People Respond to Incentives: Law Enforcement and No-Knock Raids



Radley Balko has gained some notoreity around the blogosphere for documenting rights violations by police departments conducting military-style drug raids under cover of night. Today, he offered one of the best blog post titles ever:

Tearful Atlanta Cops Express Remorse for Shooting 92-Year-Old Kathryn Johnston, Leaving Her to Bleed to Death in Her Own Home While They Planted Drugs in Her Basement, Then Threatening an Informant So He Would Lie to Cover it All Up

Radley’s snarky title basically summarizes the case. Here’s the Atlanta Journal-Constitution summary of the sentencing.

This is an atrocity that we should learn from. My view on provision of police services is fundamentally a constrained vision. We don’t get things like this because of bad people per se, and we can’t fix it by filling the police force with good people per se. The problem is with the incentives in place. No-knock raids, killings, and coverups are predictable responses to the incentives provided by the drug war. Governments are monopoly providers of police services, and they face political rather than economic incentives. It should not be surprising that they behave accordingly. No one is collecting systematic data on this as far as I know, but the quantity and character of the incidents Radley has chronicles suggests to me that there is something more than chance at play here.

Radley also makes an important point that complements some of Deirdre McCloskey’s recent work on the bourgeois era. McCloskey argues that a change in rhetoric whereby bourgeois innovation became respectable explains the massive increases in western standards of living since the industrial revolution. It’s a provocative (and so far unproven) thesis, but I think it has a lot of merit. Radley points his finger at the last thirty or so years of the war on drugs and argues that the drug war narrative—indeed, “war” metaphor used to describe the attempt to stamp out a capitalist act between consenting adults that some people don’t like—is one of the root causes. Here’s the economic case against drug prohibition. Here’s a really frightening PSA from the 1980s.

HT: Marie Hyunh, Boing-Boing Blog. Cross-Posted at Division of Labour.

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