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Thursday, July 4, 2024

What ‘The Godfather’ Tells Us about Government

It's unclear if Francis Ford Coppola ever read Murray Rothbard, but it’s clear that he understands the nature of power—and government.

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

I recently introduced my 19-year-old nephew to The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning 1972 film.

I’d seen it a few times before, but watching a movie with a fresh set of eyes is always fun. And it was my first time watching the movie since reading Mario Puzo’s literary masterpiece of the same name, on which Coppola’s film is based.

To my surprise, my nephew loved the movie, and weeks later we set out to watch The Godfather Part II (we were almost finished when we learned the recording we were watching had been terminated because of a storm).

For those not familiar with the movie, the original opens with a wedding. The daughter of the titular Godfather (Marlon Brando) is getting married. During the festivities, various characters are introduced, revealing the intricate relationships within the family and their criminal empire.

Vito, known as the “Don,” is a powerful and respected Mafia boss. Though a criminal, he operates with a sense of duty, honor, and loyalty to his family, including his four children—Sonny (James Caan), Fredo (John Cazale), Connie (Talia Shire), and Michael (Al Pacino).

During the opening scene, several important things happen. We see that the FBI is interested in the family. We learn that Vito is a man of power and influence, but also one who possesses a certain wisdom. When an Italian undertaker named Bonasera comes to Vito for help after his daughter was raped by two young men, he refuses to have them murdered.

Bonasera: I ask you for justice.

Don Corleone: That is not justice. Your daughter is alive.

Instead of murder, Vito agrees to a different kind of retribution for the attackers.

“Give this job to Clemenza,” he tells the family’s fixer, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). “I want reliable people, people who aren’t going to be carried away. I mean, we’re not murderers, in spite of what this undertaker thinks…”

For Vito, justice means meting out punishment that fits the crime (even if the “justice” is delivered outside a court of law).

In some ways, the Corleone Family is a typical American family. It has its own hierarchy and its own problems. Sonny has a temper and an exaggerated libido, which we see in the opening act when he smashes an FBI photographer’s camera and takes a bridesmaid to a bedroom for a tryst. Fredo is well-meaning but slow-witted. Connie has terrible taste in men, an abusive husband, and is spoiled. Michael has a good heart (at first) and is a war hero; but fate has plans for Vito’s most treasured son that are not his father’s.

The real conflict for the Corleone Family begins when a drug dealer, Virgil Sollozzo, seeks Vito’s support in his narcotics business. Vito refuses. He has moral objections to the drug trade and a desire to keep his family’s criminal activities within certain boundaries. In response, Sollozzo attempts to assassinate Vito. He fails, but Vito is hospitalized following the attack.

Michael, initially distant from the family “business,” is drawn into the conflict. He takes charge and orchestrates a series of retaliatory strikes against Sollozzo and his men. This forces Michael to flee to Sicily (from both the law and rival gangs), but eventually he returns and consolidates power through a series of well-orchestrated murders.

Michael’s exercise of violence to secure power and save himself and his family leaves the audience with a sense of satisfaction, even though it’s clear that the decisions may have cost him his family and soul.

‘Who’s Being Naive, Kay?’

After watching these two epic movies with my nephew and other family members, debates immediately erupted. Many argued that the sequel, which was released in 1974, was superior to the original. It’s a common argument, and one I disagree with. (The Godfather is the superior film in my opinion, for reasons I won’t go into here.)

But what really stood out to me after watching these two epic films was the parallel Coppola draws between the Mafia and the State.

The first time the idea is introduced is in the original film, in a scene involving Michael and Kay (Diane Keaton), his former girlfriend whom he wants back in his life. Michael has recently retired from Sicily, where his young Sicilian wife was killed in a car explosion, and he is trying to convince Kay, who now better understands the Corleone family business, to come back.

Michael: My father is no different than any powerful man. Any man who is responsible for other people, like a senator or a president.

Kay Adams: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.

Michael: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?

