Protests and Reason

September 17, 2012

by Chidem Kurdas

In the past week mass protests erupted in different parts of the world. The reasons were diverse. In the Middle East, demonstrations spread across the region following the killing of American diplomats in Libya over an anti-Muslim film. In China, crowds attacked Japanese shops and offices, over the two countries’ competing claims on some small islands in the East China Sea. In Russia, anti-government protestors called for the removal of President Vladimir Putin.

One can sympathize or not with any given protest—I happen to feel for the Russians opposing a corrupt and oppressive regime. But it may be more useful to pose two cool-headed questions. One, why are the organizers doing this? Two, why are the ground-level participants there?

Sometimes the answer to the first question is obvious—thus Russian opposition parties across the political spectrum put up their flags at the Moscow event.  No surprise, given Mr. Putin’s stratagems over the years to block any challenges to the power he has monopolized.

In China, the government itself might have had a hand in encouraging demonstrations to show popular support for the policy concerning the islands. But if that was the case, it must have backfired.  A commentary that appeared in venues controlled by the state and the Communist party complained that “patriotic acts exceeded the boundary of reason and legitimacy…”

The other question is harder. What makes people take the risk of being hauled away by the police or beaten? Assuming that the organizers are not providing a material reward to take part in an event, individuals join the crowd because they feel like showing their anger or more generally their attitude toward a cause. They want to do so in the company of like-minded others. So, large numbers of people are willing to run a risk of ending in jail, in a hospital or even dead— in the past few days, protestors were killed in Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan and Tunisia.

Many participants may not realistically assess the potential danger. There is a large element of not caring or perhaps not recognizing one’s vulnerability. Thus the young are much more likely to march out on the streets with banners and probably also those with less to lose. Young college students are easy fodder for demonstrations; not so middle-aged investment bankers.

Suppose the protests help achieve the object that the marchers want – which is exceedingly rare – and this benefits the population at large—rarer still. Then in economic terms there is a free rider problem. The protestors took the risk; many others received the benefit of their sacrifice for free, without making an effort or getting into hazardous situations.

But the narrow economic calculus is not sufficient. The protestors strongly want something. Presumably the feeling of satisfaction they will get if it happens and turns out to be truly a good thing will compensate for the hardship. And the rest of the population will recognize their patriotism.

More frequently, the object is not clear. And sometimes protests lead to horrendous unexpected developments—most early 20th century Russians angry at the Czarist government did not anticipate the communist state that they helped usher in, which made the previous regime look humane by comparison.

To improve their odds, demonstrators need to apply a modicum of reason to their strong feelings. They should ask themselves: What do I want? Will this action help achieve that? When I’m middle aged and look back, will I think this was a good idea?

8 Responses to “Protests and Reason”


  1. Chidem is thinking of protests as a producer or intermediate good, whose efficacy depends on its achieveing an end. It is certainly that, but may also — at least for some — partake of a consumption good. It is then an end unto itself.

    People engage in all sorts of danagerous activities, for sport and pleasure. And, as Chidem, notes, the young often underestimate the risk.

    On the substace, the youth of the Middle East are filled with anger. Their societies and governments have failed them. The rest of the world, including areas heretofore not developing, are passing them by. There is a post at Cato on why this sometimes translates into anger against the US.


  2. People who participate in protest show, I believe, that they believe the end they seek may be attained through public process (through politics) but not through private process. Thus they show the institutions within which they were raised.

    A lot of t-shirts and bumper stickers in America show a similar thing to me. The side with the most bumper stickers (the left) is the side with the least expectation of private satisfaction of needs.

  3. Roger McKinney Says:

    Having lived some in the Middle East and read a great deal about it, I would say there are many different groups at the protests, some consumers and some producers.

    Producers are the off shoots of the Muslim Brotherhood who want to rebuild the caliphate. The don’t expect one demonstration to accomplish the goal, but see it as one battle in a long war. For the most part, they want to remind the US on 9/11 that they haven’t been defeated.

    The consumers are the unemployed students who just want to vent. Other consumers are just thugs who enjoy any destructive activity.

    Don’t rule out the effect of drugs on some of the people. Alcohol is not illegal in most of the rioting countries and heroine is very common.

    What most of these countries need is foreign investment, but these activities drive it away. I expect them all to end up like the Gaza strip.

  4. chidemkurdas Says:

    Jerry O’Driscoll–
    You’re right, protesting may be a consumer good, especially for those who feel like venting, as Roger McKinney reminds us. Then it is indeed an end unto itself.

    Protests nevertheless can have unintended consequences.

  5. chidemkurdas Says:

    Richard O. Hammer–
    Good point, but in so far as a protest is against government actions, public process is the only recourse. If the problem is caused by the political process, it probably requires a political solution.


  6. Thank you Chidem for your reply. I believe you are largely correct. Public process is the only avenue most of us can imagine to change government acts.

    Does this describes a ratcheting effect, a process which can move in only one direction: government grows? After a government takes over provision of some good or service, it does not let go. Governments grow until they rot and collapse, in most cases it seems to me.

    This may seem gloomy, but only to those who identify with states. I claim they have not got my mind. I can think outside public process, but maybe not outside of blogs.

  7. chidemkurdas Says:

    Richard–
    Looking at the history of the ratcheting effect, one is certainly struck by its persistence. I’m thinking primarily of the work of Robert Higgs, his books on the growth of Leviathan and commentaries on the Independent Review website.


  8. Chidem,

    I have read only a few essays by Higgs, not his “Crisis and Leviathan”. Unfortunately I do not know if Higgs offers theory, theory to underlie the growth-of-state he documents.

    The ratcheting effect seems evident to me since I look at the history of states from a view which highlights that effect. But it seems that few people have written in light of relentless ratcheting effect. Except…

    I wrote a number of short papers in the context of the Free Nation Foundation, an organization which I started and ran 1993-2000. Of course I like to give links to my papers. But I do not know if I can transmit URLs through this blog interface. I will try. But I will give paper titles as well. These papers are all on the website of the Free Nation Foundation, freenation.org.

    “A State Can be Designed to Shrink”
    “The History of Free Nations”
    “Gateway to an Altered Landscape: Law in a Free Nation”, especially the section titled “The State Becomes a State of Mind” .


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