Sunday, July 8, 2007

Family Secrets

Mob-watchers are enthralled with the so-called “Family Secrets” trial going on now in Chicago. On trial are a handful of broken-down old men who twenty or thirty years ago were among the most feared gangsters in Chicago history. They include Frank Calabrese, Sr. who is suffering the special indignity of hearing his brother and his son testify against him. Now that’s an unhappy family. If you have any illusions left about the glamor of organized crime after The Godfather and The Sopranos, this trial ought to take care of them.

The Outfit ain’t what it used to be, its power much reduced by RICO, Greylord and ongoing federal pressure. Nowadays, a Chicago organized crime expert told me, “Outfit guys want their sons to become investment bankers, because that’s where the money is.”

There, and in drugs. The big money these days flows to the black and Hispanic gangs who control the drug trade.

History repeats itself. Prohibition spurred gang warfare, made Al Capone a millionaire and entrenched his successors in the Chicago power structure. Now the G.D.’s and the Vice Lords shoot it out over drug markets on our streets and a handful of Colombian thugs have become world-class tycoons. We looked at what Prohibition did, coughed to cover our embarrassment and ended it, but so far the penny hasn’t dropped with regard to our current drug laws.

Here’s a conjecture for you: organized crime feeds off vice laws. Not the activities themselves—rather, the fact of their being illegal. That illegality is the lifeblood of organized crime. Now, it should be clear that there have always been thugs and always will be. Absent prohibition, it’s unlikely that Al Capone and Sam Giancana would have opened a bookshop or gone to med school. They would have remained what they were—thieves and predators. But it is also unlikely that they and their associates would have attained the wealth and power that they did. It was Prohibition—which made the trade in alcohol suddenly much more lucrative and insured that it would be controlled by the most ruthless elements in society—that made Capone wealthy and made Chicago a synonym for gang violence. And it was the criminalization of the hitherto non-criminal (and not essentially violent) business of selling people alcohol that undermined the rule of law and fatally corrupted Chicago’s institutions.

Vice is always in demand. It may not be good for us, but we can’t seem to do without it. Most of us can indulge the occasional guilty urge without crippling our lives; some of us can’t. The casualties make the prospect of eliminating vice seem attractive. It’s not easy to watch a life blighted by alcoholism or see a man destroy his marriage by dalliance with prostitutes. So we pass laws to criminalize vice, under the delusion that banned objects and activities magically disappear. What happens? Vice laws put criminals in control of the traffic. They insure high profit; they put the trade squarely in the hands of precisely those elements that care the least about the law. Vice laws make thugs rich.

And what is the effect on the institutions that are there to enforce the law? Overworked cops decide that policing other people’s private needs is not worth the trouble. They note that there is no coercion involved in a transaction between a dealer and his customers and wonder why they should bother to disrupt it. The temptation to accept a gratuity for allowing consensual transactions to proceed becomes significant. Corruption spreads. The prestige of the law suffers.

We should have no illusions: legalization is no panacea. Drugs and prostitution, like alcohol, can destroy lives. But they are not themselves essentially violent activities. (Yes, coercion is a key element of prostitution sometimes. But is a woman more or less likely to appeal to the law for relief if the activity in which she is engaged is considered criminal in and of itself?) The business of providing drugs and prostitutes is made violent by being criminalized.

Wouldn’t it be worth a try to treat these as public health problems, like alcohol, instead of as criminal problems? Prohibition created the Outfit. Are we going to let the modern version subvert our institutions in the same way?

There are principled arguments and people I respect on both sides of this question. Let me know what you think.

Sam Reaves

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