22 Aug 2009

Anarchy, the Mafia, and Somalia: Clearing Up the Confusion

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In an earlier entry I posted the concerns of a skeptical reader of my pamphlet Chaos Theory [.pdf]. The event turned into a proverbial town hall meeting, with 47 heated comments as of this writing, not to mention an old guy with a swastika declaring that God would judge me and my anarchist cronies in Auburn. I thought some of the points raised by critics Blackadder and Bobby1011 were worthy of this standalone essay. –RPM


Anarchy, the Mafia, and Somalia: Clearing Up the Confusion
By Robert P. Murphy

When confronted with a sketch [.pdf] of how a truly voluntary society might work, with private companies providing judicial and defense services along with education and Big Macs, the critic often replies, “That arrangement could never last in the real world. The mafia would take over and become the new government.”

This typical view actually gets things backwards. Contrary to popular belief, the government doesn’t hinder the mafia, it actually helps it. (Note that for this essay, I am going to use “mafia” as shorthand for “organized crime.” I am not impugning Sicilians specifically in this post.)

Stop for a moment and consider which sectors of the economy the mafia occupies. Prostitution, gambling, loan-sharking, narcotics, labor unions, and of course simple robberies and homicides. What do they all share in common? They are activities that are either heavily regulated or downright prohibited by the State. In contrast, in sectors that are relatively free from government interference, the mafia has no foothold.

The classic experiment to show that we’ve put our finger on the true explanation, is alcohol Prohibition. When it was illegal to sell liquor, gangsters such as Al Capone engaged in bootlegging, and shot up other competitors in turf wars. Yet after Prohibition was repealed (in one of the few decent things that FDR did upon taking office), organized crime left the alcohol industry and focused on the remaining sectors that were still prohibited.

Now if the above analysis is correct, and the mafia (and violent gangs in general) thrives only in those areas infested with heavy State intervention, then it seems obvious that market anarchy would emasculate such criminal groups. To put it in other words, as the government legalized more and more sectors, the mafia would have to concentrate its activities in fewer and fewer businesses. In the limit, as everything were legalized (from a State legislative point of view), the mafia would have no special advantages at all. Just as the mafia can’t withstand open competition with Budweiser, it would also lose market share to honest entrepreneurs in judicial and police services, if only the State would lift the ban on producing such services.

A Rival Explanation of the Prohibition Episode

In the comments of a previous post on Free Advice, critics Blackadder and Bobby1011 offered a rival interpretation to my theory above. They argued that I was wrong to interpret the repeal of Prohibition as a reduction in State intervention into the liquor industry. On the contrary, they viewed it as a resumption of government provision of property protection for the producers of alcohol.

I must confess that this alternate explanation took me by surprise; I thought my Prohibition example was airtight, but my critics did at least offer a plausible comeback. However, on balance I still think my interpretation is far superior. This is a crucial point so allow me to belabor it.

I am saying that the mafia benefited from alcohol Prohibition because the police effectively chased away legitimate businessmen from the industry. If the State were to literally declare that Al Capone had a monopoly in Chicago liquor distribution, and sent any competitors to jail, then the price of alcohol in Chicago would shoot up, and Capone would make exorbitant profits. This is obvious. So by the same token, I argue, when the State threatens to put any liquor distributor in jail–but then actually looks the other way when Capone pays bribes–that is economically very similar to the outright, legislated monopoly.

I am using Capone just to make an illustrative point. I haven’t done any particular research on him, but it is certainly true that in modern times, big-time crime families regularly pay the police “protection money.” If any reader doubts this, then he or she really doesn’t understand the first thing about the drug trade. For a low-effort introduction, rent the movie Serpico, which is a great Al Pacino movie based on the true story of a NYC narcotics officer who didn’t want to take dirty money. (Come to think of it, you can rent just about any Al Pacino movie to learn that big-time drug dealers routinely pay off the police.)

