Endogeneity and the Drug War
By David Henderson
Why the things that happened during the drug war are not a good argument FOR the drug war. And the things that happened BECAUSE of the drug war are a fortiori not an argument for the drug war.
Last fall, for example, when Mr. Paul attended a Republican National Committee fund-raiser at the Central Park West penthouse of the New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, the senator launched into his standard speech about how Republicans could appeal more to younger voters by abandoning a no-tolerance approach to drug crimes. Some in attendance were taken aback, given that Mr. Johnson’s brother died of a drug overdose and his daughter, who battled drugs and alcohol, died at age 30 in 2010. Mr. Paul’s staff had not briefed him on the background.
This is from Jeremy W. Peters and Jonathan Martin, “Paul Has Ideas, but His Backers Want 2016 Plan,” New York Times, March 22, 2014.
Here’s what I find interesting. The bad things that Johnson’s brother and daughter went through happened while drugs were illegal. In other words, they were endogenous to the drug war. So Rand Paul questions a policy that prevailed while those bad things happened and yet he is, presumably, regarded as insensitive for talking about them. What if Rand Paul had been a strong believer in the drug war and what if he had known about Johnson’s family tragedies? Would it then have been appropriate for him to have talked about his belief in the drug war? Maybe the idea is that you just shouldn’t talk about anything that could trigger any negative feelings in your host. If so, I get that. That’s a judgment call, but at least I get it.
But what so few people seem to understand is that virtually all their horror stories about drugs occurred during a time when drugs were illegal. That is not in itself a slam-dunk argument for legalization. Much more is needed to make the case against the drug war. But if all these horror stories occurred during the drug war, it is hard to see how people can so easily think that these horror stories are an argument for the drug war.
Hillary Clinton made the same mistake in making her case for the drug war. She argued that “There is just too much money in” the illegal drug industry. What she seemed to have no concept of is that the price, quality, and quantity of illegal drugs, plus the identity and behavior of the sellers are all endogenous. They all are results of the drug war. So she can hardly argue for the drug war on the basis of its results when she sees those results as being bad.
About 10 or 15 years ago, I met economist who had spent a large part of her short (at that time) professional career studying illegal drugs and advocating that they be illegal. When I found her impervious to my arguments for legalization, I asked her if there had been some personal tragedy in her family that had influenced her thinking about legality. She admitted that there had. This was an emotional issue for her, not one where the results in her family should clearly lead to her advocating and reinforcing a system under which those results occurred.