“Generically, then, here are two similarities between
motorcycle clubs and academic clubs: each screens
out the less zealous and each discourages members from
mingling with outsiders”
Unless you belong to a motorcycle club, you probably don’t think they have much to do with your life or with the world at large. I’m going to try to convince you otherwise. The logic of motorcycle clubs (members don’t like the word “gangs”) applies to many spheres, sublime and nasty, from religion to academic pursuits to terrorism.

I don’t expect you to be convinced right away, especially in light of some of the clubs’ practices. Consider the initiation rites of the Hells’ Angels in their mid-60’s ascendancy, as reported by Hunter Thompson in his famous biker ethnography, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga:

Every Angel recruit comes to his initiation wearing a new pair of Levi’s and a matching jacket with the sleeves cut off and a spotless emblem on the back. The ceremony varies from one chapter to another but the main feature is always the defiling of the initiate’s new uniform. A bucket of dung and urine will be collected during the meeting, then poured on the newcomer’s head in a solemn baptismal. Or he will take off his clothes and stand naked while the bucket of slop is poured over them and the others stomp it in.

These are his ‘originals,’ to be worn every day until they rot. The Levi’s are dipped in oil, then hung out to dry in the sun—or left under the motorcycle at night to absorb the crankcase drippings. When they become too ragged to be functional, they are worn over other, newer Levi’s. Many of the jackets are so dirty that the colors are barely visible, but they aren’t discarded until they literally fall apart. The condition of the originals is a sign of status. It takes a year or two before they get ripe enough to make a man feel he has really made the grade. [pp. 45-46]

Now, where were we? Oh yes, academic pursuits. At the end of the first year of my studies for a Ph.D. my 20 or so classmates and I were given two exams (the “cores”) designed not so much to test academic skills but to weed out those lacking the maniacal endurance to study economics past the point of all reason. It worked—by the second year only a half dozen of us remained, and a couple more dropped out before finishing the Ph.D. I wouldn’t say the cores were a bucket of slop, exactly, but they did seem to cross the line from pedagogy into hazing.

Maybe you’re thinking that a closer analogy might have to do with the sartorial habits of bikers and academic economists. While economists tend to avoid the dung-caked look, they’re not exactly snappy dressers, and their uniforms often seem no less rigid than those of bikers. But I think there is a subtler connection. Stinky clothes prevent a biker from consorting with the non-biker world; he can forget about being, for example, a part-time bank teller or Gap salesperson. A seemingly crazy tradition serves a rational purpose, by making it easier for members to concentrate on the world of motorcycles full time.

Likewise, academics are sometimes discouraged from working in the non-academic world. For example, in the upper echelons of academe, “outside” consulting—the term itself belies boundaries—garners little prestige for the free-lancer and, if anything, is often looked down upon by peers. Norms against consulting serve the same purpose as non-standard clothing by making it harder for the club members to stray from the fold.

Generically, then, here are two similarities between motorcycle clubs and academic clubs: each screens out the less zealous and each discourages members from mingling with outsiders.

This line of thinking comes from a theory proposed by economist Laurence Iannaccone, who tried to explain two puzzles connected with religious sects: sacrifice, such as the burnt offerings described in the Book of Leviticus, and stigma, such as the shaved heads of the Hare Krishnas. The sacrifices are wasteful, and, to outsiders at least, the stigmas often appear downright weird.

Iannaccone solved these puzzles by turning the logic of the economic theory of clubs on its head. Up to that point, economists focused mainly on how clubs might seek to prevent congestion by limiting membership, as a golf or tennis club might. But for some clubs the problem is not preventing congestion by keeping people out, but achieving critical mass by keeping people in. Small motorcycle clubs risk losing a barfight; tiny choirs are not very uplifting; poorly attended seminars are dull. The last item rationalizes the norms against consulting in academe. The less time my colleagues spend at law firms and corporate offices, the more time they have for lectures and seminars.

But it’s not just about numbers; quality matters too: fellow bikers who fight hard, choir members who sing their hearts out, seminar participants who stay awake (and maybe even pay attention). Plus, many clubs—the Hell’s Angels included—are beehives of redistribution and mutual insurance. In Thompson’s words, “According to the code, there’s no such thing as one Angel imposing on another.” (p. 173) Iannaccone argues that the sacrifice demanded of prospective members helps screen out potential free-riders—those who might take advantage of the club’s benefits without contributing their fair share. Hence the hazing, to weed out those less than fully committed. In the words of one Hell’s Angel “We’re the one percenters, man—the one percent that don’t fit and don’t care….We’ve punched our way out of a hundred rumbles, stayed alive with our boots and our fists. We’re royalty among motorcycle outlaws, baby.” (Thompson, p. 4)

Nothing could be more different from a life of riding motorcycles than a life of studying the Talmud. Yet, as Eli Berman’s recent study of Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Jews shows, the logic of Iannaccone’s model applies with equal force to groups whose behavior it was originally formulated to explain—religious sects. The twin concerns of screening out free riders—who might be tempted to take advantage of redistribution—and attaining a critical mass—in order to make prayer and study more gratifying—each apply.

