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February 2009
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Michael Goldfarb in Defense of Idiocy

Yesterday, I noted some particularly stupid statements by an unnamed senior U.S. official:

U.S. law-enforcement officials — as well as some of their counterparts in Mexico — say the explosion in violence indicates progress in the war on drugs as organizations under pressure are clashing.

“If the drug effort were failing there would be no violence,” a senior U.S. official said Wednesday. There is violence “because these guys are flailing. We’re taking these guys out. The worst thing you could do is stop now.”

I wasn’t the only to notice (actually, quite a few places commented).

Enter Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard to the rescue of the unnamed U.S. official:

This is one of the paradoxes of the war on drugs that leads to ridicule from opponents of the policy. I spent my first year out of school writing memos for police chiefs on topics ranging from devising better systems for monitoring domestic violence to developing protocols for chemical attacks. One of the projects I worked on involved developing new metrics for monitoring the progress of the HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) program. The problem was just as described above. These cops would go in and target the upper echelon of a distribution network. When they achieved their mission, rates of violent crime would spike in their area of operations. The reason: once you take out the big fish, the small fish start killing each other as they battle for control of all those newly underserved customers.

The cops wanted a new metric by which to judge their success — one that would not penalize them for an increased murder rate that necessarily follows from doing their job, i.e. eliminating a major drug trafficker.

The flaws in Goldfarb’s argument are obvious — he’s confusing success in an action with success in policy.

When those cops he worked with busted the big fish, and the little fish fought over the territory and customers (which were still there), Goldfarb doesn’t say what most likely happened next: One of the little fish won and became the new big fish; distribution continued as before; and they were back to square one (except for all the violence and people dying).

If you’re trying to measure whether the cops were successful in busting big fish, then the answer was “Yes.” If you’re trying to measure whether the drug war was successful, the the answer was a resounding “No.”

This is a common problem with drug warriors who can’t tell the difference between action and policy. You see it all the time. There’s a five ton seizure of drugs (a successful action) and they say that’s proof that the drug war is working. In fact, it’s usually a sign that the traffickers have so much drugs moving that even a five ton seizure doesn’t affect the availability of drugs at all (an unsuccessful policy).

Sure, it’s not the cops’ fault. They’re told to execute an action. It’s the over-riding policy that’s fatally flawed, which makes the cops’ successful actions meaningless at best, and usually disastrous.

Of course, Goldfarb’s defense of the idiot in the WSJ story was particularly ridiculous, since that official was actually claiming that the violence was proof of “progress in the war on drugs.”

And that’s just false. Every time we escalate the war on drugs, more people die, but the economics of the black market drug trade dictate that the war on drugs must fail. So yes, with any luck, the violence will subside in Mexico if and when a new equilibrium is created… that is, until the next unnamed moronic U.S. official, cheered on by Michael Goldfarb, thinks that the drug war can be won by increasing violence.

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