Reason magazine's blog, Hit & Run, calls our attention today to a new Government Accountability Office study that casts doubt on official U.S. government estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year.
Scores of news organizations have accepted the 800,000 estimate as credible in their reporting of human trafficking in recent years. Within the last year alone, the figures have appeared, unquestioned, in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and NPR, just to name just a few outlets.
But government estimates must always be approached with suspicion, as I wrote earlier this summer, citing Max Singer's 1971 Public Interest article "The Vitality of Mythical Numbers" and Peter Reuter's 1984 sequel, "The (Continued) Vitality of Mythical Numbers."
The "800,000 annual victims" estimate is a classic of the genre. The GAO report declares the government's numbers all but worthless, stating:
The U.S. government agency that prepares the trafficking estimate is part of the intelligence community, which makes its estimation methodology opaque and inaccessible. During a trafficking workshop in November 2005, the government agency provided a one-page overview of its methodology, which allowed for only a very limited peer review by the workshop participants. In addition, the U.S. government's methodology involves interpreting, classifying, and analyzing data, which was performed by one person who did not document all of his work. Thus the estimate may not be replicable, which raises doubts about its reliability. [Emphasis added.]
Later, the report adds:
Given the weaknesses in data and methods, it also cannot be dismissed that the estimates may overstate the magnitude of human trafficking. [Emphasis added.]
That the official estimate is more fiction than truth does not mean that human trafficking does not exist, is not a problem, blah blah blah. Human trafficking does exist, and the "severe forms" of human trafficking, as defined by law, violate basic rights. But by conjuring hundreds of thousands of victims out of thin air, as the U.S. government appears to do, no one benefits but the bureaucrats who create and promulgate the fictive figures. As the number grows, so do their budgets and power.
"These numbers are generated by the demand that the government appear to know a great deal more than it actually does," Peter Reuter writes in his "Mythical Numbers" sequel. Reuter's subject is illicit-drug statistics, but he could be writing about human trafficking numbers.
Although news organizations have feasted on the bogus estimates for years, few are helping themselves to the GAO findings. According to Nexis, both the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse moved stories about it on Aug. 14, but I can find no American newspaper that published them. Newsday also gave the study a fair hearing in an Aug. 15 story. The GAO debunking has been so underplayed that the 800,000 estimate may survive on its own inertia.