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.


Arlen came up with a good one, I think AXXO, is probably the most famous.



The close-knit community of "hackers" who circumvent DRM on music, movies, and games in order to turn around and distribute that content freely to strangers are the closest thing that we have to modern-day Robin Hoods. They "steal" from fat companies and give to those who cannot otherwise afford the content. There are few people as adored or as reviled.


How about Washington D.C. Beltway grafitti artist Borf? Puts 'art' up for commuters that the government then has to remove.


I dunno, yeah we could use a few "classic" outlaws. And what are those... we guess that's up to debate.

Meanwhile, that picture above is brilliant! And will become my computer's desktop for the week.

Eric M. Jones

For two summers when I was between semesters in college I worked in a lumberyard, cutting glass, driving the big Ford F350 delivery truck and shoveling gravel. One of my work buddies was an old tubercular guy named Jim. He had spent time in jail…a lot of time. The first time it was for having sex with his cousin, who he described as an overly developed girl of 13. Jim was only 19 or so and a desperately lonely longhaul trucker during WWII. He said it was her idea. He did jail time and when he got out no one would hire him. So in desperation he broke into a gas station and was caught immediately. He did time for that too.

Jim was a good friend and showed me how to do the work. He gave me a pair of his old work boots. “They’re prison boots” he said. They were tan-colored Mason ankle boots with odd hexagonal eyelets. He explained that police could recognize ex-cons and escapees by the shoes.

In the Fall I was back in college and exploring New York City. I began to get approached by fearsome looking men who would try to strike up a conversation. I knew this was something to be avoided but was puzzled. Did I look like an easy mark? Were these guys looking for money…for sex? When I was out with my roommates on the subway, some tough guys would approach me and not even glance at my buddies. Why?

One day a mean-looking muscular tattooed guy came up to me, scratched his beard and said, “What was y’ in for?” I knew he could only mean in jail, and asked him why he though so. He glanced at my feet and said, “Da shoes man, …da shoes!”

From that day, I knew I had my own private community in New York City. Guys would flash me “the priso-boot look” and I would nod to them and give them a private little clenched-fist “okay…yeh, I done some hard time man…” Hustlers and tricksters and various bad guys would glance at my boots and steer clear.

I was an outlaw....well, I pretended to be.



Outlaws? Yeah, there's a few big bad guys around that'll scare the holy heck outta ya. I've met a few.

But what about the "sub-group" outlaws? The doctors who go up against the AMA? The "outlaw architects" of the sixties that first touted and developed solar and wind power and began using alternative materials and designs in their buildings? Or the outlaw artists and poets that (once in a while) get pointed out by the press as being too far outside the norm?

These are the outlaws that we need! They bring some LIFE into the world; they make people ask questions of each other and of themselves.

Is that not the function of the outlaw? To overturn the status quo once in a while? And redistribute the wealth of information to the people who haven't been allowed to think beyond a tight system education and social oppression or who just didn't care?

Let these be the outlaws that we revere, whether we agree or not with their ideas.