The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Recent events, such as the national school "walkout" to promote gun control, raise the question of how much credence we should give to the political views of young people and crime victims. If large numbers of high school or college-age people support a view and protest in favor of it, does that make it any more likely to be true? In a recent Washington Post column, Megan McArdle casts cold water on the notion that the walkout and other similar events reflect any special insight of the young, that the rest of us should defer to:
The idea that children, in their innocence, have special moral insight goes back a long way in Western culture… It has, of course, always warred with some variant of the belief that "children should be seen and not heard" — that children are not yet ready to hold up their end in adult conversations….
Kids today do know something that the rest of us don't: what it's like to be kids today. But the rest of us do remember what it was like to be kids. If children really were special repositories of virtue, then it is doubtful so many people would recall their school days as the lifetime peak of personal meanness — both receiving and giving. And while teenagers are near the peak of their ability to absorb information, they are decades from the peak of "crystallized intelligence" — their stock of knowledge about the world, or what we might call "wisdom…."
That is not to say that gun-control advocacy is stupid. But if you wouldn't be swayed by a 17-year-old's passionate advocacy for a lower drinking age — or for that matter, their ideas about Federal Reserve policy — then you should probably apply those same cautions to their other views….
What is true of children is—though to a much lesser degree—also true of many young adults in their late teens or early twenties. They too are, on average, less knowledgeable and have less developed judgment than people at later stages in the life-cycle. For many years, surveys of political knowledge have consistently found that it correlates with age. The young, as a general rule, know less about government and public policy than other age groups. For that reason, they are also less likely to have valuable insights on how to address difficult issues.
Obviously, there is enormous variation among both young people and older ones. As with most other statistical generalizations, there are numerous exceptions to the general correlation between age and political knowledge. Many older adults are deeply ignorant about public policy. Indeed, such ignorance is both widespread and, for most voters, actually rational behavior. By contrast, there clearly are young people—including some children—who know far more about policy issues than the vast majority of adults. I have long argued that, at least in principle, children with high levels of political knowledge should be given the right to vote, regardless of age.
It would be a mistake to dismiss policy proposals out of hand, merely because of the age of their adherents. But it is also a mistake to ascribe any special political wisdom to the young. The fact that large numbers of young people support a political cause adds little, if anything, to its merits.
The recent gun control protests draw moral authority not only from the age of the protesters, but from the fact that some of their leaders are survivors of school shootings, such as the one in Parkland, Florida that precipitated the current round of protest activity. Even school-age protesters who have not personally experienced gun violence may be seen as having special moral authority, because they are perceived as facing a heightened risk of suffering such horrible events in the future. In reality, school shootings are extraordinarily rare, and schools are among the safest places in American society. Schoolchildren are far more likely to be killed in accidents while walking or riding their bikes to school than in a shooting at school.
But even if students really were disproportionately likely to be victims of gun violence, that would not be a good reason to give special credence to their policy views. Personally experiencing a horrific event or being at disproportionate risk of suffering one, doesn't necessarily give you special insight into how to prevent such tragedies from occurring. A person who survives an awful plane crash does not thereby gain special insight into aviation safety. Similarly, a person who survives a mass shooting does not thereby get much in the way of useful knowledge of gun policy.
Survivor testimony does have important value in some situations. For example, the testimony of Holocaust survivors and victims of other mass murders provides powerful evidence that those atrocities actually did occur (though there is often other evidence, as well, such as the extensive records kept by the perpetrators of the Holocaust). But the experience of being a Holocaust or Gulag survivor does not, in and of itself, give much insight into how to prevent future Hitlers and Stalins from committing similar atrocities. Similarly, surviving a school shooting does not create expertise on gun control.
Often, the real reason for focusing attention on victims and survivors is not the value of their insights, but the way in which they tug at our emotional heart-strings. Opposition to policies promoted by survivors of a recent horrific event is easy to denounce as callous and unfeeling. Here, we would do well to remember that our immediate emotional reactions to tragedy are rarely a useful guide to policy. All too often, giving in to such feelings results in policies that create more harm and injustice than they prevent. Liberals are quick to point out this out when it comes to terrorist attacks. Conservatives routinely do so in the aftermath of mass shootings. Both are right, and both would do well to heed each other's warnings. As with emotional reactions to terrorist attacks, overreactions to the extremely rare phenomenon of school shootings can easily result in dangerous and unjust policies, as with the "zero tolerance" policies enacted in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine shootings.
The use of victims as spokespersons for dubious policies is a game that both sides of the political spectrum can play. The 2016 Republican convention, for example, featured speeches by relatives of people killed by undocumented immigrants. Liberals correctly recognize that these statements, however heartfelt, do not change the fact that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, actually have much lower crime rates than native-born Americans. And the family members' statements certainly don't provide any justification for Trump's cruel deportation policies, which routinely target people who have lived in the US for years without committing violence of any kind. Those who rightly denounce the use of this tactic by the GOP should also be wary of similar ploys by the other side of the political spectrum.
Ultimately, we should try, as much as possible, to base government policy on reason and evidence. That means resisting calls to give special credence to the views of the young and crime victims, except in the rare instances where they really are likely to have valuable insights on policy. Indeed, it pays to be skeptical of all emotional appeals that are more likely to short-circuit our judgment than improve it.