Monday, May 12, 2014
The Rationality Of Gangsterism: Morality, Self-Interest, Organized Crime, And Economics
A few years ago I saw that movie Gamorrah about the organized crime syndicate the Camorra based in Naples, and I still remember vividly how it opens, with a visually brilliant scene of the crime guys in a tanning salon getting beautified. They're wearing goggles to protect their eyes, and there's an intense light, and it looks so cool and interesting and just when you're thinking wow, that's awesome, so cool, I'd like to ... BAM-- they're getting shot and there's blood everywhere.
It's a mind-blowing movie along several dimensions, but in many ways the book, which I read later, is even more so. It opens with the scene of a container ship at the port, breaking open by mistake as it is hoisted up, spilling out dead bodies onto the ground. The bodies, it turns out, are those of undocumented Chinese workers who had put aside money all their lives so they could be buried back in China once they were dead.
The author, Roberto Saviano, who studied these matters extensively and now lives in hiding, goes on to describe communities in which virtually everyone is subject to the terrorizing tactics of the mob: cooperate with us, or we will simply kill you, the power of the mob being such that it can terrorize government entities as well as citizens so there's no way out.
I think about Gamorrah all the time, and I especially think about it when I read about economic rationality, self-interest, and morality. Economics models people as self-interested, and rational insofar as they choose the best ways of maximizing their personal, self-interested preferences. So right away you could be forgiven for wondering: so what about morality? Is being moral irrational? Are the killers of the mob just rational economic agents? If not, why not? From the point of view of self-interested rationality, what are they doing wrong?
Generally, there are several ways to navigate around this problem of morality and self-interest. One is to say that morality is, itself, just a matter of preferences: the person who keeps their promise at great personal cost *seems* to be acting contrary to their self-interest, their actually acting *in* their self-interest, getting a psychic benefit from a ping of satisfaction or something from refraining from killing or whatever.
One puzzle about that view is that it seems to say morality never requires acting contrary to what you want to do, never requires constraining your behavior -- while it sure seems like morality sometime requires you to constrain your behavior and do what you don't want to do. And really -- if it's only your scruples or your conscience getting in the way of your carrying out that series of murders whose completion would benefit you in other ways, then wouldn't it make the most sense to just try to eliminate the scruples, get over your conscience, learn to stop worrying and love the bomb? The gangster with conscience pangs could just take Klonopin.
Another very different way to navigate around the problem is to say that constraining your behavior is somehow actually in your interest even when it's not what you feel you want to do, because in an implicit social contract you benefit more from certain rules being followed than you do from violating the rules yourself. For example, if you gain more from everyone else refraining from killing you than you do from getting to kill others, then it's rational to accept a constraint against murder, and to refrain from doing it even when you want to or it's in your interest.
This contractarian answer says that the moral rules are the ones that would benefit each person, if everyone followed the rules. Since the idea is to say that acting morally is acting rationally, in order to explain the wrongness of murder, theft, blackmail, etc, it would have to be the case that no matter who you are, you are better off in a system in which no one does those things and you don't do them either than you would be in a system in which people do do those things and you do too.
What happens if we apply this reasoning to the mob example? One of the most vivid aspects of the Gamorrah book talks about the way people choose organized crime because in some town the main alternative for making an honest living is working in factories that make handbags and stuff and how the hours are long and punishing, the pay is low, and your hands are perpetually dirty with black stuff. Compared to that, life in the mob makes people much better off.
Now think about the young recruits. They face the choice: work in the factory, OR -- go kill that guy and earn big bucks, respect, and protection of various kinds. On the face of it, I'd have to say that in the situation they find themselves, it could be in their self-interest to kill.
The contractarian response to this is to say sure, it might be in their self-interest to kill in their situation, but if everyone were following the rules it would not be. That is, as long as everyone obeyed the contract not to kill, it would be rationally self-interested for this guy not to kill, and that's the reason he'd have for constraining his action.
Though the matter is complex, doesn't this seem like saying that when a lowly member of a crime gang carries out a series of killings, his actions are wrong because and insofar as the prosperity engendered by a lack of organized crime would make him better off than he is now?
And when you think about the possible rewards of organized crime, the fact that killings can be so richly rewarded, with material goods and non-material ones, doesn't this seem striking, and interesting, and maybe false?
Picture a obedient but slow-witted guy. Maybe if he kills for his boss he gets a fancy car, money, etc. Is it really true that if everyone followed the rules and he followed them as well, he'd be better off? Fancier car? More money? Wouldn't it depend on the economic distribution of his society, how much inequality there is? If he's at the bottom, mightn't he be better off with his crime job?
If this is right, it would seem that people are economically rational to play by the rules and not lie, cheat, steal, and kill, only in the presence of certain distributional facts -- and only when there's limited inequality.
Otherwise, as long as you can get away with it, why play by the rules at all? From the point of view of the economically rational self-interested agent, it would seem hard to find a reason.