The greatest opportunity for organized crime in the US since Prohibition

The defund the police movement presents organized crime with perhaps their greatest opportunity for expansion since alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s.  The increased crime in general and large-scale, and often organized, retail thefts in particular in large U.S. cities provide this opportunity.  Many have claimed that the profits from prohibition allowed organized crime to gain a foothold and become established in many American cities, and it may be happening again.

The large-scale shoplifting and the do-nothing-about-it prosecutors are creating yet another opening for organized crime.  Despite what some apparently think, people, including store owners, do not sit idly by forever and let their property be stolen, just because legislatures or city councils or police or prosecutors don't act.  People will eventually act privately to protect themselves and their property.  Not everyone can or is in a position to protect his property by arming up himself.

On the surface, it is pretty easy to see that stores can lock down more of the merchandise, as is already happening in many places.  Over time, some large retail chains can move out of cities or parts of cities, as is already starting to happen at least in San Francisco.

But the people in the neighborhoods such stores leave still need to buy toothpaste.  So small individually owned stores are very likely to move into these areas. 

Once the small family-owned stores move in, a guy is likely to show up who promises them that their store will not have mass shoplifting or looting attacks — for a fee, of course.  This may happen before they are ever looted.  It may happen after they have had a mass shoplifting episode.  It may happen after an event where the proprietor or family members tried successfully or unsuccessfully to defend the store.

The prior corporate ownership probably would have passed on such an offer because of the corporate image hit they would have taken if it became generally known they were paying people who use violence to deter mass shoplifting.  The new likely sole proprietor or family ownership is probably more likely to sooner or later pay for protection.

Now, a market for protecting property is, in principle, not a terrible idea.  An at least somewhat competitive legitimate market for security guards already exists.  The problem in the case of the breakdown in law in major cities is that when organized crime fills the vacuum, they will likely use force to make themselves a monopoly in the market for protection.  Further, they are reputed to not really give their customers a choice of whether to pay or not.  As bad as that, they are reputed to mete out punishments that society as a whole might not think are appropriate for the crimes like shoplifting, even if it is an organized shoplifting ring, as we have seen happening in cities around the country.

Alas, this is another example of our progressives not thinking very progressively.  They adopt a static mindset that the poor were wronged, these mass shoplifting or looting events are done by the poor, and so we should not punish them much or at all without thinking of where that path will lead.  After all, the poor need the goods.  It does not matter if, as is likely, the organized shoplifting gangs are not made up of the poor.  The end of this path is stronger organized crime in big cities and potentially decidedly tougher penalties for those who steal than society thinks are appropriate.

James L. Swofford is a professor of economics in the Department of Economics, Finance, and Real Estate at the University of South Alabama.

Photo credit: YouTube screen grab.

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