James is an alley-mechanic – he and his team of five workers repair cars in an alley behind a church on the South Side of Chicago.  James rents the space from the church pastor for $50/day.   James has been doing business there for twenty years or so.  Then, along comes Carl, another alley mechanic.  He sets up a garage close to James.  Carl hires some homeless people to hand out flyers offering discounts to motorists arriving at James’ repair shop.

James is ticked, to put it mildly.  James thinks he has property rights to car repairs in the area – he pays $50/day for this right.  He asks the pastor to adjudicate. The pastor is well-known in the neighborhood and often acts as a mediator in contractual disputes. The pastor finds in favor of James.  But Carl is not from the neighborhood and does not acknowledge the pastor’s authority.  He continues to compete with James.

James turns to an informal court that has developed in the neighborhood.  The court arose to settle disputes between rival gangs but it grew to act as a general arbiter of contractual disagreements in the local underground economy. Again, the court finds in favor of James.  Again, Carl ignores the determination of the “court” as it has no authority over him.  Finally, the pastor is forced to use old-fashioned contract enforcement – violence.  He hires a gang of thugs to beat up Carl and his crew and drive them out.   End of story

(Source: Talk by Sudhir Venkatesh at the Harris School, University of Chicago)

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