Who Are the Outlaws? A Freakonomics Quorum

By now it’s a common phrase: “When X are outlawed, only outlaws will have X.” The X has been filled in by, among others: guns, perfume bottles, and Wonderbras.

But who are the modern-day outlaws? Do we still have outlaws or did they die off with the last of the frontier towns — or maybe later, with the Hell’s Angels?

We asked a group of people who know a bit about outlaws — Peter Leeson, Stephen Mihm, Graham Seal, and Chris Uggen — the following:

Does America still have an outlaw group?

If so, why do you consider them outlaws?

Does society need outlaws?

Thanks to all for their thoughts. Your feedback and comments are welcome.

Chris Uggen, Distinguished McKnight Professor and chair of sociology at the University of Minnesota, executive secretary of the American Society of Criminology, co-author of Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, and co-editor of Contexts Magazine.

“Just imagine, as sociologist Emile Durkheim did, a society of saints made up of exemplary citizens. … In that crowd, even a burp or blemish could mark one as a real bada–.”

Oh, hell yes, there are outlaws in America — and everywhere else, for that matter. Anyone who breaks rules is in some sense an outlaw, subject to social or legal sanctions if their outlawry is detected. These penalties operate on a sliding scale, depending on whether the outlaw smokes cigarettes or meth, pirates DVD’s or ships, or violates college hate-speech codes or state hate-crime laws.

But our standards for outlaws are relative, not absolute; they change over time and social space.

Societies are constantly raising or lowering the bar, outlawing formerly accepted behaviors — like smoking — and legalizing former crimes, like lotteries.

In any group, those with greater power tend to control the rule-making process. And they sometimes go to great lengths to make outlaws out of those who might threaten their power, by restricting their ability to vote or work or have children. Regardless of who holds power, societies operate with a basic set of rules that necessarily beget a basic set of rule violators.

Just imagine, as sociologist Emile Durkheim did, a society of saints made up of exemplary citizens. Would there be no outlaws in such a group? No! They’d pick at each other for minor peccadilloes and trivial misdeeds. In that crowd, even a burp or blemish could mark one as a real bada–.

Nobody is arguing that contemporary America is a society of saints. To the contrary, it often seems as though we’re “defining deviancy down,” as senator and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it.

Cultural critics of the hell-in-a-handbasket school worry that our blasé attitudes toward once-shocking behavior –- network telecasts of ultimate fighters beating the bloody snot out of one another, for example — diminish us all. But don’t forget that we’re simultaneously outlawing other nasty conduct that shocks our collective conscience, such as date rape or sexual harassment.

Whether you view our culture’s current constellation of outlaws as ennobling or diminishing is largely a matter of value preferences.

And remember that outlaws put in some important work for a society. When they expose their bodies at the Super Bowl, our reactions — the extent to which we freak out — tell us something about the current boundaries between proper and improper public conduct. When outlaws are arrested at a political convention, we get a heads-up that change is in the wind. When outlaws sell sex or drugs, we get a safety valve to release pent-up frustrations.

Even when outlaws commit consensus crimes like murder, we get a needed opportunity to publicly condemn them and reaffirm our shared values with our fellow citizens.

While society needs outlaws, it doesn’t need a permanent outlaw class. We’d do well to remember that today’s outlaws are tomorrow’s good citizens; and there’s no citizen more zealous than an outlaw redeemed.

Stephen Mihm, assistant professor of American history at the University of Georgia and author of A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States.

“As the name would imply, outlaws literally exist beyond the reach of the law; and that became increasingly hard to do as the decades passed. … These days, it’s far easier to be an online outlaw.”

In the United States, the myth of the outlaw has often been bound up with the allure of the frontier. It’s no accident that the golden age of the outlaw in this country was in the late 18th and 19th centuries, when sometimes-legendary brigands, marauders, and robbers prowled the margins of the nation.

Colorful figures like Stephen Burroughs and John Murrell captivated many in the opening decades of the 19th century, even if they are no longer household names today. The more familiar and famous miscreants who succeeded them — Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and others — have never lost their appeal.

As the name would imply, outlaws literally exist beyond the reach of the law; and that became increasingly hard to do as the decades passed.

While the significance of the “closing” of the frontier was exaggerated by an earlier generation of historians, it’s hard to deny that the business of evading the law became more and more difficult with each passing year. Where does an outlaw hide these days? Where does he — and it’s usually a he — lie low when there’s a warrant for his arrest, much less a posse of cop cars on his trail?

There are figures that certainly qualify as flesh-and-blood outlaws in this moment of our history, but they’re far and few between.

