Over at Eugene’s lair, Ilya Somin opines on Mario Puzo’s original novel of The Godfather, and the sociology of the Italian and American mafias.
Puzo recognized, as sociologist Diego Gambetta explained more systematically, that the Sicilian Mafia flourished because it provided better “protection” against crime and violations of property and contract rights than did the official authorities, who generally protected only the politically powerful elite.
I can’t comment on Puzo as I’ve never read him. But I’ve recently re-read Gambetta, and he doesn’t argue anything like what Somin thinks he’s arguing. Gambetta’s account of the origins of the Mafia isn’t a simple economic functionalist explanation of how the state failed to protect non-elites, and the Mafia stepped in to fill the gap, or anything like it. Gambetta’s interests are far more specific – he wants to know why the Mafia – a group of autonomous providers of protection emerged to create a violent and nasty form of social order in certain parts of Sicily, but not in other parts, nor in the rest of Italy (it spread later, but that’s a different story). Thus, he’s interested in the failures of the old aristocratic order less because it created a gap in the market that for entrepreneurs of violence could fill than because it meant that the Mafia could emerge as autonomous providers of protection, rather than bravoes under the command of more traditional elites, as in other parts of Italy and Southern Europe. The burden of Somin’s argument, as I understand it, is to suggest that the Mafia is the product of certain pathologies of the state – its failure to protect people and the perverse effects of its efforts to regulate certain markets. This may indeed be an argument implicit in Puzo’s bestseller. But Gambetta’s account directly contradicts this – he argues that the Italian Mafia preceded the expansion of the Italian state, and that its success can’t be attributed to the Italian state’s innate weaknesses (or over-repressive nature). The key quote:
In all likelihood, by the time Italy was unified in 1860-61 the foundations of this peculiar industry were already firmly in place. Not only did the state have to fight to establish itself and its law as the legitimate authority and a credible guarantor in a region where no such authority had previously existed. (my italics) It also had to compete with a rival, an entrenched, if nebulous entity which had by then shaped the economic transactions as well as the skills, expectations and norms of the native people. This is why arguments which blame the supposed weakness of the Italian state for the emergence of the mafia are unconvincing. The early Italian liberal state may have been confused … but it was neither significantly weaker nor demonstrably more repressive than any other liberal state of the period. [Gambetta: The Sicilian Mafia, pp. 97-98].
If Gambetta is to be believed, the problem of the Mafia isn’t a problem stemming from state regulation. It’s a problem arising from the creation and persistence of an alternative means of social organization, which stems from a period before the creation of a proper state apparatus in Sicily. In short, it’s a problem for some flavors of libertarianism (probably not those that Somin espouses) – a suggestion that in the absence of an effective state, and in the presence of certain conditions that Gambetta specifies, we’re likely to get the creation and persistence of Mafia type social organization.
Update: See also Jesse Walker for a somewhat similar take to Somin’s; Walker argues that the Mafia can be thought of either as a form of private order or as a sort of nasty proto-state, when it isn’t really either (it’s an alternative means of social ordering to the state). That said, there is a family resemblance between the early modern state and mafia-type organizations – c.f. Charles Tilly (slightly dodgy OCRed scan here).