Michael initially sounds silly by comparing his father to a senator or a president. Viewers like Vito Corleone, but comparing him to George Washington or Henry Clay feels like a stretch. But Kay’s response lands like a thunderbolt: “Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.”

Senators and presidents do have men killed. We all know this, but Michael knows it better than most. He served in World War II. Michael enlisted in the military even though his father had arranged a deferment on his behalf.

We learn the details of all of this in a magnificent flashback scene in The Godfather Part II, which reveals that Michael was once an idealist. In a sharp contrast to his cynical brother Sonny, who viewed those who chose to enlist in the war as “saps,” we learn that Michael sees enlistees as patriots.

“Well, if you feel that way, why don’t you just quit college and join the Army?” Sonny fires back.

“I did,” Michaael responds. “I enlisted in the Marines.”

Whether one agrees with Sonny or Michael isn’t the point. What matters is that Michael is no doubt fully aware that the US government drafted some 10 million people during World War II. If they refused, they were sentenced to prison. Tens of thousands of these men died because they were ordered by US senators and the president to do so.

‘Senator, We’re Both Part of the Same Hypocrisy’

Coppola is drawing a comparison here between the power of the Don and that of the State, both of whom exercise power through violence. The difference, of course, is that the State has a legal mandate to exercise violence, ostensibly for the public good.

But how does the State use this power? In the sequel to The Godfather, we get a glimpse.

In the opening act, Michael is hosting a party for his son’s First Communion at his Lake Tahoe estate. Everyone is there. There is dancing and music; the laughter and drinks are flowing, but not for Michael. He spends much of the day brooding, and we soon learn why.

One of Michael’s guests is US Senator Pat Geary, whom we identify almost immediately as the archetype of the idiot politician. He mangles the names of Michael’s family members (especially that of Kay, whom he refers to as Pat) and wears a plastic smile as he accepts Michael’s “contribution” to the local university.

We soon learn that Geary has no interest in being at Michael’s estate. He is there “on business.” Michael is seeking a license for a new casino his group has bought, and Geary tells Michael that he’s going to have to pay up (big time) for that license:

The Corleone Family has done very well here in Nevada. You own, or you control, two major hotels in Vegas, one in Reno. The licenses were grandfathered in, so there was no problem with the Gaming Commission. Now, my sources tell me that you plan to make a move against the Tropigala. They tell me that within a week you’re gonna move Klingman out. That’s quite an expansion. However, it will leave you with one little technical problem. The license will still be in Klingman’s name.

After some crosstalk, Geary tells Michael what it’s going to cost him.

Senator Geary: I can get you a gaming license. The price is $250,000, plus a monthly payment of five percent of the gross of all four hotels. [sneers] Mr. Corl-ee-own-eh.

Michael Corleone: Now, the price of a gaming license is less than $20,000. Is that right? 

Geary: That’s right.

Michael: So why would I ever consider paying more than that?

Geary: Because I intend to squeeze you. I don’t like your kind of people. I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country with your oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits, trying to pass yourselves off as decent Americans. I’ll do business with you, but the fact is that I despise your masquerade, the dishonest way you pose yourself—yourself and your whole f***ing family.

Geary isn’t just “squeezing” Michael. By going personal, viewers get a sense that the senator has crossed a line. We know that Michael has killed before, and ordered the deaths of many. But he responds cooly—and tellingly.

“Senator. We’re both part of the same hypocrisy,” he says, “but never think it applies to my family.”

Michael is essentially saying that Geary is a crook and a hypocrite much like himself, and he appears to be right. Geary isn’t a noble politician by any stretch; he’s the worst of all things: a hypocrite. He sees himself as “decent” despite dishonest actions and corruptions.

But Geary is unfazed by Michael’s words.

“I want your answer and the money by noon tomorrow,” he says. “And one more thing. Don’t you contact me again, ever. From now on, you deal with Turnbull.”

It’s a tense, powerful scene. Yet Michael is unmoved. He stares flatly at Geary and tells him he can have his answer now. He refuses. He won’t bribe Geary for the license, certainly not after being personally insulted by him.