The Marginal Costs and Benefits of Violence in Markets

It should be quite obvious empirically that violence goes hand-in-hand with markets that suffer from extensive government prohibition. Again, the classic experiment is alcohol Prohibition. It would be inconceivable that executives at Budweiser would order a drive-by shooting of their rivals at Heineken. Yet when the State stamped out most producers in this industry, killings were common. This insight shows that the gangland turf wars in inner cities today are due to drug prohibition, and not to the intrinsic “craziness” of cocaine selling.

But even though most libertarians recognize the association of government prohibition and violence, its causes are rarely spelled out. Very briefly, the answer is simple: Government prohibition raises the marginal benefits and lowers the marginal costs of using violence against one’s competitors in a particular industry.

Let’s start with the cost side, since that’s easier to grasp. Right now, if you are going to become a cocaine distributor, you are already breaking laws that could send you to prison for life. Moreover, if you’re big enough, you regularly give bag(s) of money to the local police. So on the margin, the cost to you of killing a rival dealer is much lower than it would be if you ran a Thai restaurant. When you’re a normal restaurateur, the worst that the government can do is audit your tax returns. But if you’re a cocaine dealer, if you fall out of the good graces of the cops they can give you life. So it’s really not such a reckless move to kill somebody, when you’re a cocaine dealer, even though it would be insane for a restaurant owner to order a hit of the guy opening a sushi shop down the street. The cocaine dealer already has dirty cops on his payroll, who presumably would be willing to overlook a homicide too for an extra payoff, and the cocaine dealer also is a lot more connected and able to bribe judges should he ever go to trial.

On the other hand, the marginal benefits of violence are much higher for the cocaine dealer than for the Thai restaurateur. Drug dealers aren’t (completely) reckless; they do it for the money. In order to compensate for the huge risk, the monetary returns on dealing cocaine must rise to astronomical levels. (If you like charts, when the government threatens to imprison cocaine sellers, the supply curve shifts way way to the left, whereas the demand curve shifts left but not nearly as much. So the equilibrium price of a kilo of cocaine skyrockets, far above the monetary costs of production.)

Because of the above considerations, the benefit of gaining market share in the cocaine business is huge. Every new customer might mean thousands of extra dollars per month in monetary profits. In sharp contrast, if the Thai owner “steals” a customer from the Japanese restaurant, that might add only $100 per month to the bottom line. This is because there’s a much lower (monetary) profit margin in the restaurant industry. It might make sense for drug dealers to hang around schoolyards, selling their products to kids, or possibly even giving some of it away for free to newcomers (though I don’t know if that really happens, outside of anti-drug commercials). But you never see representatives from General Mills hanging around the monkey bars, selling the single-serve boxes of Cheerios. Because of this huge difference, gaining additional customers means a lot more in the prohibited industry than in the free sector. That’s why killing off a rival–and thereby gaining access to his customers–is so much more profitable in the prohibited sector.

So we see that when the State threatens to imprison the producers of a certain good, it alters the incentives so that violence is now much more lucrative in the industry. Naturally, people in the real world are not simply robotic utility calculators. It’s not so much that the same entrepreneur will be either a hard-nosed businessman, versus a ruthless killer, depending on the DEA’s policies. No, what happens is that people who are predisposed to being cold-blooded killers are allowed to thrive and grow very rich in a society with strict drug laws. So rather than being some isolated sociopath, who kills a guy in a bar for looking at his girlfriend and then goes to jail, instead the asinine drug laws allow this same sociopath to make millions per year selling cocaine, with which he buys automatic weapons and hires cronies, and also buys off the police so he stays on the streets.

Does the State Actually Protect Private Property?

What’s really ironic about the rival theory of Blackadder and Bobby1011 is that it assumes that government is actually good at protecting property rights. In other words, their theory assumes that the honest folks at Budweiser couldn’t compete with Al Capone in 1930, because he would threaten to kill them and the bootlegging people of Bud couldn’t very well call the cops and complain. But once Prohibition was repealed, now all of a sudden the legitimate producers of alcohol could press charges against gangsters for wrecking their stores or for shooting their employees.

I suppose there is a grain of truth to this, but I stress that it really is a grain. We know that the government does a horrible job in every other enterprise it touches, be it education, road paving, electricity provision, and intelligence gathering. But we’re supposed to believe that it does a really great job in protecting people from gangsters? If that’s true, then why the growing reliance on private arbitration efforts? Isn’t it obvious that government courts and police are just as inefficient and counterproductive as everything else the State does?

