IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this paper



  • Mehlum, Halvor

    () (Dept. of Economics, University of Oslo)

  • Moene, Karl O.

    () (Dept. of Economics, University of Oslo)

  • Torvik, Ragnar

    () (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)


Unproductive enterprises that feed on productive businesses, are rampant in developing countries. These parasitic enterprises take divergent forms, some headed by violent bandits and brutal mafia bosses, others by organized middlemen or smart political insiders. All of them seem to have the profit motive in common. A consequence of parasitic enterprises is that societies may be locked into a self enforcing configuration of beliefs and practices that result in persistent poverty. In some instances the parasites are former youth gangs or rebel groups that are transformed to criminal enterprises feeding on private businesses (Collier 2000). Such bandits not only extort and control small-scale informal enterprises, street sellers and sweat shops, but the most professional among the plunderers prey on large-scale modern firms. One case in point is the lucrative businesses of kidnapping and extortion in Colombia, where guerrillas collect more than hundred million US dollars per year only from the oil industry alone (Hunter, 1996). Other parasitic enterprises act like a Mafia, providing protection, enforcing contracts, and mediating disputes for money. These enterprises apply force on a commercial basis to collect debt and enforce business contracts. ”Problem solving” that normally belongs to the realm of the state is undertaken by violent entrepreneurs and their gangs, where the targets have to pay tributes to avoid damages. Even though these predatory forms of illegal activities can be found in industrialized countries – with the Sicilian and the We thank Kaushik Basu for productive discussions. We have also benefitted from useful comments by Sam Bowles and Karla Hoff. We are grateful for support from the Norwegian Research Council. 1 Parasites 2 American Mafia the best-known examples– they are more prevalent and more burdensome in developing countries and in the transition economies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In the transition countries the institutional vacuum created by the collapse of communism has opened the scene for extortion by such mafia-like parasites. Their activities belong to the growing shadow economy (Campos 2000). One example is private enforcement of business contracts, by threat of violence from criminal gangs, that became routine in the Russian business world in the 1990s. As Volkov observed, “[b]efore signing formal business contracts, companies acquire information on each other’s enforcement partners (whom do you work with?)”(Volkov 1999 p.746). Such criminal gangs can obtain a considerable influence over private businesses. According to the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, criminal gangs in 1994 controlled 40,000 Russian businesses (Volkov 1999). Parasitic enterprises can also be run by middlemen who organize marketing boards with substantial monopsony power, or by wealthy land-owners who provide credit at exploitative interest rates. Political insiders set up their own parasitic enterprises that private sector companies have to consult and remunerate in order to have certain contracts signed. These activities, sometimes called straddling, are common in Africa. In Kenya, for example, president Moi allowed extensive straddling among politicians and bureaucrats in exchange for loyalty to the government (Bates 1983, Bigsten and Moene 1996). Finally, parasites are not always private enterprises, but can be found as corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who collect bribes and use their positions for own private benefit. All these kinds of parasitic rent appropriation activities that are directed towards private businesses flourish in the absence of a state that effectively protects property rights, and enforces contracts. Thus parasitic rent appropriation is different from regular rent-seeking that captures activities directed towards an active state undertaking regulations that private businesses wish to avoid or benefit from. While regular rent seeking distort political decisions via wasteful influence activities, parasitic rent appropriation challenges the state’s monopoly of taxation, protection and legitimate violence. In this paper we highlight some of the causes and consequences of these parasitic behaviors. Our basic claim is based on the premise that entrepreneurs of both productive and parasitic enterprises to some extent are drawn from the same limited pool of entrepreneurs. Parasites 3 When this is the case, the rise of parasitic profit opportunities may cause economic stagnation and underdevelopment that in turn enhance the profitability of parasitic enterprises relative to productive enterprises. Thus parasitic rent appropriation may induce stagnation, while stagnation may induce parasitic activities. Together the two links can lead developing economies into a poverty trap. In order to study the consequences of parasitic profit opportunities, we embed parasitic activities within a big-push model of industrialization. Parasitic activities compete for scarce entrepreneurial resources, as in the seminal papers on the misallocation of talent to unproductive activities by Usher (1987), Baumol (1990), Murphy, Shleifer, and Vishny (1991 and 1993), and Acemoglu (1995).1 First, however we clarify what we mean by a poverty trap and how it is related to the concepts of strategic complementarity.

Suggested Citation

  • Mehlum, Halvor & Moene, Karl O. & Torvik, Ragnar, 2003. "Parasites," Memorandum 16/2003, Oslo University, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:hhs:osloec:2003_016

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no

    Other versions of this item:

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Jens Christopher Andvig, 1997. "Some International Dimensions to Economic Crime and Police Activity," Nordic Journal of Political Economy, Nordic Journal of Political Economy, vol. 24, pages 159-175.
    2. Halvor Mehlum & Karl Moene & Ragnar Torvik, 2006. "Institutions and the Resource Curse," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 116(508), pages 1-20, January.
    3. Lucas, Robert E, Jr, 1990. "Why Doesn't Capital Flow from Rich to Poor Countries?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 80(2), pages 92-96, May.
    4. Kevin M. Murphy & Andrei Shleifer & Robert W. Vishny, 1991. "The Allocation of Talent: Implications for Growth," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 106(2), pages 503-530.
    5. Bulow, Jeremy I & Geanakoplos, John D & Klemperer, Paul D, 1985. "Multimarket Oligopoly: Strategic Substitutes and Complements," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 93(3), pages 488-511, June.
    6. David Dollar & Craig Burnside, 2000. "Aid, Policies, and Growth," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(4), pages 847-868, September.
    7. Mehlum, Halvor & Moene, Karl & Torvik, Ragnar, 2003. "Predator or prey?: Parasitic enterprises in economic development," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 47(2), pages 275-294, April.
    8. Usher, D, 1987. "Theft as a Paradigm for Departures from Efficiency," Oxford Economic Papers, Oxford University Press, vol. 39(2), pages 235-252, June.
    9. Acemoglu, Daron, 1995. "Reward structures and the allocation of talent," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 39(1), pages 17-33, January.
    10. Halvor Mehlum & Karl Ove Moene & Ragnar Torvik, 2002. "Plunder & Protection Inc," Journal of Peace Research, Peace Research Institute Oslo, vol. 39(4), pages 447-459, July.
    11. Baland, Jean-Marie & Francois, Patrick, 2000. "Rent-seeking and resource booms," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 61(2), pages 527-542, April.
    12. Murphy, Kevin M & Shleifer, Andrei & Vishny, Robert W, 1993. "Why Is Rent-Seeking So Costly to Growth?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 83(2), pages 409-414, May.
    13. Baumol, William J., 1996. "Entrepreneurship: Productive, unproductive, and destructive," Journal of Business Venturing, Elsevier, vol. 11(1), pages 3-22, January.
    14. Herschel I. Grossman, 1998. "Producers and Predators," Working Papers 98-6, Brown University, Department of Economics.
    15. Bigsten, Arne & Moene, Karl Ove, 1996. "Growth and Rent Dissipation: The Case of Kenya," Journal of African Economies, Centre for the Study of African Economies (CSAE), vol. 5(2), pages 177-198, June.
    16. Konrad, Kai A & Skaperdas, Stergios, 1998. "Extortion," Economica, London School of Economics and Political Science, vol. 65(260), pages 461-477, November.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

    More about this item


    Developing countries; parasitic enterprises; criminal gangs;

    JEL classification:

    • K42 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law
    • O17 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - Formal and Informal Sectors; Shadow Economy; Institutional Arrangements


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:hhs:osloec:2003_016. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Mari Strønstad Øverås). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.