Enfranchisement and Gangs

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright October 2009



Why do some communities become infested with corruption, gangs and organized crime, and others do not?

In this essay I will propose that the key to the crime rate is community enfranchisement. When enfranchisement is strong, crime is low, when enfranchisement is weak, crime is high.

I will further propose that organized crime is a symptom that the conventional community government is dysfunctional in the areas where organized crime has taken over. Organized crime thrives when it is acting as a shadow government and filling in where conventional government has dropped the ball because the conventional government's rules are so disenfranchising that it can no longer govern a popular community activity.


Why Crime?

Why do we have crime? In particular, why do we have crimes against property? Crimes such as stealing, burglary, pickpocketing do huge damage to the victim and gain the purpetrator comparatively little. My guess is that, on the average, the damage done to the victim is roughly a hundred times the value gained by the purpetrator. It is this huge disparity between damage and reward that makes property crime so senseless and emotionally threatening. The community would be hurt a whole lot less if a burglar knocked on the door and politely said to the resident, "Excuse me, I will be burgling your place later tonight, why don't you give me a hundred dollars instead, and I'll be on my way."

So... why as a community don't we accept this knock-on-the-door solution? It would be a whole lot cheaper.

Yeah, I know, we don't accept it because it wouldn't work. ... But why not?

Part of the answer comes from asking why the criminal commits the crime in the first place. The criminal steals from a person he or she doesn't respect. For pickpockets and fare-jacking taxi drivers, the victim is a face in the crowd who will never be seen again. The best victim is an obvious out-of-towner, and one that can be laughed at later for his or her gullibility.

For a home burglar it's either a stranger's home or the home of a person they have some kind of grudge against. Even then, it's common for a home burglar to "trade" something for what they steal, something such as a piece of shit they leave behind.

The point being that these crimes are not without attached emotion.

So, what is the emotion? The emotion is disenfranchisement. It springs from the old Neolithic Village us-and-them thinking, "I'm stealing from someone who is not 'us' and so it's OK."

This us-them emotion goes one step further: It is also acceptable thinking to the community around the thieves -- when the thieves finish a day's adventure and have a drink with their pals, the pals' reaction is acceptance, not horror. Likewise, the family of the thieves do not feel great discomfort at their activity. They may fret a little, but they don't do anything drastic enough to convince the thief that his activities are not profitable by his personal measure.

This revelation came to me after I was pickpocketed while visiting Istanbul. (You can read about it here.) I saw who did it, I chased them, (But not well, old age had finished off my knees by then.) and got pictures of them! And, amazingly there was a cop there when I needed him! Two of them, in fact. What was a jaw-dropper for me was that the cops would not chase the pickpockets across the street and into the next neighborhood. As one of them put it, "They may have friends over there."

As I thought about this incident, I realized that those cops did not feel enfranchised once they crossed that street. Enfranchisement... it's so important when dealing with crime. Likewise, those pickpockets did feel enfranchised when they got across the street -- their neighbors and family would stand by them.

Here is the difference enfranchisement makes:

o If a typical citizen who feels enfranchised sees a crime in progress, they report it to the police, or they gather neighbors and try to prevent it.

o If that typical citizen does not feel enfranchised then their reaction is, "Meh... so what? It's not my concern." and they do nothing to try and prevent it.

Pop Quiz


Given this definition of crime and enfranchisement, what newsworthy community of the 2007-2009 timeframe is famously disenfranchised?


The Gaza Strip. There is a community that has been without an enfranchised government since 1948. So, if an average citizen there sees a neighbor building a car bomb or setting up a motar, what is their reaction?

"... Meh..."

And this is why the violence there is endemic.


Organized Crime, Corruption and Enfranchisement

One of the functions of organized crime in a community is to function as a shadow government which handles disputes and activities that the formal community government has disenfranchised, and thus no longer handles well.

The formal community disenfranchises an activity when it refuses to deal with it in a way that almost all of the community thinks is working well. To put this another way, if there is a substantial minority of a community that thinks a law is total bullshit, then there is room for criminal activity in meeting demand to circumvent that law.

If the activity is large, complex and profitable, then the criminals will organize to manage it better, and organized crime emerges.

Vice crimes -- drugs, prostitution, loan-sharking -- are areas of human activity about which there is sharp disagreement in most communities. Some members say let's get rid of these activities entirely by banning them, others say, "That's fine! That's right! For sure! ... Except I want to do them once in a while. ...Well, maybe more often than just once in while." So there is a constant demand for these activities. (The loan sharking demand comes about because community-approved money lenders can't service the kind of demand that many loan-seeking customers are asking for.)