To truly test the different theories, we need to come up with an activity where the government (a) doesn’t interfere with producers but (b) doesn’t defend the property rights of those same producers. If such areas are rife with theft and violence, then Blackadder and Bobby1011 are right. But if those sectors are generally orderly and peaceful, then I’m right.

I can think of a few examples where I’m right. (Maybe in the comments my critics can counter with examples that suit their theory.) For example, commerce over the internet is hardly regulated. Sure, in principle if you bought a book from a third party through Amazon, and the guy never sent it to you, you could bring him to small claims court. But that’s not what makes the system work. It’s clearly reputational effects, not the threat of government lawsuits.

Other examples are the “Not So Wild Wild West” [.pdf], where prospectors in California respected the claims of earlier arrivals, even though there was (initially) no formal government establishing the property rights. And Ed Stringham has done great work (see his 2002 and 2003 papers [.pdf]) explaining how fairly sophisticated financial markets operated in the 17th century even without official law enforcement.

I can give a personal anecdote here as well. After I graduated a semester early from Hillsdale, I had to kill seven months or so before starting at NYU. So three of us rented an apartment in a very shady neighborhood west of Chicago. One morning I went outside and saw that my truck’s window had been smashed and my CD player stolen. So I went back in, called the cops, and they said they’d send out a car. (I had to warn my one roommate to hide his pot.) But guess what? The cops never showed up. And I daresay no detectives were burning the midnight oil, trying to crack my case wide open.

So in this neighborhood, I think the police really didn’t care too much about protecting the residents’ property rights. And although I guess I can’t really prove it, I’m pretty sure that the mob didn’t run all the grocery stores in the area. Now it may be true that criminal organizations were involved with the bars, but guess what? You need a liquor license to run a bar. But when it came to something that was fairly wide open to competition, like a grocery store or a restaurant, I am pretty sure those were run by legitimate businesspeople, who didn’t use violence to keep out would-be competitors. And this is true, even though I don’t believe the police would have been rushing over to protect these businesspeople from mob harassment.

Confusing Correlation and Causation in Somalia

Besides claiming that the mafia (or insurance companies) would take over and become the new State, critics of my writings on market anarchy will often say, “Well why didn’t your utopia rise out of the ashes in Somalia? History shows that when the State stops providing security services, chaos breaks out.”

I need to wrap this essay up, so I must be brief. But a few quick responses:

* As far as the “lessons of history” go, yes it’s true that a Rothbardian paradise has not developed and proved its stability. But by the very same token, we have not a single example in world history of a stable, limited government. The best attempt was the government set up by James Madison and friends, and we all know how that turned out.

* Somalia is not a fair illustration of what I described above, in terms of a State legalizing more and more activities. No, the government in Somalia fell; it didn’t disband itself because the public became Rothbardians. This is also true in regions in Colombia where the government exercises no authority. It’s not that the State ceded its power, but rather that it was beaten back by a rival gang. To give an analogy, suppose I say that lowering taxes as a share of GDP is good for the economy. Would it really make sense to say, “Well, I agree that after a certain point, if the government takes too much in taxes, that’s bad. But if the government takes too little in taxes, that hurts the economy too. Why, look at Somalia, where central government tax revenues are 0% of GDP. That place is a hellhole. Yet according to your supply-side theories, Somalia should be booming!”


The proponent of market anarchy is making the simple claim that systematic violation of acknowledged property rights does not help a society. Standard economic theory tells us that monopolies enforced through violence (or its threat) lead to lower quality and higher prices; this analysis holds true even when the monopoly refers to judicial, police, and military services. Libertarians generally recognize that the government does a horrible job educating children, maintaining roads, and sending telescopes into space. Why in the world would we want to entrust politicians and bureaucrats with protecting us from thieves and killers? After all, they’re the worst thieves and killers in the world!

Robert P. Murphy holds a Ph.D. in economics from New York University. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal (Regnery, 2009), and is the editor of the blog Free Advice.

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