Continuing Education... David Skarbek on Prison Gangs and the Social Order of the Underworld

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
David Skarbek on Prison Gangs ... Vernon Smith and James Otteson...

This week's episode, garnering a PG-13 rating from Roberts, was a fascinating look inside the formal and informal governance structures of America's prisons with guest David Skarbek.

As always, we'd like to continue learning from and conversing with one another. Have a look at the prompts below, and share your response in the Comments. Thanks for listening; we love to hear from you.


1. What constitutes "formal governance" in prisons, according to Skarbek, and why does he argue that such governance is largely insufficient in prisons today? How do Skarbek's definitions of "formal" and "informal" governance compare to institutional structures in the outside world? What analogies can you draw between prison order and civil society?

2. Skarbek argues that the written constitutions which exist for some prison gangs are not as effective as they might like. What makes them ineffective? Other outlaw groups, by comparison, have had success with written constitutions. (Revisit this episode with Peter Lesson on social order among pirates for more.) Why are such formalized rules more successful in one "outlaw" (prison) setting than another (pirates)? What lessons can we draw from these experiences for non-outlaw social groups?

How are prison gangs like primitive states? 3. How are prison gangs like primitive states? (For more on Mancur Olsen's distinction between roving and stationary bandits, see this EconLog post by David Henderson.) What does this suggest for those trying to curb the negative behaviors of prison gangs?

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COMMENTS (2 to date)
Jeremiah Tello writes:

In response to question 3, we need first realize that the idea of a "primitive" state is not the correct framework to be posing this question around. The primitive state still exists, only today, it exists in a way which is hidden in plain sight from those in the developed world. 1st world vs 2nd world vs 3rd world countries engaging in economic and academic and physiological warfare are prime examples. Roaming pirates still exists in the form of multinational corporations. Until we acknowledge these realities we should not be wasting our thoughts on such questions.

Patrick Kelly writes:

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