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?