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Funderburk January 24, 2011 Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family Analytical Book Review Organized crime is protected illegal activity that is carried out by a hierarchy of people where in a position to profit from, as well as provide protection for, that illegal activity. Wiseguy illustrates this vividly through the example of the life of Henry Hill, a member of the New York mob. Scattered throughout the book are glimpses of the Vario crime family from Henry‟s point of view. He describes “the organization… [as] a police department for wiseguys” (57 Pileggi). For example, a hi-jacker with an expensive load can go to people like Paulie Vario, the head of Henry Hill‟s organization, to gain protection from having their load stolen or compromised. With the protection provided by Paulie‟s crime family, a hi-jacker can be guaranteed that if anyone else messes with him, they mess with Paulie, too, and will have to face the consequences. More often than not, these consequences result in an untimely death. Crime families also provide protection against involvement from the authorities, and interference from other criminals. This is done through bribery. The family “takes care” of policemen from the time they start out as rookie officers. “As they [rise] in rank, [the family keeps] taking care of them” and establishes a system of trust between the crooked cops and the organization (57 Pileggi). This system is built on characteristic political and economic practices.
Everly 2 The majority of the core political methodology behind organized crime, especially in the case of the Vario crime family, can be found in Niccoló Machiavelli‟s famous work, The Prince, which “advocates the use of cruelty and brutality in the acquisition of power” (84 DeFino). Machiavelli presents the bottom line of operation that organizations like the Vario family tend to live by. “You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second” (83 Machiavelli). Although the Vario‟s operate primarily by the second method, they do not omit the first when dealing with other “wiseguys.” Sometimes “there has to be a sit-down between [one family of] wiseguys and [another family] of wiseguys” to discuss any major conflict between them (57 Pileggi). This is the method “proper to men.” In Wiseguy, Henry Hill describes murder as “the ultimate weapon” that kept everyone in line. If “you got out of line, you got whacked” (127 Pileggi). Much like the political paradigm proposed by Machiavelli, criminal organizations always place the good of the community – the organization itself – before the good of any individual. Hence there is no real value placed on the individual human life, which means any person who “gets out of line” and places the good of the community in jeopardy, will be eliminated without hesitation. This is the method of beasts and it is by this method that criminal organizations, such as the Vario family, increase and maintain their level of power. Organized crime “thrives on capitalism and the free market” (88 DeFino). They exist in an underground capitalistic system that is outside the legal system. Nearly all the funds they acquire are brought in through the sale of both legal and illegal items, but the
Everly 3 piece of the organized crime economy that really sets it apart is the sale of protection. “The peculiarity of protection… makes organized crime groups less akin to ordinary business firms and more similar to the traditional provider of the protection and security – the state” (2 Kumar and Skaperdas). Much like the free market system, criminal organizations must compete with other businesses, both legitimate and criminal. There are two kinds of competition in the market structure. The first is the same that a legitimate business would use, which is lowering price and enhancing the quality of their product and customer service. The second is especially unique to organized crime. The method is called “knee-capping”, which is a form of “[dealing] out worse punishments… to customers and competitors alike, so as [to] compel them to do what they want them to do” ( 9 Kumar and Skaperdas). There is an excellent example of this in Wiseguy, when a competitor decides to open up a cabstand, the Rebel Cab Company, to rival Tuddy Vario‟s. After quite a bit of legitimate competition, Tuddy decided it was time to “knee-cap” the other cabstand and blew it up with the help of Henry Hill. In a world where costless, perfect enforcement of property rights were possible, organized crime would cease to exist. However, that is not the world normal society operates within and so organized crime will always exist. We live in a world where it is very expensive to enforce property rights and total enforcement of those laws is never possible. “The Mafioso can exist only when property rights are costly to enforce or imperfect” (3 Kumar and Skaperdas). The power of criminal organizations grows with the weakening of the local State authority or the prohibition by the State of certain activities or products. As long as there is State authority, demand for any product (legal or illegal), and need for protection of any kind, there will always be organized crime.