These days, it’s far easier to be an online outlaw. The internet has opened up a world where people can shed old identities, assume new ones, and launch assaults on authority that are next-to-impossible in the real world that most of us inhabit.

But behaving badly online doesn’t make someone an outlaw. Internet “trolls” abound, but they’re not outlaws in the true sense of the word.

By most definitions, outlaws are figures that the authorities view as criminals, but who are viewed as heroes by other people — particularly people outside of power. Today’s hackers fit the bill, even if they don’t usually redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, a la Robin Hood.

But as folklorist Graham Seal has pointed out, there are some similarities between past and present: they share the proceeds of their ventures (posting security flaws for all the world to see), and, like the outlaws of old, their exploits are romanticized and exaggerated (celebrity hacker Kevin Mitnick comes to mind here).

Just as important, hackers are celebrated for targeting the rich or powerful. Recently, Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin became the classic victim of an outlaw attack when her Yahoo account was hacked and her private correspondences were made public.

Perhaps the latest virtual incarnation of the outlaw is simply thriving on the electronic frontier. But it’s more likely that the figure of the outlaw survives today because we need outlaws. Let’s face it: most of us are pretty law-abiding types. Our pathetic challenges to authority consist of calling in sick to the office in order to go to the beach, or running red lights.

But everyone grinds their teeth in secret resentment over someone or something in whose shadow they feel powerless: Bill Gates and the programmers who gave us Windows; the Internal Revenue Service; and for many liberals, a hitherto-obscure governor of Alaska.

When someone more daring and outrageous stages an over-the-top attack on these figures, there are people everywhere who secretly (and no doubt a bit guiltily) cheer on the outlaw.

Graham Seal, professor of folklore at Curtin University of Technology in Australia; director of the Centre for Advanced Studies in Australia, Asia, and the Pacific; and author of The Outlaw Legend: A Cultural Tradition in Britain, America, and Australia.

“The current train wreck of consumer capitalism is likely to see the Robin Hood principle in action again.”

The Robin Hood principle states that wherever groups of people feel themselves oppressed in some way they are highly likely to produce their own outlaw hero.

Research across 2,000 years of global history and myth identifies at least 200 individuals who have been celebrated as “noble robbers.” From Robin Hood to Dick Turpin, from Jesus Christ to Jesse James, from Pancho Villa to Ned Kelly, these friends of the poor are said to rob the rich and powerful, to right wrongs, to treat the weak with respect, and to offer violence only in justified defense.

Whether these characteristics are true or not is hotly disputed wherever outlaw heroes are found. Nevertheless, ambivalent figures like Billy the Kid, Salvatore Giuliano, Stenka Razin, and India’s “bandit queen,” Phoolan Devi, among many others, can be identified in history and in folklore. They continue to appear wherever political, cultural, and economic conflicts tear the fabric of society.

Popular culture also likes to play with the outlaw image. People like the ex-hacker Mark Abene (Phiber Optik), the Hungarian “whiskey robber,” and the Australian ex-criminal Chopper Read are frequently romanticized into latter-day Robin Hoods by the media, and by themselves.

Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings have sung the outlaw’s song. The Dukes of Hazzard flirted with outlawry on television screens at various times during the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s.

The narcocorridos of Hispanic popular music celebrate drug runners as heroes against the establishment, and have even portrayed terrorists as Robin Hood-like figures. An Osama bin Laden character appeared as a protector of his people in a Calcutta Hindu street-theater performance in 2003. Osama bin Hood.

Deserving of such treatment or not, outlaw heroes are the smoke of a fire burning deep in the resentful core of an ethnic, cultural, religious, or class group that perceives itself to be the victim of injustice. Perception is the important concept here. Whether the group is actually being oppressed does not matter; it only needs to believe that it is.

The outlaw hero has troubled societies of all kinds for thousands of years. He ranges the unsettled borders of the old world and rides the frontiers of the new world. He hides out in mountains, marshes, forests, and other places where his pursuers cannot reach him.

He is the usually undeserving but chosen bearer of the ancient dream that refuses to die: there can be justice, all people can have fair access to the available resources, and wealth and power should not be the prerogative of a select few.

The current train wreck of consumer capitalism is likely to see the Robin Hood principle in action again.

Peter Leeson, BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at George Mason University, author of the forthcoming book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, and past contributor to this blog.

“Other outlaw groups benefit citizens by satisfying consumer demands that would otherwise go unsatisfied because of government regulations.”

Q: Does America still have an outlaw group?

Yes, Congress.

More seriously (but only slightly), America has several outlaw groups: the Mafia, street gangs, and prison gangs are a few examples.

