In the late Mario Puzo’s classic novel “The Godfatherâ€, the author explains a young Vito Corleone’s use of violence to eliminate his competitors in the olive oil business as follows: “Like many businessmen of genius he learned that free competition was wasteful, monopoly efficient.â€ Of course this isn’t true. Corleone obtained his monopoly, but only through an elaborate network of government payoffs and layers of redundant security designed to prevent assassination. Even that didn’t prevent Corleone from being shot by a rival syndicate after his driver took a payoff. This hardly sounds like a model of efficiency.“The Godfatherâ€ novels and films are perhaps the best fictional study of monopoly and competition. The second sequel to Puzo’s original book, authored by Florida State University professor Mark Winegardner and published last week, contains a particularly illuminating passage on the evils of state intervention. A key theme of the Godfather series is Michael Corleone’s quest to convert his father’s crime syndicate into a “legitimateâ€ business organization. In one scene, set in 1963, Michael is on his New York penthouse balcony looking through a telescope. He looks down on Randall’s Island, then the site of Robert Moses’s mansion and offices. Moses is in many respects the man Corleone aspires to be:
Moses had never been elected to any office, yet he was the most powerful politician in New Yorkâ€”city and state, both. He was also the most extravagantly corrupt. This would have surprised most people, but not anyone in Michael Corleone’s world. The dimmest cugin‘ sitting on the stoop outside his social club could have told you that Robert Moses’s enormous power had an inevitable chicken/egg relationship to the epic scale of his sleaze and greed.
. . . [Moses] had thrown half a million New Yorkers out of their homes, most of them Negroes and poor immigrants, many of them Italian. Half a million people. More than the population of Kansas City. Moses tore their homes down and built buildings the evicted could never afford orâ€”more often, more diabolicallyâ€”housing projects that, even new, were more grim than the worst slums. All built with taxpayer money. Robert Moses built roads that cut out the heart of neighborhoods, creating crime-ridden ghost streets where families had once thrived, all to make life easy for the rich people from the suburbs, all to make Moses himself rich beyond Michael Corleone’s wildest imaginings. Moses had three yachts, each fully staffed, ready day or night. He had a hundred waiters and a dozen chefs on call around the clock as well. As gifts, he gave his friends skyscrapers and stadiums. Moses’s island was its own nationâ€”a secret nation, one the American public did not know existed and yet paid for. And kept paying for it.
Unlike Vito Corleone’s fictional “efficientâ€ monopoly, Moses’s real-life monopoly was the product of pure theft and offered little personal risk compared to crime syndicate management. Like Moses, however, the fictional Godfather recognized not the economic truth of free markets but the political abomination of unrestricted violence. The “legitimacyâ€ Michael Corleone sought was not a business free of violence and corruption, but a business where that violence and corruption was practiced openly without fear of personal reprisal, like Moses did.