Mafianomic history

On the Historical and Geographic Origins of the Sicilian Mafia

By Paolo Buonanno, Ruben Durante, Giovanni Prarolo (giovanni.prarolo@unibo.it) and Paolo Vanin

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:pra:mprapa:37009

Abstract

This research attempts to explain the large differences in the early diffusion of the mafia across different areas of Sicily. We advance the hypothesis that, after the demise of Sicilian feudalism, the lack of publicly provided property-right protection from widespread banditry favored the development of a florid market for private protection and the emergence of a cartel of protection providers: the mafia. This would especially be the case in those areas (prevalently concentrated in the Western part of the island) characterized by the production and commercialization of sulphur and citrus fruits, Sicily’s most valuable export goods whose international demand was soaring at the time. We test this hypothesis combining data on the early incidence of mafia across Sicilian municipalities and on the distribution of sulphur reserves, land suitability for the cultivation of citrus fruits, distance from the main commercial ports, and a variety of other geographical controls. Our empirical findings provide support for the proposed hypothesis documenting, in particular, a significant impact of sulphur extraction, terrain ruggedness, and distance from Palermo’s port on mafia’s early diffusion.

Review by Chris Colvin

What are the economic determinants of organised crime? This working paper, written by Paolo Buonanno (University of Bergamo), Ruben Durante (Sciences Po), Giovanni Prarolo and Paolo Vanin (both University of Bologna), attempts to answer this question by looking at the origins of protection rackets on the island of Sicily in the nineteenth century. The authors ask the question: why did the mafia emerge in the west nearly one hundred years before it did elsewhere on the island?

Diego Gambetta, a sociologist at Nuffield College Oxford, has long argued that eastern landlords were better equipped to maintain control as they were present on their lands, whilst western absentee-landlords left their tenants vulnerable to violence by bandits, therefore creating a market for mafiosi. Oriana Bandiera, an economist at the LSE, advances a model that implies that the mafia were more active where landholdings were fragmented. Buonanno et al. add another explanation: there was a high demand for protection in those areas in which citrus crops and sulphur mining were the most important economic activities. These commodities were vulnerable to predatory attacks by bandits when being transported to markets. Property rights on the island were weak, and so areas which specialised in these vulnerable commodities demanded protection services in order to stay in business.

Sketch of a 1901 trial of suspected mafiosi in Palermo (L'Ora, May 1901).

The authors use a sociological survey of Sicily’s mafia conducted in 1900 to code the level of mafia presence at the municipality level. This dataset, which the authors argue has never before been analysed quantitatively, covers more of the island than any other historical source, and does not suffer from the biases inherent in government-collected data. The authors use regression analysis to explain mafia activity with geomorphological (topography), census and road infrastructure data. They find evidence of their hypothesis: the mafia were most present in areas with the right conditions for citric fruits and sulphur extraction. They challenge Bandiera: land fragmentation is not an explanation, but is rather a result of geographic endowment; rugged landscapes lead to small landholdings, which in turn created a demand for mafia services.

Whilst the authors claim to explain the emergence of Sicily’s mafia, I think that they are actually doing something slightly different. Their data on mafia activity refer to 1900, some fifty years after the authors claim that protection racketeers emerged on the island. I think that what they are actually doing is explaining where the mafia was most successful at the end of these 50 years, not where it originated per se. I think that the authors could benefit from using some tools from spatial analysis to strengthen their results. For instance, they could look into spatial autocorrelation, and perhaps need to consider the implications of the fact that western municipalities appear to be much larger than eastern ones. Finally, I think they could be more explicit about how they are addressing the ecological fallacy if they want to prove causality; how do we know that an area’s orange growers and sulphur miners are the ones seeking the mafia protection?

A brief note for those wishing to distribute their working papers using the NEP-HIS email: The working paper reviewed here was added to NEP using the Munich Personal RePEc Archive. This great on-line service allows economic historians with no access to an established institutional working paper series to add their paper directly to the RePEc database.

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7 thoughts on “Mafianomic history

  1. Pingback: Mafianomics « De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

  2. Pingback: FT Alphaville » Property rights and the economic origins of the Sicilian mafia

  3. Ben

    The paper presents a nice empirical study, but for the sake of argument I’d point that they are underselling their paper.

    If we consider Cosa Nostra as an embryonic state, their research has a massive impact for the emergence of government: it is clearly the economy first and the state second. That is particularly interesting for medievalists and it runs against the institutional approach that sees the rules of the game as a sine qua non condition for development.

    PS: I’m being picky but a 8.8% growth will never bring a volume of 25 to 180 in 27 years (p.6), 20.5% is more like it.

    Reply
  4. Chris Colvin Post author

    Another brand new paper looking to explain the origins of the Sicilian Mafia is by Arcangelo Dimico (Queen’s University Belfast) and co-authors, which can be downloaded from his website:

    https://sites.google.com/site/arcangelodimico/Home/publications

    Dimico et al. also have a citrus fruit explanation for mafia origins. Some differences with Buonanno et al. are: they use an alternative, earlier, historical source to construct their mafia strength variable; they model their relationship algebraically and in so doing address endogeneity; and they use some spatial econometrics in their analysis.

    These two papers are doing very similar things. I think it is going to be tough for both sets of authors to differentiate themselves. I fear that they are going to be in a bit of a race to get published!

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Friday Breakfast Links | Points and Figures

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