Q: Why do you consider them outlaws?

These groups’ members are “outlaws” because they earn (at least part of) their incomes illegally. They’re members of “outlaw groups” because they form criminal communities — societies separate and distinct from “normal” American society.

Criminality is necessary but not sufficient for an outlaw group. A pickpocket is a criminal, but pickpockets aren’t an outlaw group. No identifiable “pickpocket society” exists within broader American society. In contrast, outlaw groups such as the Mafia, street gangs, and prison gangs have clearly defined “citizenships” like normal societies do; they have their own “laws” regulating their members’ behavior like normal societies do; they even have their own cultures like normal societies do.

Q: Does society need outlaws?

That depends. Society could certainly do without activities that amount to simple violence or theft. This applies as much to government’s activities as it does to those of traditional outlaws. Still, some outlaws’ activities can actually benefit society.

Where government fails to protect individuals’ property rights or regulates consensual market activities, outlaws can benefit citizens by circumventing government failures or restrictions that make citizens worse off.

The Mafia, for example, emerged in Italy because government failed to protect citizens’ property rights from thugs. The Mafia became a thug itself; but it got its foot in the door because it satisfied an important consumer demand that government failed to satisfy.

Some prison gangs also emerge partly for this reason: to protect inmates from prison violence where guards can’t or won’t do so. Even street gangs provide property protection for their members.

Other outlaw groups benefit citizens by satisfying consumer demands that would otherwise go unsatisfied because of government regulations. Consider, for example, Al Capone’s “Chicago Outfit” during American Prohibition, which supplied Americans with one of their favorite beverages: alcohol. Similarly, some North American colonists embraced another outlaw group — pirates — because pirates helped them circumvent England’s stifling Navigation acts.

Of course, since outlaws supply criminal markets, plenty of negative side effects can attend even wealth-producing outlaw behaviors. Gang protection may turn into extortion; turf wars in the illicit alcohol business contributed to the St. Valentine’s Day massacre; and so on. Similarly, outlaws satisfy some consumer demands that are better left unsatisfied, such as the demand for hit men.

Whether a specific outlaw group’s activities benefit or harm society on balance depends on the particulars. But if government failures or laws criminalizing nonviolent behaviors evaporated, society’s need for outlaws would as well.

John Paul Thornton

Why, South America, of course. Truly a brigand´s paradise.

Bret "the Outlaw" Bucklen

I’m writing in response to Chris Uggen’s section in this piece on “outlaws”. As a Ph.D. student in Criminology at the University of Maryland, I’m obviously familiar with Uggen’s work and was both excited to see him writing here on this blog and interested to see what he had to say. His answer clearly demonstrates an affinity to the “status characteristic” hypothesis of labeling theory (e.g., the writings of Tannenbaum, Erickson, Becker, etc.). The part of his response that piqued my curiosity was his statement that “our standards for outlaws are relative, not absolute; they change over time and social space”. I agree that this is the case. However I’m more interested in the “should”. In other words, should this be the case? Is there a definitive standard outside of our time and space from which to we should define deviancy, where does this standard come from, and should we as a society move from our current relativistic definitions of deviancy to such an absolute standard if it exists? The problem with our relativistic definitions of deviancy (or outlaws), as I believe Uggen hints around, is that some are considered deviants (or outlaws) in their own time but are viewed down the corridors of history as heroes and saints. Some of my own personal heroes were considered outlaws during their own time. I do believe that there is an absolute standard of deviancy that separates from our human, relativistic definitions of deviancy and would be interested in engaging in discussion with anyone interested in the topic. I also believe, as Durkheim did, that deviancy is normal to a society. I believe that human nature is towards deviancy as opposed to conformity. In true “social control” fashion, I believe the question to be answered by theorists/researchers is why we’re not all deviants (or delinquents/criminals, as is the question most often addressed by social control theorists in the field of criminology).

The second concept that I believe is a natural extension of a discussion of “outlaws” (or deviancy) is the concept of redemption. Uggen makes a brief mention of redemption in his last paragraph. This is a concept that is making a come-up in our field, especially in the area of what is referred to as restorative justice and prisoner reentry. I believe we as a society need to better understand and embrace the concept of redemption. As Thomas Hill put it, how can we as a society promote moving one from “hell-raiser to family man”? Some of my mentors in the field discuss this in terms of “desistance” from delinquency/criminal behavior. I wonder, can one go through a process of desistance from deviancy and what does that look like? This is a topic that I’m fairly certain Uggen would be interested in based on his publications. Again, I’d enjoy engaging in a discussion on the topic.



nobody got it- the modern outlaw is the unscrupulous financier- he steals millions by going around the law while a punk in podunk steals a $20,000 used car and is thrown in jail

Hereward the Wake

There are lots of outlaws out there on the side of 'good' - people who have an alternative way which doesn't fit with the standard model and fighters for justice.