On redistribution: “No sick member is without visitors, and no single member is without an arranged match. Charity is ubiquitous, and interest-free loans abound, both in money and in kind…” (Berman, p. 911). On critical mass: “…praying is much more satisfying the more participants there are, especially when the tenth man arrives to make a prayer quorum (minyan).” (Berman, p. 921).

Berman also addresses a paradox: with worldwide income growth and technical progress, why the rise in religious fundamentalism and increased stringency of fundamentalist groups?

An easy way to resolve the paradox is to return to the example of bikers. If being a bank teller were the only alternative to participating in club activities, requiring members to wear dung-caked jackets effectively closes off that option. But what if technology brings about a new, more accessible alternative, such as, for example, telemarketing? The stigma from the jacket could prove useless for thwarting temptation; a biker might be able to work out of his home. The ante would have to be upped to something more radical (tongue piercing, maybe?).

Berman emphasizes that modern culture is an anathema to many religious sects, such as the Mennonites, the Amish, the radical Islam, in addition to Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Iannaccone’s model explains why. TV, professional sports, Britney Spears, Ozzy Osbourne—all these compete for the attention of group members, especially younger ones.

About three weeks into my freshman year at a Catholic high school the “disciplinarian”—a humorless, black-robed cleric—showed up unannounced in the middle of a religion class to give an impromptu lecture on the evils of “Beatle-ism.” Beatle-ism, apparently, had mainly to do with clothing: wide belts and pants without cuffs were deemed especially pernicious. (The rule on mandatory cuffs was quietly rescinded when it turned out that the local clothing store lacked the inventory to supply the entire student body.)

The root problem, of course, was that the Beatles were quite effective in competing for our attention. (To add insult to injury, whatever enthusiasm they may have had for saying the rosary or doing trigonometry, they kept well hidden.) But the proximate solution, as I think our disciplinarian reasoned, could well have to do with superficial trappings like clothing and hairstyles. If regulating them could prevent us from consorting with kids who espoused the Beatles’ values, maybe we would knuckle down to work and pray harder.

I don’t mean to sound churlish, and I don’t bear a grudge against Brother Marcel, the disciplinarian. He was just following an economically rational policy. (Further, I’m eternally grateful to him and his prohibitions on long hair, which probably prevented me from joining a rock band and forgetting what little math I knew at the time.)

The clash between Brother Marcel and the Beatles is a microcosm of the perennial and increasingly pressing cat-and-mouse game between the Old Guard and the New Wave. The latter is the machinery—from places like Hollywood, New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts—that churns out new gadgets and ideas. I think some are great (new findings in neurobiology are a personal favorite) and some are crap (violent summer blockbuster movies). Accordingly, I feel ambivalent toward the Old Guard. If Brother Marcel were alive today he’d probably be laboring to stanch the flow of gameboys into my high school, something I’d be inclined to support. But I’d also be uncomfortable knowing that, as a member of the Old Guard, he occupies a proverbial slippery slope that can lead to coercive practices of, for example, the Taliban.

The New Wave is becoming cheaper and more accessible all the time. The Old Guard will respond by closing ranks ever so tightly. Where it all leads depends in part on the resolution of these mighty forces. Whether rising fundamentalism will persist in the face of the expanding reach of secular temptation also depends on those old economic mainstays, technology, tastes and incomes. Clearly the New Wave, with its focus groups and market surveys, pays attention to this. But as long as club participation remains voluntary, the Old Guard will have to pay attention as well.

I must confess I’m rooting for the New Wave. In hindsight, I would have preferred spending more time listening to Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and less time studying the Baltimore Catechism. But it’s a tricky call—all those re-runs of Gilligan’s Island burned up a lot of time that would have been better spent on pre-calculus. My three-year-old daughter is starting to like Beatles and that’s just fine with me. I do wonder, though, what ol’ Marce would have had to say about Barney.


Berman, Eli. “Sect, Subsidy and Sacrifice: An Economist’s View of Ultra-Orthodox Jews.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 115 (August 2000): 905-953.

Buchanan, James M. “An Economic Theory of Clubs.” Economica 32 (February 1965): 1-14.

Iannaccone, Laurence R. “Sacrifice and Stigma: Reducing Free-riding in Cults, Communes, and Other Collectives.” Journal of Political Economy 100 (April 1992): 271-291.

Thompson, Hunter S. Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. New York: Ballentine Books, 1966.


*Donald Cox is Professor of Economics at Boston College. His email address is donald.cox at bc.edu.

For more articles by Donald Cox, see the Archive.