Everly 4 Criminal organizations aim at corrupting politicians and police officers, because that is the best way to make sure they maintain and increase their level of power, as well as ensure their ability to continue selling their most prized commodities, stolen goods and protection. For example, the Vario family gave politicians “free storefront offices,… buses and sound systems, … rank-and-file workers from the unions to petition when they need it,… [and] lawyers to help them poll-watch” (58 Pileggi). These “gifts” are meant to help the politicians “remember their friends”, while they are in office. The Varios did much the same thing in regards to their corruption of law enforcement officials. They would begin bribing police officers when they were rookie patrolmen by helping them on their various cases. They provided information and money and in return those cops would turn a blind eye to the family activity or provide inside information. There is no doubt that organized crime would exist and thrive without the corruption of politicians and law enforcement officials. As long as there is a form of State power, organized crime will stay in business. Certainly, it is easier and more profitable for organizations to gain the cooperation or tolerance of public officials, but it is by no means a prerequisite. Since organized crime is a common corruptor of the authorities, there are many difficulties faced by authorities when dealing with criminal organizations. The primary one is regaining the legitimate power of the authority establishment. Wherever there is organized crime, there is corruption that effectively controls the local authority structure. There is also an issue of trust within these establishment structures that is a significant difficulty for authorities, because any information that would compromise members of organized crime would most certainly make it back to those perpetrators, who would, in turn, take the appropriate steps to remedy their situations. These steps can take any form
Everly 5 from changing locations, dates, times, and contacts, to eliminating officials who are obstructing the progress of the criminal process. The world of organized crime, particularly through examples like the Vario family, closely resembles to political world of Machiavelli. “As a confederation of small self-sustaining „families,‟ the Mafia is modeled on old Italian principalities [a]nd like any royal family, … [they maintain] power through heredity and self-enclosure” (86 DeFino). Although organized crime nearly always has tentacles in the mainstream political dealings of the State, such as legislation and law enforcement, criminal organizations are political in the sense that they exist as separate, underground political entities from the traditional State. These organizations have hierarchical structures, like any political system, but they operate under a system of unwritten laws. People who live in neighborhoods or areas where there is a great deal of organized crime live by the rules of the organization “protecting” that “principality” even before they live by the laws of the State. The primary role of the American public in their unwitting support of organized crime is that of customer. Throughout Wiseguy, we see average people buying the stolen and illegal goods sold by the Vario family. Henry Hill sold stolen untaxed cigarettes at school, fenced money for his school mates, sold extra food from the kitchen when he was in the military, and sold stolen credit cards. To criminal organizations, the American public exists to buy their products and their protection. Drug and vice laws also significantly increase the level of power of organized crime. Organized crime emerges in situations where there is some sort of power vacuum. That is, because there is no State authority regulating the production and distribution of
Everly 6 certain prohibited products and activities, a power vacuum is created and criminal organizations are able to step in and take control. By passing drug and vice laws, the State creates the necessary environment for organizations to grow and flourish. “When the production and sale of a good or a service is prohibited… an effective power vacuum is created around the production, distribution, and financing of the prohibited commodity and its inputs” (5 Kumar and Skaperdas). Because this results in much higher prices and bigger profits, there is an increased demand for protective services. Since these are the primary components of the underground economic system of organized crime, it follows that their strength would greatly increase with the presence of drug and vice laws. During the decade of Henry Hill and the Vario family, the public perception of organized crime had merged with that of the Mafia. “Organized crime had become synonymous with a single ethnically homogeneous organizational entity” (7 von Lampe). During the 1970‟s, 80‟s, and 90‟s, organized crime became identified with groups other than the Italian Mafia. Awareness of other criminal organizations from other regions of the world – such as East Asia, Latin America, and Russia – came to the center stage. Since then, the largest change has been its “[evolution] from an integral facet of big city life to an assortment of global criminal players who challenge even the most powerful countries like the United States” (5 von Lampe). Through the years, organized crime itself has maintained the same political and economic expression, but has greatly increased its geographical influence and ethnic scope.
Everly 7 Works Cited DeFino, Dean. "The Prince of North Jersey." Journal of Popular Film and Television 32.2 (2004): 83-89. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Jan. 2011. Kumar, Vimal, and Stergios Skaperdas. "On The Economics OF Organized Crime." IDEAS: Economics and Finance Research. Feb. 2008. Web. 23 Jan. 2011. <http://ideas.repec.org/p/irv/wpaper/070815.html>. Machiavelli, Niccolo, and Anne Rooney. The Prince. Trans. W. K. Marriot. Edison, NJ: Chartwell, 2008. Print. Pileggi, Nicholas. Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. New York: Pocket, 1987. Print. Von Lampe, Klaus. "The Concept of Organized Crime in Historical Perspective." Organized Crime Research. Web. 23 Jan. 2011. <http://www.organizedcrime.de/lauhtm01.htm>.
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