Discussed on EconTalk

Talks & Media

Evolving Prisons podcast, 16 April 2024

Brazil Globo Epox interview, January 2017

Millenium - GloboNews Brazilian TV feature, 30 January 2017 

Penal Reform International article, 24 November 2016

BBC - Brasil article, 10 July 2016

War Studies, King's College London talk, 13 May 2016

London School of Economics panel, 16 November 2015

Economic Rockstar podcast, 22 October 2015 

Institute of Economic Affairs Think, 11 July 2015

Politico's The Agenda, 18 June 2015 

King's College London podcast, 10 June 2015

Correctional Nursing Today podcast, April 2015

EconTalk podcast, 30 March 2015

Opinion piece, Orange County Register, 13 March 2015

Reason interview, 12 March 2015

WTOP interview, 19 February 2015

Noticieros Televisa, 17 February 2015

Eye on the World, PhoenixTV (Hong Kong), 6 October 2014

Book Launch at King's College London, with David Soskice and Tim Newburn, 6 October 2014

​​Liberty.me Author Forum, 5 July 2014

King's College London podcast, 17 February 2014

Talk at Texas Tech University, 7 November 2013

Talk at Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, 19 April 2013


This is a fascinating study of what the title suggests. It is also a remarkable study of a "natural experiment" in the evolution of government. Put a couple of thousand men, not of the nicest kind, into close confinement with limited communication facilities and little government, and see what happens. What happens is government, based largely on ethnic gangs, with hierarchy, rules, and sometimes written constitutions. The basic problem to be solved is the management of the market for drugs, and solving that leads to genuine institutions. A great read.

--- Thomas C. Schelling, Nobel Laureate in Economics (2005)

David Skarbek’s "The Social Order of the Underworld" can be read with great profit on each of three levels: it is an engrossing ethnography of American prison life; it is a penetrating economic analysis of the organization of the drug trade; and it offers an innovative theory of how an effective governing institution can originate in the wild and exert legitimate domination over its subjects. This book is a stunning achievement that makes me proud to be a social scientist.

​​--- David D. Laitin, Watkins Professor of Political Science, Stanford University

David Skarbek has written a wonderful book. It is a gripping account of prison gangs, pointing to a wholesale re-thinking of the management of American prisons. But it is far more than this: if you care at all about ethnic politics, violence, and the emergence of social order, organizational theory and the problems of collective action—in short, if you have any interest at all in how societies govern themselves—you have to read this book.

--- Philip Keefer, Lead Economist, Development Research Group, The World Bank

Meticulously researched and convincingly argued...Skarbek’s book is an outstanding addition to our understanding of self-governance, its ubiquity, and effectiveness.

--- Peter T. Leeson, George Mason University, Author of The Invisible Hook: the Hidden Economics of Pirates

Drawing on economic theory, David Skarbek shows how social order can emerge in the most unlikely circumstances. In the nasty and brutish world of American prisons, gangs have emerged to govern the penal system, settle dispute and regulate the market for drugs. This is a story about the ingenuity of gang members and of institutional failure. The Social Order of the Underworld straddles all the social sciences to give us a masterly account of the human condition in the most harrowing circumstances. Add a vivid narrative style and the total absence of jargon, and you have in your hand a terrific book. 

--- Federico Varese, Professor of Criminology, Oxford University, Author of Mafias on the Move

Skarbek’s study of California prison gangs offers delightfully fresh perspective…He argues that gangs evolved as substitutes for another set of informal rules, i.e., systems of criminal codes. The rules constantly evolve to lower transaction costs and often stabilize interactions and reduce chaotic violence…This is a first rate and novel take on the structure of organized criminal enterprises.

--- Marek M. Kaminski, University of California, Irvine, Author of Games Prisoners Play

Skarbek...shows how gangs have spread through the prison system in the United States. He argues, convincingly, that gangs offer protection and governance in places where established institutions fail.

--- The Economist

A fascinating new book.
--- Matt Ridley, The Times, author of The Rational Optimist

Excellent...A very interesting book, which should be read by anyone with an interest in this topic.
--- Tyler Cowen, George Mason University

The most perceptive book about the US prison regime....Skarbek's The Social Order of the Underworld should serve as a terrible warning of where [the UK] may otherwise be heading.
--- Vicky Pryce, former joint head of the UK Government Economic Service

A fascinating book
--- Mark Kleiman, Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management

The Social Order of the Underworld is thought-provoking and challenging...in jurisdictions like England and Wales, where gangs are a significant issue but less firmly entrenched, policy-makers in this field potentially have much to learn from Skarbek’s book.
--- Tim Newburn, London School of Economics

Every once in a while a daring book or article comes along that helps us establish new connections between apparently distant analytical and geographic locations…The Social Order of the Underworld, by David Skarbek does just that…it is prime evidence of why rigorous, but methodologically flexible, academic research and heterodox thought is often much more deeply relevant for the real world….Many fields of study need to take notice of what this book provides. It is deeply relevant for anyone interested in prisons anywhere, but also to those working on organized crime and gangs, violence, ethnicity and race, governance, urban sociology and politics, economics and, even, international development and anthropology.  
--- Graham Denyer Willis, University of Cambridge

David Skarbek’s The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System is a revelatory account of the etiology, flourishing, and demise of prison gangs. Skarbek works in a rational choice tradition, but also brings to bear a rich tapestry of first-hand accounts. He shows that prison gangs are an inevitable (and, yes, rational, even efficient) response to mass incarceration and the new demographics of prisons. The result is a compelling portrait of the inadvertent consequences of mass incarceration.
--- Aziz Huq, University of Chicago Law School

