The free market economy needs regulation, and we know that thanks to the work of Machine Gun Kelly.
The handsome con man and his ambitious wife survived during the Great Depression engaging in one of the leading entrepreneurial activities of the time: kidnapping for ransom. But they weren’t just brazen criminals, they were working the weaknesses in the system. A key one? They made sure to commit their crimes across state lines.
We’ve all seen photos, movies and books set during this period: widespread poverty, homelessness, unemployment in staggering numbers and dust storms blotting out the sun. We know the Great Depression resulted in an economic dislocation that from today’s perspective is almost impossible to imagine. What is less often talked about is its lawlessness.
Cops weren’t allowed to cross state lines and criminals were able to assert effective control over entire cities. They could rob banks, kidnap and generate money from countless other illegal activities with relative impunity. A crime in one county didn’t necessarily obligate another county or state to prosecute, even if a criminal was identified.
In “The Year of Fear, Machine Gun Kelly and the Manhunt That Changed the Nation,” author Joe Urschel describes how J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation cobbled together the resources — and in some ways broke the law — to capture Kelly and his less than salubrious spouse. It was an effort of improvisation, inventing new ways to enforce laws and work across jurisdictions, that legitimized our FBI and created regulation and coordination of policing across state lines.
Regulation of law enforcement provided a desperately needed counterbalance to lawlessness. Once order was in place, the cottage industries of kidnapping, bank robbery and extortion dissipated, and Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary became home to many formerly successful criminals.
The gangster story doesn’t end with an FBI victory and legitimization of centralized law enforcement regulation because it includes the accumulation and abuse of regulatory power by J. Edgar Hoover in the 40 years thereafter. Much has been written about the overreaching surveillance activities undertaken by our FBI over American citizens under Hoover’s guidance.
However, the tale of Machine Gun Kelly does encapsulate how regulation can bring order and safety to a complex, large society. We need rules and centralized authority to allow for collective action to push back against those aiming to harm us or act against our collective best interests. In a vast country like the United States, some things simply can’t be accomplished without centralized authority. The challenge is to ensure that it is exercised appropriately and with respect to civil liberties.
Progressives and conservatives each look at regulation and draw different lessons from Machine Gun Kelly. Progressive see a validation of the need for rules and regulation. Conservative see the aftermath and see the concentration of power of enforcement as a threat to the liberty of individual action.
In fact, both are right. And, in its essence, this is something currently lost on our body politic. Our national culture is shaped through the push-and-pull of collective action and protection of individual freedom.
In today’s political climate, both progressivism and conservatism are pivotal in solving our most pressing problems — and we all suffer when we don’t acknowledge that.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and chairman of Amplifier Ventures, a venture capital fund focusing on national security technology innovation. He is co-host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program.