Don Corleone: Libertarian ?

Law Professor Ilya Somin makes these interesting comments about the law and economics of The Godfather:

Everyone remembers Don Corleone’s famous saying that he’s going to make “an offer you can’t refuse.” But for some reason, people forget that the Don also said that “a lawyer with his brief case can steal more than a hundred men with guns” (Godfather, pbk. edition, 52). One of the recurring themes of the novel is that people turn to the Mafia for help because of the corrupt and self-serving nature of many political and legal institutions that systematically allowed elites to plunder the politically weak. 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. To a lesser extent, a similar dynamic enabled the America Mafia to emerge in Italian immigrant communities in the early 1900s, as Puzo vividly portrayed in his chapter on the rise of Don Corleone.

Puzo also shows how Prohibition and afterwards the War on Drugs, provided opportunities for organized crime to grow and flourish. It was Prohibition that enabled the Godfather to go from being an “ordinary . . . businessman” to a “great Don in the world of criminal enterprise” (pg. 213). And, of course, the great Mob war that forms the central plot of the book is a conflict over Don Corleone’s unwillingness to help other crime families expand into the illegal drug business.

Puzo further explains, as economists would predict, that Prohibition, laws banning gambling, the War on Drugs, and other legislation that creates black markets stimulates criminal violence in another way. Since bootleggers and drug dealers cannot go to court to enforce their contracts and other business arrangements, they often have little choice but to resort to private violence to do so. And, of course, a black market organization that starts off by providing “protective” defensive violence also has strong incentives to engage in aggression as well. This is what Puzo’s Mafia characters have in mind when they repeatedly say that their violent actions are just “business” and not “personal.” Puzo also shows how Prohibition, anti-gambling laws, and the War on Drugs stimulated police corruption. Captain McCluskey, the corrupt NYPD officer whom Michael kills, collects enormous bribes from criminals because he is in effect the gatekeeper of several highly lucrative illegal markets (gambling, drugs, prostitution).

The theme of the corrupt government official is further explored in The Godfather, Part II in the person of a Nevada Senator who attempts to extort money from the Corleone family in exchange for helping to get a casino license approved. In the end, he gets framed for murder but survives with the “help” of the Corleones. Later in that same movie, the Senate Committee investigating organized crime turns out to be under the control of Michael Corleone’s chief Mafia rival. And there’s a scene near the end of the first movie where Michael and Vito have this exchange:

“I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life–I don’t apologize–to take care of my family, and I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all those bigshots. I don’t apologize–that’s my life–but I thought that, that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the string. Senator Corleone; Governor Corleone. [Michael: Another pezzonovante] Well, this wasn’t enough time, Michael. It wasn’t enough time. [Michael: We’ll get there, pop. We’ll get there.]”

Pezzovanate refers to the big shots holding the strings who, we’ve already learned engage in the same tactics as the criminal gangs. In other words, the politicians aren’t any better than the Mafia Dons.

As Somin points out, Mario Puzo clearly didn’t intend for The Godfather to be a political tract, but the themes of the corruption of state power are there anyway.

  • Stephen Littau

    Good stuff Doug. I do think, however, that organized crime has a vested interest in keeping these activities illegal. If gambling, prostitution, drugs, etc., were all legalized organized crime would be damn near put out of business.