I've been reading Charles Dicken's Oliver Twist to my daughter of late. To my astonishment, I've discovered it is, in part, a tale about entrepreneurship. That is, criminal entrepreneurship.

The plot of Dicken's novel centers on a gang of very successful free-range juvenile delinquents and cut-purses in London, led by an ingenious man named Fagin and his young cohort, the Artful Dodger. About a third of the way through the book I suddenly realized, "My God. These guys are much better businessmen than me."

It got me thinking.

As I have mentioned in the past, I was a multi-addicted person in my younger days. ("Addiction and the Entrepreneur") There were few of the Seven Deadly Sins in which I did not enthusiastically participate. Some of this behavior bordered on criminality. As a recovered addict, my history has made me especially sensitive to other deeply flawed persons like myself. (I do volunteer work with former addicts and felons at Rahway State Prison in New Jersey.)

Lo and behold, it turns out there is a growing body of research which posits that successful entrepreneurs and successful criminals often share similar personalities. Yup. Note the article, "Does Entrepreneurship Pay?" by Ross Levine and Yona Rubenstein of Berkeley's Haas School of Economics. Levine and Rubenstein's research shows that entrepreneurs are twice as likely to have been involved in criminality in their youth. Says Levine, "Since entrepreneurship involves innovation, it also involves doing something different and not doing exactly what you're told to do." Their research specfies that juveniles who engage in more aggressive, risky, and illegal activities become more successful entrepreneurs than their law-abiding peers, if they don't get thrown in jail first.

Or note the work of Bill McCarthy (UC Davis University) and John Hagan (Northwestern University) who report that people who are the most successful at crime have a strong desire to succeed, specialize, take risk, and work collegially. Sound like anyone you know?

Recently I got a note from a friend. Knowing my interest in meaning, addiction, and entrepreneurship, he thought I'd like to hear Catherine Hoke (formally Catherine Rohr), the Founder of Defy Ventures. Wow. Was he right. (If you ever get a chance to hear her, don't miss it.)

Hoke passionately believes that it is an unforgivable waste of human capital not to reboot prisoners and former prisoners as useful, successful citizens. She wants to tackle head-on the fact that the US incarcerates by far the most people per capita of any country in the world (approximately 2.3 million.) Furthermore, there is over a 70% rate of criminal recidivism. Hoke calls her organization Defy because she wants to defy expectation for these men and women. She says, "As daunting as it is to start a business, many people who are formerly incarcerated have the skills and and will face fewer obstacles than if they sent out 100 resumes."

Rather than going to prison and just coming out better criminals--who most employers won't hire anyway--Hoke wants to redirect the intuitive entrepreneurial spirits of her ex-criminal acolytes into legit business. These guys are not idiots. They are often already clever, experienced, autodidactic entrepreneurs from their years of selling drugs and other nefarious activities. Some have managed scores of employees and large amounts of money. So why not use this learned business acumen to go straight? Hoke has dedicated her life to rehabilitating these often gifted throw-aways of society. To this point, Hoke claims there only has been a 5% recidivist rate among the prisoners and ex-prisoners in her program. She calls these individuals, "entrepreneurs-in-training." (EITs)

So the distance between the successful criminal and the successful entrepreneur may not be so very far. We both intuitively operate out-of-the-box with an instinct for not accepting the status quo. We both are not inclined to accept the tyranny of the given. We both intuitively color outside the lines.

Therefore, like Catherine Hoke, I have compassion for ex-criminals, as I try to have compassion for myself in all my glorious imperfection. They are me. There but for the grace of God.... When the criminal breaks the law he is often taking the same course as the legitimate entrepreneur--but as an illegal rather than legal disrupter. This is often because he sees no other legitimate channels open to him, whether it be because of race, education, poverty, or whatever.

Growing governmentalism is making it harder to be an entrepreneur, legal or otherwise. I suppose the good libertarian in me tends to agree with Ayn Rand, who says, "...when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws." Thanks, Ayn.