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The Journal’s Muddled Reasoning on Illegal Drugs

Summary:
In today’s Wall Street Journal, the editors address the recent murder of some Americans in Mexico by a gang. Although the reports I’ve read  (here’s one example) claim that it was a drug gang (everyone misuses the word “cartel”), I haven’t seen enough evidence that it was. I suspect, though, that the odds are high that the murderers were part of a drug gang. What has been fantastic about the Wall Street Journal‘s unsigned editorials on economics over the years I’ve been reading them (since late 1972), is how economically literate they usually are, often going beyond the “seen,” to use Frederic Bastiat’s term, to look at the “unseen.” They don’t do that in this editorial. Or, more correctly, they don’t do it well. The “unseen” cause they discuss is drug buyers; the

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The Journal’s Muddled Reasoning on Illegal Drugs

In today’s Wall Street Journal, the editors address the recent murder of some Americans in Mexico by a gang. Although the reports I’ve read  (here’s one example) claim that it was a drug gang (everyone misuses the word “cartel”), I haven’t seen enough evidence that it was. I suspect, though, that the odds are high that the murderers were part of a drug gang.

What has been fantastic about the Wall Street Journal‘s unsigned editorials on economics over the years I’ve been reading them (since late 1972), is how economically literate they usually are, often going beyond the “seen,” to use Frederic Bastiat’s term, to look at the “unseen.” They don’t do that in this editorial. Or, more correctly, they don’t do it well. The “unseen” cause they discuss is drug buyers; the unseen cause they leave out is the U.S. government.

The editorial is titled “The Cartelization of Mexico,” and the line underneath that sums up the intended message is “American drug users are complicit in the murder and mayhem.” The idea is that even if you are a peaceful user of illegal drugs that come from Mexico, you are complicit in the murder conducted by the drug producers and distributors.

Let’s not get away from the fact that is sometimes lost in discussions, that the people responsible for murder are . . . the murderers.

It is true that if no one here or anywhere else bought illegal drugs, there would be virtually no illegal drugs and, therefore, no drug gangs.

But if we want to assign “complicity,” there is an organization that is clearly complicit in the murders: the U.S. government. The U.S. government is the main entity that makes drugs illegal in this country and that makes deals with other countries in Latin America to enforce drug laws there. If drugs were completely legal, there wouldn’t be illegal drug gangs.

Almost everyone understands the point above if in the above discussion, we substitute another drug, alcohol, for illegal drugs. When alcohol was illegal in this country, there were “alcohol gangs.” No one was so confused about the issue to call them “alcohol cartels:” they were intensely competitive. In the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre, on February 14, 1929, Al Capone’s alcohol gang murdered 7 people in Chicago, 5 of whom were members of Bugs Moran’s North Side alcohol gang.

After Prohibition was implemented, the murder rate in the United States rose and after it ended, it fell. It turns out that there’s some controversy about whether Prohibition was a major factor in the murder rate. But even if it wasn’t major, it was a factor. And, to the current discussion, does anyone think that the murder rate in Mexico wouldn’t fall if drugs were legalized?

And isn’t ending the current prohibition much better than what the Journal‘s editors suggest as a plausible response: a U.S. military operation in Mexico?

One note on numeracy:

In that editorial, the Journal editors write: “Homicides reached a new high of 36,000 in 2018 and this year murders have averaged 90 a day.”

Translation: The murder rate per day in 2019 so far is 9% below the murder rate in 2018.

I leave it to you to think about why the editors wrote it the way they did.

David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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