Mexican masked wrestlers; 'Banksy' and other guerilla artists; people growing vegetables in vacant city lots

Outlaw communities - green communities in Wales (only known to the authorities after appearing on aerial photos); squatters in Berlin; Christiana, a place with no laws, in Copenhagen.

Activists - peace camps (protestors against US Cruise misile bases in 1980's UK), anti-motorway protest camps (Newbury, England), Greenpeace ships.

But they only become true outlaws when the status quo, government or authority feels threatened or wants an example or scapegoat.

My brother is an outlaw - a new age traveller, one of the nomadic tribes living in tents, vans and tepees in 1980s and 1990s Britain, moving from free festival to free festival. The original Glastonbury 'crusties'.

Back in the day the UK Conservative government saw travellers as everything they hated - not seeking work, not paying the Poll tax.

Stonehenge became the focal point for both sides - travellers wanting to be there at mid Summer to celebrate the solstice, government warning of the lawless tide damaging our most ancient monument.

For years massive police deployments used dubiuosly legal powers to blockade 100s of miles of Britain each summer to 'protect' Stonehenge. There were some notable clashes - the battle of the beanfield was one: violent neo-hippies apparently trashing a farmer's fields or a lot of women and children violently teargassed. At any rate, much media hysteria.

Along comes a Labour government - no interest in scapegoating. Suddenly all the police effort and threat vanish: now anyone is allowed into the stones at daybreak at midsummer.

Both sides can draw the line which marks out an outlaw...

There is a picture of my brother being arrested at Stonehenge in Salisbury museum. I'm very proud of him.



It could be accurately be argued that Jesus was the only person ever who doesn't have the outlaw prerequisite of "breaks the law" :)

Robert Lee

to poster John Paul Thorton, where did you go, I'd love to get away from the USSKY!!!


This is one of the best articles/blogs I've read in QUITE a long time, especially coming from the New York Times. I, sir, salute you Mr. Dubner.

Your friendly neighborhood outlaw

- Lucky


Few things to clear up.

Hells Angels is not dead by any means. There are sources saying they control majority of drug importing in this country on the Eastern coast.

Secondly, to the person talking about crime life not paying and stress not being worth it.

I can best describe it as:

if $$$ > stress and quality of life increase > possibly of long term consequence

then it definitely pays.

It is not something for the long run, but in the long run it can be satisfying and lucrative provided long term consequences are not extreme.


The last two contributions were brilliant, and together form a cohesive response to the question I think.

"The Robin Hood principle states that wherever groups of people feel themselves oppressed in some way they are highly likely to produce their own outlaw hero."

"Q: Does America still have an outlaw group?

Yes, Congress.... the Mafia, street gangs, and prison gangs are a few examples."

We are oppressed by government, but we look to government for an answer; and we back that up with criminal substitutes.

"these friends of the poor are said to rob the rich and powerful, to right wrongs, to treat the weak with respect, and to offer violence only in justified defense."

Congress (and the executive) are probably the best populist response, and explain our growth in government.


It's hard to know what the value or purpose of these questions might be. Because: it seems obvious that where laws exist, outlaws will also exist.

Maybe Dubner just wants to elicit an emotional response from the audience here, for whatever that might be worth. The three questions imply that -- somehow -- murderers, thieves, con artists, and bullies are worthy of social attention. Maybe they are worthy of respect, too, and intellectual appreciation.

The proper response is to ask, If someone kills a person you love, should you be happy about it? If someone takes your money, should you be glad? If someone takes advantage of your weakness, should you thank them?

Like many people, my life has been rich in associations. It is not unusual to be able to say that I have known and have had close dealings with true criminals. Who, truthfully, can say they have not?

My observation is this: There is no glory, no compelling value, in being an outlaw. All outlaws eventually must seek a life that frees them from unrelenting stress. Some find it in prison. Some find it in obscurity. Some find it through travel.

But ALL outlaws are losers for the constrained quality of life they experience, until they give it up.

The truth of this won't stop anyone from murder or theft or coercion, but it makes a PURE LIE out of any attempt by others, mere observers, to romanticize outlaws.



I once saw a protester at a Bush speech holding a protest sign outside of the "free speech" pens they set up. Does that count?