…meticulously researched, soundly reasoned, well written, and accessible to specialist scholars and casual readers alike. It should be considered required if not immediate reading for anyone with serious research interests in either economics or the applied fields of crime and punishment…a much needed methodological and theoretical update to the currently dominant and arguably incomplete models of crime and punishment.
--- Daniel J. D'Amico, Brown University

A genuinely impressive intellectual achievement.
--- Peng Wang, The University of Hong Kong

Skarbek utilizes a dizzyingly wide range of data sources
​--- Jared Hanneman, Thiel College 

David Skarbek aims to show that, more often than not, the violence evinces the rational choice of actors deeply concerned with preserving stability in prisons. The perspective is that of a political economist, but there is in this study a rich portrait that can be understood in normative terms using the lens of legal pluralism.
--- Rene Provost, McGill University

The book is very well written, and it is enjoyable and engaging to read. Highly recommended.
--- ​Maurizio Catino, University of Milan

Brilliant book, meticulously researched, well argued, and clearly written. Order now for you and your students edification and pure pleasure in reading well written and well done social science.
--- Peter Boettke, George Mason University

Perhaps the most complete and compelling account of prison gangs to date... a noteworthy achievement. Social Order is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book that uses the curious case of prison gangs as a conduit to teach an important lesson about how informal rule of law will rise when established social and economic institutions fall. Skarbek has produced a cogently written, multifaceted text, which will attract analytical sociologists, cultural economists, and criminologists alike and hopefully incite further meaningful study of prison life and penology.
--- ​James Densley, Metropolitan State University 

[Skarbek] makes his case with compelling logic and evidence… [he] brings a refreshing perspective to prison research… A short review cannot do justice to this valuable work or fully develop the nuances. It is perhaps the best book on prison culture and administration since James Jacobs’ Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society.
​--- Jim Thomas, Northern Illinois University

Skarbek’s book has much to offer—especially as a classroom tool. It is highly readable, well organized, and...provides a concise introduction to basic economic theories of governance and punishment in a field that tends to be more sociologically focused. And it certainly provides a fresh perspective on gangs.
--- Keramet Reiter, UC Irvine

The Social Order of the Underworld is an excellent read with an illuminating analysis. Those unfamiliar with the world of penal gangs and
those looking for a refreshing take on the organization of inmate social systems would do well to start with this book.

--- Michael L. Walker, University of Nebraska

Skarbek has produced a must read piece of research for anyone remotely interested in the American criminal justice system. His well-argued economic analysis makes it difficult to subscribe to any other theory of what we’re seeing in the prison system and why.
--- Adam Bates, Cato Institute

A fascinating account...a model example of how to use economic analysis to highlight the illegal world, without falling into the trap of economic imperialism...a must-read. 
--- Diane Coyle, University of Manchester

This work is an intriguing, well-written and insightful contribution to the gang and prison literature...I found the intervention of Skarbek’s work to be thought-provoking and analytically enriching in an area that is extraordinarily bereft of rigorous critical inquiry
--- David C. Brotherton, John Jay College

This is a really incredible book. I was utterly fascinated by it. I learned an immense amount, way too much, actually, about prisons...it's a fabulous application of economics to a wide range of social phenomena. It's really an amazing book. 
--- Russell Roberts, Hoover Institution, Stanford University 

Undoubtedly the most important work on prison gangs in the last two decades...
​--- David Pyrooz, UC Boulder, and Scott Decker, Arizona State University

I told you off camera that you did a great job writing this book. You got a lot of things right in here. I asked you if you ever worked in prison because it just kind of blew me away that you got things so accurately in a lot of these pages. 
​--- Michael Cantrell, The Prison Officer Podcast

When many people think of prison gangs, they think of chaotic bands of violent, racist thugs. Few people think of gangs as sophisticated organizations (often with elaborate written constitutions) that regulate the social and economic life of the prison. Yet as David Skarbek argues, gangs form to create order among outlaws, producing alternative governance institutions to facilitate illegal activity. This book is a fascinating look into the seemingly irrational, truly astonishing, and often tragic world of life among the society of captives.

David Skarbek

​Reviewed in The Economist

Buy on Amazon

​Winner, 2016 William H. Riker Book Award in Political Economy 

American Political Science Association, Political Economy Section

Winner, 2014 Outstanding Publication Award

International Association for the Study of Organized Crime

Shortlisted, 2014 Thinking Allowed Ethnography Award

British Sociological Association and the BBC   


Rene Provost, Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law, November 2016 

Keramet Reiter, American Journal of Sociology, May 2016

Adam Bates, Cato Journal, Winter 2016

Jared Hanneman, Contemporary Sociology, May 2016

Michael L. Walker, Theoretical Criminology, February 2016

Sonja Wolf, Latin American Research Review, November 2015

David C. Brotherton, Punishment & Society, September 2015

Daniel J. D'Amico, Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, 27 September 2015

Jim Thomas, Criminal Justice Review, September 2015 

Diane Coyle, The Enlightened Economist, 10 July 2015

Maurizio Catino, ECPR Standing Group on Organised Crime, May 2015

Peng Wang, British Journal of Criminology, 22 May 2015

Daniel J. D'Amico, The Independent Review, 18 March 2015

Vicky Pryce, Economic Affairs, 6 February 2015

James Densley, Global Crime, 13 January 2015

Graham Denyer Willis, Public Choice, 25 November 2014

The Economist Explains, 13 November 2014

Vicky Pryce, The Independent, 28 October 2014

Estado de São Paulo, 20 October 2014

Forbes, 8 October 2014

The Atlantic, 16 September 2014

Matt Ridley, The Times, 4 September 2014

Tim Newburn, LSE Review of Books, 1 September 2014

The Economist, 30 August 2014

Peter Boettke, Coordination Problem, 10 July 2014

Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution, 30 June 2014