imagine some people approach ballots as multiple-choice exams, where the smart course of action is to fill in a circle for each question. Others may pick the candidate with the prettier name or who appears first on the ballot. In the latter case, irrelevant biases could sway an election, as they did in the infamous Illinois 1986 election where LaRouchites Mark Fairchild and Janice Hart won the Democratic primary for their respective offices for which they were candidates.

  27. Pingback: Linky Friday Number Two Hundred | Ordinary Times

  28. Pingback: Coaching Matters: Around the web January 2017 Week 1 - Underground Athletics

Comments are closed.