Really, hacking DRM and the like is a trivial activity. It's self-indulgent and doesn't benefit anyone but the hacker. It harms the artist and destabilizes entire industries. I have no love for the record companies, who missed the chance to take advantage of a great, low cost way to distribute their products, but they do (did) provide a useful service. It's the artist that matters and by commoditizing their unique creations, you devalue it.


Uh, hello? Drug dealers are the ultimate outlaws, especially in poor urban areas. They're probably the most pervasive and blatant lawbreakers, and yet there's a mixed morality about them. They're well integrated into communities and are agents of the biggest economic agents in town, and their struggle with the cops is the biggest source of violence in the ghetto And as for ballads, have you ever listened to rap music?



Helicopter pilots. In researching how it is that they can fly over my home every five minutes on their tours to see the lava flow, I discovered that they literally fly above the law. The FAA is supposed to dictate safe flight paths for them, but instead, they let the pilots go anywhere they please. My once rural, quiet haven has been destroyed by noisy, obtrusive overflights of elitist tourists too lazy to walk around and see the land and it's people. The pilots are indeed mercenaries of the air. In their spare time they fly around looking for cannabis patches to report so the cops will hire them to fly them to eradicate the weed. You can't even report the most egregious offenses the pilots make because the ID numbers are painted on the top of the craft, where people below cannot read it.

It is not just Hawaii, these helicopters are invading communities around the nation, ruining people's lives.


steve pesce

I wish you were outlaws. We need some old fashion justice around these parts. The reason this election is not over is because of the destabilizing effects of this crisis. So far neither candidate has stepped up to bat and called for criminal prosecution of the crooks on Wall Street who caused this crisis. Enron, Jail. SNL's, Jail. Where is the jail time for these frauds who just cost the American taxpayers trillions? And Paulson was at Goldman Sachs where he sold his stock for half a billion two years ago. He left Shearson go under which was a long time Goldman Sachs competitor, but has bailed out AIG twice, who have close ties to Goldman Sachs and AIG's failure probably would have sunk Goldman with it. That's an obvious conflict of interest and Paulson should be investigated and tossed out on his investment banker behind.

The Congress needs to wake up and realize they work for the people and not their corporate bosses. The Congress passed the bailout without a single public hearing. While Nader proposed making the bums on Wall Street pay for their own bailout with a one dollar tax on every transaction on Wall Street, Congress decided to give them our money despite knowing that Americans were outraged by this. And now these banks are allowed to give dividends -- to themselves and their big shareholders, which takes away the worth of these companies that's supposed to come back to us eventually. How are we letting this happen? We need a taxpayer revolt. We need the SEC to prosecute these frauds and criminals on Wall Street. And we need to vote in a consumer advocate with a record of fighting big corporations like Nader. We need to take back our government before they let the big corporations steal everything that's not nailed down.



When laws are outlawed, only outlaws will have laws. When marriage is outlawed, only outlaws will have in-laws.

yet another discordian

The Drug "War" has made outlaws out of millions of Americans. To refer to Prohibition in the past tense is absurd. The gang violence of today is no difference than Capone's violence of a past era.


When I read Leeson's segment in particular it just reminded me why I love/miss "The Wire" so, so much. Omar was the last Robin Hood character in our media, and one of the best in history. A man's got to have a code!


I don't know about the USA, but I was acquainted with a real modern outlaw in Britain. He was really outside the law, and lived his life carefully so that the law would not notice him. He may have had a birth certificate, but from then on he did not appear in any offical record. This had unexpected consequences. For example, he was the safest driver that I ever met; he simply could not afford contact with the police as a result of an accident. He had children by a number of women - to none of whom was he married of course - and maintained reasonably happy relations with all of his partners and offspring - he could not afford family troubles leading to contact with social services, police or courts. His source of income was various forms of ripping off - in non-violent, non-criminal ways - a wide range of people (including me); augmented by paying no taxes. He could not afford the sort of criminality which might attract police attention.

Why he chose this difficult lifestyle, I do not know. But I feel it would be good for society if there were a few more like him.


John Paul Thornton

>As a modern day outlaw, I must put in my two cents. I have left the godforsaken state of Alabama over 2 DUIs, a probation violation, a failure to appear and a disorderly conduct charges. These are all misdemeanors, but they came fast and hard. I endured police harrassment, a beating, 51 days in the city jail just waiting on a trial and 40 of those days in solitary under ´´suicide watch´´, totally illegal and reserved for the hardest of the hard. which i guess is me.

so i am in another country. here, no one asks if i have any misdemeanors. no one seems to care. there arent much in the way of laws or police.

so to answer your question, outlaws simply go to where there are fewer laws, seeking an equilibrium.