Organizing Crime: Towards a Theory of the Criminal Firm

Douglas Rogers

Advisor: Peter T. Leeson

Committee Members: Peter J. Boettke, Christopher J. Coyne

Enterprise Hall, 318
March 15, 2011, 06:00 AM to 07:00 AM


This dissertation investigates the industrial organization of criminal enterprise. We argue that differences in contestability across criminal industries crucially shape how producers in these industries organize. In more contestable criminal industries, producers use organizational hierarchy to enforce collusion and preserve their returns. However, hierarchy creates scope for boss self-dealing and so is costly. In less contestable criminal industries, where producers’ benefit from colluding is smaller, this cost exceeds organizational hierarchy’s benefit. Here producers organize “flatly” instead. To examine this hypothesis we explore history’s most infamous criminal organizations: the Sicilian Mafia and Caribbean pirates.

It also investigates the problem of external costs within a violent criminal industry. These costs arise when the activities of one criminal enterprise result in increased pressure by the state on other criminal enterprises. Since the costs of violent crime are borne in part by other criminal enterprises, each criminal enterprise engages in a suboptimally high degree of criminal activity from the perspective of the industry as a whole, driving profitability towards zero. In order to internalize the costs of violence, and thus sustain criminal activity, criminals establish collusive inter-firm institutions designed to regulate the overall amount of criminal activity. These institutions, however, once established, increase profitability in the industry and thus elicit competition amongst the cartel members, increasing the amount of criminal activity. Thus, criminal industries facing problems of external costs exhibit a cycle of regulated and unregulated violent activity. To test this hypothesis, I examine inter-firm institutions, known as commissions, in La Cosa Nostra (La Cosa Nostra is commonly referred to as the Sicilian Mafia).

Finally, a laboratory experiment was conducted to examine the performance of a market for protection in the absence of external enforcement. The focus of the experiment is whether subjects given the power to protect or predate, designated as “elites,” form a cartel and charge a monopoly price to a set of subjects we label “peasants”, or whether these elites compete as separate entities and charge peasants a competitive price. The price of protective services is measured by the amount of tribute transferred by peasants to a particular elite. Since we endow elites with superior ability in the use of force, they may also utilize involuntary transfers, which incur deadweight losses, to transfer resources. Thus, the subjects are motivated to devise a voluntary means of transfer through tribute within our environment. A baseline treatment was run where there was only a single provider of protection to establish a benchmark comparison. In building the design design, several different literatures were drawn upon, which discuss the viability of a private market for protection. This debate is particularly salient to discussions of protection services in developing countries.