If the community forces the powers-that-be to ignore these demands and the people that service them, then we are looking at a gaping disenfranchisement situation, and an organized crime shadow government will spring up to service the demand for some kind of government to do things such as organize distribution, enforce acceptable rules, and handle dispute resolution.

The moral of this is that it is disenfranchisement that is empowering organized crime. A community can reduce organized crime by extending community enfranchisement so that it includes more community members and more activities. To many this will sound like having the government make a deal with the devil, and it is. But that devil doesn't go away if you don't deal with him -- if you don't deal with him, he makes crime grow.

Closely related to this is the issue of government officials getting corrupted. If a government official is charged with enforcing a law that a substantial minority of community thinks is bullshit, he or she will feel the temptation to agree and get discouraged about enforcing the law. If that happens, then the temptation to get paid to support the shadow government -- organized crime -- becomes pretty strong.

Here are a couple of examples of places where I wonder if a careful reexamination of the enfranchisement issue might produce dramatic changes in the crime rate:

o The construction industry in East Coast US and other places is notorious for being linked to organized crime. If that is true, it suggests that the laws/codes the government inspectors are trying to enforce are ill-suited to current conditions, and so those laws are disenfranchising the people they effect. But enfranchised or not, completing a building still takes a lot of coordination and dispute resolution. So a shadow government -- organized crime -- springs up to fill the enfranchisement gap.

o The Red and The Black, an article in the October 4-9th, 2009 issue of The Economist talks about the problem China is having with "Black and Red" issues -- gangs (Black) and government corruption (Red). This suggests that China's local governments are not doing a good job of enfranchising their residents. Their actions, organization and regulations have created an enfranchisement gap and gangs are springing up to fill it. It suggests that Bejing needs to look hard at reforming local government structure so that it better represents and enfranchises the people it is governing. When they do that, the Black and Red problem will diminish on its own because the shadow government is no longer needed.

o Here is an article about the enfranchisement issue here in the US, the city of Salinas, CA. Iraq's Lessons on the Home Front The Washington Post Nov 15, 2009

o Here is another Wall Street Journal article The End of Bolivian Democracy (Nov 22, 2009) explaining how President Evo Morales of Boliva is leading Boliva into a populist dictatorship. His power base for this power grab? Coca growers, who have been disenfranchised by previous governments. Article writer Ms. O'Grady states at the end, "Mr. Morales is South America's latest dictator, but he is not the ideological communist that many fear. He's more akin to a mob boss, having risen to power by promising to protect the coca business. Now he has the capacity to do it.

Under his rule, coca cultivation is legal and he collects a licensing fee from all farmers, whose harvests are sold through a centralized market. MAS officials [Morales' political party] also regulate cocaine production and trafficking which now reaches down to the household level."

Whatever else he's doing, he's bringing more enfranchisement to the coca growing industry in Bolivia, and this has made him and his party popular.

o And here is an article about a step backwards. In northern Mexico the disenfranchisement surrounding the War on Drugs has gotten so bad that drug lords are attacking military bases! Mexico drug gangs turn weapons on army by Tracy Wilkinson, 2 Apr 10, LA Times.

o And a 27 Jun 11 WSJ article, City's Ban on Smoking Called 'an Absolute Joke' by Michael Howard Saul and Richard Autry, about a busybodyish good-intentioned step towards disenfranchisement -- banning smoking in outdoor public places. The good news is that thus far the enforcement people have chosen not to take even the first step down this particular slippery slope. They are keeping enfranchisement high for now.

o Update: A 19 Jul 13 WSJ article, The Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radly Balko, which describes the militarization of US polices forces over the decades since the 1960's. No knock assaults on homes and other civil-rights-trampling SWAT team tactics are highly disenfranchising. They aren't worth it! They do much more damage to enfranchisement with their frightening tactics than they do benefit in capturing criminals. Rather than forming more SWAT teams, we need to be building live and let live tolerance in our communities, with police that support that tolerance and thus become part of the community fabric.


Enfranchisement and crime are tightly related. If crime is booming it's because enfranchisement is declining, and us-versus-them Neolithic Village thinking is becoming appropriate for the circumstance.

One of the common ways to start disenfranching is by enacting bullshit laws that ignore the fact that part of the community thinks what is being banned is an acceptable activity. If there is demand for an activity, but the powers-that-be refuse to enfranchise activities centering around that demand, then a shadow government will spring up to do the regulating, and that shadow government will be called organized crime.

If government officials become discouraged as they try to enforce disenfranchising laws, they will be strongly tempted to become corrupt.

As citizens become discouraged they will stop caring of crime is being committed around them, and they will not discourage their family or neighbors from becoming criminals.


-- The End --