Rachel Barkow defines penal populism and explains how it factors into US politics

Penal populism is essentially setting
policy on the basis of the public’s gut reaction, emotional reaction to things. So,
it’s basically the polar opposite of setting policy based on expertise, and
data, and evidence, and what ends up happening when you set policy on that
basis is you know it’s not things that have been carefully studied, and so you
often get policies that are not working very well. They’re not working very well
to produce better public safety outcomes, and if you think about it, if we ask the
public to set policy in other areas, I think we’d almost immediately see why
that wouldn’t be a good idea. You know, to just say maybe the public should decide
how we should respond to an aviation accident, or the public should decide, you
know, what chemicals should or should not be in the water. You know, we don’t do
that, we — we recognize that there are experts who could study things and
figure out how to make trade-offs, and costs, and benefits, but weirdly we don’t
do that in an area where the stakes are really so high. We’re talking about
people’s liberty being at stake and public safety, and yet all too often we
make those decisions just based on what the public’s emotional reaction to a
story that they see on the news is.

Maurice Vega

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