A hidden cost of the war on drugs

AI just completed another paper (this time with my longtime partner in crime Vadim Kufenko) where we question an hypothesis advanced by Samuel Bowles regarding the cost of inequality. In the process, we proposed an alternative explanation which has implications for the evaluation of the war on drugs.

In recent years, Samuel Bowles (2012) has advanced a theory (well-embedded within neoclassical theoretical elements while remaining elegantly simple) whereby inequality increases distrust which in turn magnifies agency problems. This forces firms to expend more resources on supervision and protection which means an expansion of the “guard labor force” (or supervisory labor force). Basically, he argues there is an over-provision of security and supervision. That is the cost of inequality which Bowles presents as a coordination failure. We propose an alternative explanation for the size of the guard and supervisory labor forces.

Our alternative is that there can be over-provision of security and supervision, but this could also be the result of a government failure. We argue that the war on drugs leads to institutional decay and lower levels of trust which, in turn, force private actors to deploy resources to supervise workers and protect themselves. Basically, efforts at prohibiting illicit substances require that limited policing resources be spread more thinly which may force private actors to expend more resources on security for themselves (thus creating an overprovision of security). This represents a form of state failure, especially if the attempts at policing these illicit substances increase the level of crime to which populations are vulnerable. To counteract this, private actors invest more in protection and supervision.

Using some of the work of Jeffrey Miron and Katherine Waldock, we show that increases in the intensity of prohibition enforcement efforts (measured in dollars per capita) have significant effects on the demand for guard labor. Given that guards represent roughly 1 million individuals in the US labor market, that is not a negligible outcome. We find that a one standard deviation increase in the level of drug enforcement efforts increases the ratio of guards to the population by somewhere between 12.92% and 13.91% (which is the equivalent of roughly 100,000 workers).

While our paper concentrated on proposing an alternative to the argument advanced by Bowles regarding the cost of inequality, we (more or less accidentally) measured a hidden cost from the war on drugs. The insecurity (increased crime rates and spillovers from illegal markets into formal markets) brought forth by drug prohibition  forces an over-provision of security and supervision (our supervision measure which includes workers that supervise other workers were smaller than with the security guard measure).

Basically, a hidden (private cost) of the war on drugs is that we must reallocate resources that we could have used otherwise. Its a little like when I say that it is meaningless to compare healthcare expenditures to GDP in Canada and the United States because Canadians assume costs in a hidden manner through rationing. Waiting lists in Canada are longer than in the US. The cost is lost wages and enduring pain and that cost will not appear in measures of expenditures to GDP. The war on drugs works the same way. There is a fiscal cost (expenditures dedicated to it and the taxes that we must impose), there is a crime cost (destruction of lives and property) and there is a reallocation cost of privately providing security which is hard to measure.

*The paper is available here. 

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4 thoughts on “A hidden cost of the war on drugs

  1. Our “War on Drugs” costs us about a $100 billion a year when you consider all of the costs, including those of imprisoning people for decades at a time. Nor does it appear to benefit us, or society in general. Of course Republicans favor stuff like this because they really want to control your thinking, your viewpoints. Richard Nixon started the “War”. Republicans and Democrats have continued it.

    Trump may find that Mexico will have the last laugh: They can simply stop enforcing their drug laws, fighting the drug cartels south of our border. Now wouldn’t that give Trump the “fits”?

  2. It has been pointed out (I think by Mancur Olson in “Power and Prosperity”) that the prohibition of transactions in which both parties agree is corrosive for the guard labor force, because if the guard simply declines to notice the transaction, nobody involved has any incentive to complain. I would expect this effect to show up as well, at the very least as a decrease in trust in the labor force, who could be expected to be subject to corruption.

  3. […] Vincent Geloso: “Basically, a hidden (private cost) of the war on drugs is that we must reallocate resources that we could have used otherwise. Its a little like when I say that it is meaningless to compare healthcare expenditures to GDP in Canada and the United States because Canadians assume costs in a hidden manner through rationing. Waiting lists in Canada are longer than in the US. The cost is lost wages and enduring pain and that cost will not appear in measures of expenditures to GDP. The war on drugs works the same way. There is a fiscal cost (expenditures dedicated to it and the taxes that we must impose), there is a crime cost (destruction of lives and property) and there is a reallocation cost of privately providing security which is hard to measure.” […]

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