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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"The Economics of Terrorism"

Andrew Leigh summarizes recent research suggesting that the provision of social services is a key factor in stopping terrorism:

The Economics of Terrorism, by Andrew Leigh: My AFR op-ed today is on the economics of terrorism, discussing a new book by Eli Berman...:
What Makes Martyrs Tick, Australian Financial Review: ...Why were hardly any lives lost to suicide bombing in the 1970s, but over 10,000 in the 2000s? What makes suicide bombing so popular in the modern age?
Most people find it impossible to answer this question without using the word ‘crazy’. But a fascinating strand of research has begun to use the tools of economics to try and better understand what drives suicide attacks, and how we might stop them in the future.
In his new book,... economist Eli Berman ... takes a ... look at one of the hottest policy questions today. He begins by popping a few myths. Interviews with families and friends of suicide bombers, as well as with failed bombers, show that they are not particularly motivated by the afterlife, but by concerns closer to home. ...
Careful studies ... suggest that they are not generally depressed or mentally ill, and would not be the kinds of people who would otherwise kill themselves. Rather than regard suicide bombers as mad zealots, Berman argues, we should think of suicide bombers as misguided altruists, who truly believe that their acts will bring great benefits to their community.
To understand why suicide bombing has become more common, Berman contends, we need to stop focusing only on the motivations of bombers, and consider the ‘hardness’ of their target. As it becomes more difficult for terrorists to do damage, they are more likely to switch to suicide bombing. ... Faced with no other option, ‘rebels counter with suicide attacks’. Thus the rise in suicide bombings over the past quarter-century has a lot to do with the improvements in the military capability deployed against them. ...
What can we do to reduce the number of terrorist attacks in the future? One approach is to limit the amount of money reaching insurgent groups. ... But Berman’s main focus is the relationship between terrorism and social service provision. It is no accident, he says, that the Taliban run law courts, Hezbollah collects garbage, and Hamas operates health clinics. Social services provide a way of harvesting new recruits, and testing their commitment to the leadership. And because they can be withdrawn at will, social service provision gives leverage over the local population...
To really shut down terrorist groups, Berman argues, we need to undermine their social service provision. He gives the historical example of Egypt’s President Nasser, who undermined the Muslim Brotherhood by nationalising their network of schools and clinics in the 1950s. By directly providing electricity, healthcare and welfare services, governments improve the outside options for young people. ...
In the past, researchers such as Princeton University’s Alan Krueger have pointed out that the typical suicide bomber is better-educated than other members of their group. If suicide bombers are well-schooled, the argument goes, antipoverty programs won’t reduce terrorism.
Yet by looking at groups rather than just individuals, Berman’s book shows why the two are intertwined. ...Berman argues that ‘social service provision creates the institutional base for most of the dangerous radical religious rebels’. Demolish that base, and you begin to unravel the organisation.
Unusually for a book about terrorism, Berman keeps it in perspective. Global terrorism is not the greatest threat to the world. ... The more we can help poor governments provide basic services to their citizens, the less space we allow for radical rebels to fill the void.

I don't know how effective this would actually be, but even if it was the best policy ever, would there be much support among conservatives for using nationalized health care, welfare, and the provision of other social services as counter-terrorism measures?

    Posted by on Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 01:50 AM in Economics, Terrorism | Permalink  Comments (9)


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