Alan Krueger – an Economist Looks at Terrorism

Via Arts & Letters Daily, a link to an article by Alan Krueger in The American entitled What Makes a Terrorist:

The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project conducted public opinion surveys in February 2004 in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey, involving about 1,000 respondents in each country. One of the questions asked was, “What about suicide bombing carried out against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq? Do you personally believe that this is justifiable or not justifiable?” Pew kindly provided me with tab­ulations of these data by respondents’ personal characteristics.

The clear finding was that people with a higher level of education are in general more likely to say that suicide attacks against Westerners in Iraq are justified. I have also broken this pattern down by income level. There is no indication that people with higher incomes are less likely to say that sui­cide-bombing attacks are justified.

Another source of opinion data is the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, headquar­tered in Ramallah. The center collects data in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. One question, asked in December 2001 of 1,300 adults, addressed attitudes toward armed attacks on Israeli tar­gets. Options were “strongly support,” “support,” “oppose,” “strongly oppose,” or “no opinion.”

Support turned out to be stronger among those with a higher level of education. For exam­ple, while 26 percent of illiterates and 18 per­cent of those with only an elementary education opposed or strongly opposed armed attacks, the figure for those with a high school education was just 12 percent. The least supportive group turned out to be the unemployed, 74 percent of whom said they support or strongly back armed attacks. By comparison, the support level for merchants and professionals was 87 percent.

He then provides evidence that members of terrorists generally are more well-to-do than the greater population from which they derive. Which leads to:

Why are better educated, more advan­taged individuals more likely than others to join terrorist groups? I think of terrorism as a market, with a supply side and a demand side. Individuals, either in small groups or on their own, supply their services to terrorist organizations.

On the supply side, the economics of crime suggests that people with low opportunity costs will become involved in terrorism. Their costs of involvement are lower—that is, they sacrifice less because their prospects of living a rich life are less. In other domains of life, it is those with few oppor­tunities who are more likely to commit property crime and resort to suicide.

However, in the case of the supply of terrorists, while consideration of opportunity cost is not irrel­evant, it is outweighed by other factors, such as a commitment to the goals of the terrorist organi­zation and a desire to make a statement. Political involvement requires some understanding of the issues, and learning about those issues is a less costly endeavor for those who are better educated. I argue that better analogies than crime are vot­ing and political protest. Indeed, better educated, employed people are more likely to vote.

On the demand side, terrorist organizations want to succeed. The costs of failure are high. So the organizations select more able participants—which again points to those who are better educated and better off economically.

One of the conclusions from the work of Laurence Iannaccone—whose paper, “The Market for Martyrs,” is supported by my own research—is that it is very difficult to effect change on the supply side. People who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause have diverse motivations. Some are motivated by nationalism, some by religious fanati­cism, some by historical grievances, and so on. If we address one motivation and thus reduce one source on the supply side, there remain other motivations that will incite other people to terror.

That suggests to me that it makes sense to focus on the demand side, such as by degrading terrorist organizations’ financial and technical capabili­ties, and by vigorously protecting and promoting peaceful means of protest, so there is less demand for pursuing grievances through violent means. Policies intended to dampen the flow of people willing to join terrorist organizations, by contrast, strike me as less likely to succeed.

Consistent with the work on international terrorist incidents, countries with fewer civil lib­erties and political rights were more likely to be the birthplaces of foreign insurgents. Distance also mattered, with most foreign insurgents com­ing from nearby nations. The model predicted that the largest number of insurgents—44 percent—would have emanated from Saudi Arabia, a nation not known for its protection of civil liberties but with a high GDP per capita.

The evidence suggests that terrorists care about influencing political outcomes. They are often motivated by geopolitical grievances. To under­stand who joins terrorist organizations, instead of asking who has a low salary and few opportunities, we should ask: Who holds strong political views and is confident enough to try to impose an extrem­ist vision by violent means? Most terrorists are not so desperately poor that they have nothing to live for. Instead, they are people who care so fervently about a cause that they are willing to die for it.

And I would add one thing, a comment I made a few days ago about US support for dictatorial regimes. People with a boot on their neck remember, for a very long time, who paid for that boot.