Jay Albanese, professor in the Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, has just published a short letter asking ‘Organized Crime vs. White-collar Crime: Which is the Bigger Problem?’. He writes:
Organized crime and white-collar crime have the same objective, but only one of them dominates the public narrative. … We fear the former and complain only occasionally about the latter.
Too right. He wasn’t writing about the antiquities trade, but he might well have been. He points out that a great deal of legislative energy has been spent combatting transnational organised crime because of the fear of drug trafficking. It is easy to pass legislation aimed at controlling organised crime because of a consensual perception that offenders aren’t quite like us, they are “outsiders and predators”. But, he argues, white-collar crime is as profitable and as harmful as organised crime, if not more so. Instead of resorting to intimidation and coercion to protect their enterprise, white-collar criminals have ready recourse to the courts and legitimate legal processes. White-collar criminals are also financially and socially well-placed to lobby governments and to block or weaken any planned regulatory responses.
Here in antiquities land, most legislation treats the antiquities trade as transnational organised crime by aiming to interrupt supply chains rather than by tackling demand. Particularly since the depredations of Da’esh, terrorism is an ever-present fear. It helps frame perceptions of the trade as something threatening or undermining of ‘western’ society, the work of Kalashnikov toting blackbeards, not bespoke galleristas and their well-heeled clientele. But following the white-collar thread, we are all used now to seeing criminally-traded antiquities seized and forfeited while those involved in the marketing are left to walk free. We are resigned to the ever-present danger of legal action and other more covert forms of intimidation, which while they might not threaten our physical safety could certainly imperil our financial wellbeing. (Having said that, I can think of one colleague who was threatened with physical violence. It was very distressing but because of the bravery of the person involved it failed in its deterrent purpose). And we look on in despair when weakened regulatory instruments are passed with great fanfare but probably poor prospects. Why is regulation so ineffective? Why are policy makers falling down on the job? Is it because of white-collar interference? It goes without saying that policy making is only as good as the evidence base supporting it, and that evidence base is pretty shaky. A lot more research is needed. But the actual policy-making process too is need of more illumination. Policy making in this field is a poorly-understood phenomenon. Who gets to be involved and who doesn’t? Where are the back channels? Who is listened to and who isn’t? How is policy impact assessed? Is it assessed? Who does the assessing? (No doubt some unqualified private consultancy). Policy making is an arcane process and not one that is conducive to good law making and effective regulation. If we really want to reduce antiquities trafficking and looting, we need to design and implement policy aimed at diminishing demand through tackling white-collar crime – and we need to ask too why that is not happening.