07 Sep 2010

Russ Sobel on Gangs

Economics 6 Comments

Russ Sobel is the featured EconLib writer this month, and his article is pretty neat. His intro:

Street gangs, such as the famous Crips and Bloods, are often viewed as a cause of crime and violence. Popular media coverage on TV and in the newspapers often portrays the brutal activities of such gangs. This is understandable for the simple reason that areas with more violent crime also have more youth street gangs. The implication would seem clear: to reduce crime, just break up gangs.

However, an article I recently coauthored with Brian J. Osoba, “Youth Gangs as Pseudo-Governments: Implications for Violent Crime,” calls this conventional wisdom into question. Our analysis suggests not that gangs cause violence, but that violence causes gangs. In other words, gangs form in response to government’s failure to protect youths against violence. The surprising implication of our insight is that efforts to reduce gang activity could actually increase violent crime.

However, I think Sobel accepts some of the “truisms” about government that don’t hold up to scrutiny. In particular, he writes:

These findings are also consistent with the literature on mafia activities, which shows that the mafia tends to emerge when state policing power is weak or there is a lack of strong governmental enforcement of rights.

As I elaborate in this article, I don’t think this typical claim makes sense. Currently, where does the mafia (or organized crime, more generally) thrive? In those areas subject to extensive government regulation.

In other words, I claim that the reason the mafia is involved in narcotics, is NOT that rival drug dealers can’t call 911 when they get robbed. If that were the reason, then we would also have expected the mob to control merchant shipping back when the Law Merchant developed, and we would expect the mob to currently control eBay. But no, we currently see the mob involved in precisely those activities where the government has a HUGE presence. It is totally wrong to say that the government doesn’t “enforce” anything when it comes to cocaine markets.

(For a fuller explanation of my point, read my article.)

6 Responses to “Russ Sobel on Gangs”

  1. Bob Roddis says:

    Of course, if poor black people lived in private covenant communities which included schools and churches and which could vet each resident and visitor in advance and exclude thugs, thieves and dopers (or whomever), there would be hardly any crime at all in such areas.

    Oh, THE HORROR of the free market.

  2. f4kingit says:

    Hi Bob, what’s the best resource to learn about the Law Merchant?

  3. JimS says:

    Many areas with gang problems also have many regulations regarding business practices. Reduce or eliminate zoning, licensing, and taxes in these areas. permit the employment of youths and stand out of the way.


  4. Lode Cossaer says:

    Why is it necessarily an or/or?
    Why can’t, for example, in the absence of efficient government, certain protection rackets arise?

  5. Slim934 says:

    …..it seems like a large portion of the article’s basis is absurd on its face.

    For example: he talks about how it is that gangs in prison develop and that somehow this is an some sort of analogy of what happens in the spontaneous creation of societies.

    This is so silly that I cannot believe that he even makes it with a straight face. Prison gangs form under conditions much more different than a government does.

    Governments form over a period of centuries by the slow ideological movement of individuals to agree with it’s legitimacy. Its formation relies upon the already existing order of relatively law abiding citizens. Gangs develop spontaneously in prisons CONTROLLED AND ADMINISTERED BY THE GOVERNMENT because the government cannot or chooses not to adequately control what occurs in the prison. Look at it this way, not a single one of those gang members actually has to rely on his fellow gang member for his livelihood while he is in prison. The water he drinks, the food he heats, and the clothes he wears all come from the state. If it were the case that he actually had to engage in trade in order to sustain himself, then that is precisely what he would do or he would die out. Trade does occur in prisons so that prisoners can get what they like, but there is really no compelling life/death reasons for it. This given variable by itself will wildly alter the incentive structures inherent in those “social organizations”.

  6. Ricardo Cruz says:

    Bob, I think your point about 911 (which I’ve read on before) is spot on. It reminds of me the reason why biologists give for why animals don’t try to kill off all their competitors, so they keep all the females, all the food, etc.

    If there were only 3 animals on Earth, two males and one female, obviously each male would try to kill the other. But if there are 600 males to 1 female (to make the contrast stand-out), then males wouldn’t try to kill each other. Why? Because if you fight another male to death, you’ll get so weak that the next male will kill you. Instead, there might be fighting contests, between the strongest contenders, but this will be mostly displays of strength, so that the female can then choose the male. (In the real-world, many characteristics influence the species courtship; for instance, if the female fertile period is visible, then you’ll have a lot more male competition with all males running to the female for exhibition, while if the female fertile period is not perceptible, then she will copulate more freely through the group.)

    By the way, there is a movie predicated on my example. It’s called “Last Woman On Earth”, and it’s very interesting. It’s an old movie, so it’s available online. The original was in black and white, but there was a colored edition hosted by archives.org.