Some small costs of mafias

We went to Italy in the first half of August, partly to relax and see friends but mostly because Simona’s father had just died, and Leonardo needed to spend time with his nonna [grandmother]. Just before we went I read about a big mafia bust in Ostia, a town on the sea near Rome. Sicilian mafia families, it seems, pretty much run the streets in Ostia, wringing protection from businesses and controlling the allocation of beach umbrellas, as well as running guns, drugs and prostitutes. Things had been getting out of hand – somebody gunned down in the middle of Ostia, and too much mafia activity was moving into Rome itself – so some arrests were needed.

Simona’s mother was staying not far away, near the beach not far to the south-east of Ostia, north-west of Anzio. Simona and I hung around for a few days while Leonardo and Nonna settled into a new routine, without Nonno. After we paid for dinner one evening at a restaurant by the beach, I observed that Simona had not asked for a receipt, as she would have done in Rome. She’s always told me – I have never actually seen this happen – that the Guardia di Finanza might stop us as we came out of a restaurant and demand to see our receipt, to verify that our payment had been recorded for tax purposes. “There’s no need for a receipt here”, she said, “this is all mafia, all up and down this coast. The police have been taken care of. This is why the country can’t pay its bills.” The mafia get protection money, and one of the things they protect businesses from is the tax collector. Very neat.

I had read, too, a depressing story of the Italian parliament’s recent failure to adopt some basic reforms: to improve broadband access, for instance, and to speed up the legal process – little necessities of modern life. The story had run in the Financial Times, and the material on the legal process was framed in terms of encouraging investment by speeding up the settlement of commercial disputes. What the FT didn’t mention is that Italy’s extremely slow and costly legal process is one of the things that keeps its mafias strong. This is not so much because it takes a long time to convict a mafioso, as because the mafias act as substitutes for the legal system: in Diego Gambetta’s phrase, they are in “the business of private protection“.

Here’s a very small example, again from our August visit. We’d left Leonardo with Nonna, and gone to visit some friends who have a place further southeast, between Anzio and Naples (I shouldn’t be more specific than that, given what follows). Our friends have a small cottage not far from the sea. The shortest way to the sea is a road, owned jointly by our friends and a number of their neighbors through a consortio that is responsible for certain services in this little cluster of holiday cottages. But one of the neighbors, who our friends describe as a mafioso who carries guns, built a gate across the road and locked it, keeping the key for himself. He has business reasons for wanting the road closed, which I won’t go into. The police won’t do anything, presumably because the mafioso has friends. And, since going to court would mean many years and a lot of money, the man with the guns gets his way, and our friends and their neighbors drive many kilometers to travel a short distance to the beach.

This is, as I said, a small example, a trivial one, but multiply it a few million times and you can imagine how a very slow, costly legal system empowers men with guns and costs everybody else dearly. It gives me a new appreciation for the little drama I watched several years ago, when my parents and one of their neighbors had a legal dispute with another neighbor, about a levee that protected their summer cottage from flooding. That dispute took place not in Italy but in the mountains of northeastern California. The three old men involved were quite worked up, girded for battle – I spent a day listening as they gave depositions – and the rest of us laughed at their combativeness and their recourse to the courts. But now, I have to say, it was quick, relatively cheap, decisive. Nobody brandished guns, though I’m sure there are more guns in that neck of the woods than by the sea in Italy.

More, apropos mafias, and men with guns getting their way: see Henry Farrell’s post on Violence as a Source of Trust in Mafia-type Organizations.

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