‘Just Another Mafia Gang?’

The Corleone Family comes up with a different way of bringing Senator Geary to heel, but that’s not what’s important.

It’s hard to miss that Coppola is drawing a connection between the Mafia and the State. In some ways, what we see from Geary is more revolting than the “justice” Vito Corleone orders at the opening of The Godfather, or Michael’s shady business deals in Nevada and, later, Cuba.

Geary might have been voted in by the people of Nevada, but he’s little more than a petty shakedown artist lining his own pockets. There is nothing noble in his work, and he creates nothing of value. He’s simply taking from others.

This gave me pause. Is that all that separates a government and a mafia? The fact that one is elected and one is not? 

Surely it has to be more than that. This invites an important question: What is the purpose of government?

It’s certainly not to shake down people (mob bosses or otherwise) before granting them their requests. This seems like little more than extortion. Yet we often see the government behave in such a way. Some obvious examples include civil asset forfeiture and occupational licensing.

In theory, civil asset forfeiture involves government officials seizing the property of people who’ve broken the law, or are suspected of having broken the law. But all too often in practice civil asset forfeiture involves law enforcement simply seizing property when it’s convenient, as the FBI’s unlawful raid on U.S. Private Vaults recently showed.

Occupational licensing is another example that, at least in some instances, appears to be little more than blatant thuggery. In theory, it involves forcing people to get a license before working in the name of “public safety.” In practice, it all too often involves special interests purchasing political power to put rivals out of business or to restrict competitors from entering the market .

For many, all of this is perfectly fine because the people passing the laws were elected democratically. But such thinking puts the cart before the horse. The whole point of democratic elections is that they are supposed to be a check on those who would trample the individual rights of the people—not a license to do so.

Senator Geary, however, doesn’t seem to realize this. Nor do most politicians. Indeed, well over a century ago, the French economist Frédéric Bastiat observed that many had grown confused over this simple point, noting that many were supporting the act of legal plunder for supposedly “philanthropic” reasons instead of protecting private property.

“The mission of law is not to oppress persons and plunder them of their property, even though the law may be acting in a philanthropic spirit,” he wrote in The Law. “Its mission is to protect property.”

This is the true and moral purpose of the law—to protect life, liberty, and property. It’s not to make the world a better place, or to force people to fight for their country, or to protect them from misinformation, or to establish price ceilings or wage floors. Yet fewer and fewer people seem to be aware of this, which allows the State to act more and more like a Mafia.

Lawmakers decide how much they get to take for the work you produce—in return for protection, of course—just as Don Fanucci does in The Godfather Part II. If you don’t pay, you go to jail. Have an upstart rival who is a threat to your business because he’s offering a product at a better price because of innovation? The state legislature will protect you.

All of these actions are granted legitimacy by the fig leaf of an imaginary “social contract” that grants the State a monopoly on force to perform actions that would be criminal if anyone else tried them. But history shows that it’s a grave mistake to confuse legality with morality.

Slavery was once legal. Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws in prewar Nazi Germany were legal. Stalin’s laws banning religion were legal. Over the last century and beyond, we’ve witnessed countless examples of states—some democratically elected, others not—performing actions far worse than anything Vito Corleone does in The Godfather.

These horrors (and more beyond) stemmed from the same source: a belief that the State possessed the unique right to infringe on the natural rights of the people in the service of some greater good. This belief, the economist Murray Rothbard argued, was the source of the State’s power (and evil).

“If the bulk of the public were really convinced of the illegitimacy of the State, if it were convinced that the State is nothing more nor less than a bandit gang writ large,” Rothbard said, “then the State would soon collapse to take on no more status or breadth of existence than another Mafia gang.”

That, perhaps, is the most salient difference between a mafia and a state: a perceived legitimacy of its exercise of power. Now, I have no idea whether Francis Ford Coppola ever read Rothbard, but it’s clear that he understands the nature of power—and government.

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of at the Foundation for Economic Education.