Political Violence and Behavioral Economics.

AuthorRuggiero, Vincenzo

Economists have often paid visits to the field of criminology, examining the rational logic of offending. According to Gary Becker (1968,170), crime is an important activity or industry that deserves systematic scientific attention and "a useful theory of criminal behavior can dispense with special theories of anomie, psychological inadequacies, or inheritance of special traits and simply extend the economist's usual analysis of choice." Lest readers be repelled by the apparent immorality of an economic framework applied to the analysis of crime, Becker (1968, 209) reminded us that "two important contributors to criminology during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Beccaria and Bentham, explicitly applied an economic calculus."

Most economists studying crime seek to estimate the social loss it causes and to find the optimal levels of expenditure to minimize it. However, their almost exclusive reliance on rational choice theory, which shapes what they see as predictable individual responses to incentives, has been criticized not least because public policy so designed assumes that human actors always make choices that are in their best interest. As illegal conduct is deemed rational, guided by a thorough examination of costs and benefits, mass incarceration rates and increased harshness are seen as ideal strategies to deter illegal choices (Loughran 2019).

Analyses of political violence are interspersed in the history of criminological thought. At times they are concealed behind other theoretical and practical concerns, but in some cases they are explicit and direct. In Beccaria and Bentham we find notions of sedition and crime against the state, respectively. The positivist school dwells on philanthropic murderers and regicide, while in functionalism we encounter the concept of morbid effervescence associated with violent political actors. Violent militancy is the focus of some Chicago school studies and the classical contributions of conflict theory were followed by analyses of organized hostility elaborated by the new criminologists of the 1970s and 1980s. Labeling and symbolic interactionism have proposed interpretations of group violence linked with political contention, and a criminology of war has emerged in recent decades addressing international conflict and terrorism (Jamieson 2014, McGarry& Walklate 2016, Ruggiero 2006). The approach proposed here is not meant to discard this rich criminological patrimony, but simply to provide an additional analytical angle from which the subject matter can be observed.

The first section of this paper offers a brief account of rational choice theory applied to the study of terrorism and other forms of political violence. A concise enumeration of the principles that constitute behavioral economics forms the second section, followed in the third by an attempt to analyze contemporary terrorism (and responses to it) through some of these principles. The analysis will address three discrete areas, defined below, as the area of radicalization, the area of armed struggle and, finally, the area of terrorism.

Rational Choice and Political Violence

Mass atrocities have been linked to unfair distributions of wealth in situations characterized by harsh competition for land, labor, capital, and, in general, access to well-being (Gilpin 2015). Scarcity, opportunity cost, comparative advantage, and rational choice are among the variables utilized (Anderton & Brauer 2016), leading to suggestions that such atrocities may be prevented through macroeconomic incentives. Rational and strategic behavior is said to also pervade religious terror, leading to suggestions that it incorporates a notion of utility. The pursuit and maximization of ones interests, it is claimed, includes the attainment of nonmaterial goals such as spiritual fulfillment and a glorious afterlife. Utility, on the other hand, is also conceived as solidarity and generosity toward others. In this sense, the rational choice model is said to contain kernels of egotism and altruism that form a dual core and might explain even the conduct of violent actors inspired by religious creed (Nemeth 2017).

This rational choice framework gives central attention to constrained utility maximization, namely the process of obtaining results, under given restrictions, when the highest level of utility cannot be reached. Consequently, terrorists are described as realists in terms of the potential outcomes of their actions, which are configured as a logical political choice among alternative actions (Purpura 2008). The benefits they pursue include global media exposure, intimidation of the enemy, and clamorous propaganda addressed to potential recruits. Osama Bin Laden may have aimed at "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy," but was probably happy that the 9/11 attacks of September 11,2001 cost New York City alone $95 billion, while the estimated cost of the war on terror is 4.4 trillion [pounds sterling] (Antonoglou 2018).

Institutional responses to violent political actors can alter the cost of their engagement in attacks. Anderton and Carter (2006), for instance, posit that deterrence and benevolence have a different dissuasive strength. The former raises the cost of terrorism (as Becker would suggest) by imposing harsh penalties or implementing confrontational practices. The latter, by contrast, may lower the cost of alternative political activities that renounce violence. Moreover, if we see the terror choice as one of the consequences of the limited political space offered to dissent, then expanding the availability of legitimate political opportunities may therefore reduce terror (Ruggiero 2020).

A critique of rational choice theory is found in schools of thought that are grouped under structuralism and constructivism and that position persons as not just independent actors making independent decisions but as products of the social conditions in which they live. They also construct their own knowledge: reality is determined by experiences. In general terms, rational choice theory appears to ignore exogenous factors as well as historical, cultural, and social externalities. Personal experience, impulsiveness, and feelings of injustice that shape rage and revenge do not lend themselves to economic calculus. Moreover, a rational choice framework fails to consider the flawed cognitive processes that characterize decision-making.

Behavioral Economics

Homo economicus is presumably capable of processing unlimited information, achieving deep self-understanding, maximizing utility, and never deviating from the pursuit of egoistic interest. Behavioral economics evicts this central character of rational choice theory from the scene, depicting human beings as computationally inferior and morally superior to this fictional actor. Behavioral economics argues that we are neither totally successful in collecting meaningful information nor totally apt at making self-interested choices (Haidar 2018,Thaler 2015). We possess a prosocial kernel, we have passions and, at times, our self-respect and morality are more powerful motivators than material gain (Bowles 2017, Sandel 2013).

Based on findings mostly derived from experiments, behavioral economics highlights how our decisions are not merely guided by rational calculation but are influenced by social and psychological factors (Baddeley 2017). Intuitive and empirical accounts of decision-making are therefore offered, proving that our rationality is selective as well as bounded. We are constrained by a lack of mathematical skills and relevant information, so that our choices are often the result of cognitive short-cuts known as heuristic biases (Simon 1955, 1978). Our rationality is also situational or ecological, in the sense that it adapts to precise circumstances (Smith 2003) and is practical in that decisions require swiftness and simplicity (Gigerenzer 2014). In fact, we may even decide not to decide, remaining in inert areas and sticking to the status quo: when making such sticky choices, presumably, we consider the costs of making decisions too high (Leibenstein 1976). In brief, behavioral economics investigates what motivates decision-making, how we judge or misjudge risk, and how emotions lead us to choose (Baddeley 2017). Our beliefs may be biased or distorted, or they may feed overconfidence, wishful thinking, orwillful blindness. Optimistic beliefs, however, can also encourage groupthink and team morale. Beliefs, in brief, are affected by context, can lead to poor decisions, and may have material as well as psychological costs.

Motivations can be intrinsic and extrinsic; that is, they can originate from an internal drive or from external pressure. The former exemplify choices that enhance our self-respect or professional pride, or are consistent with our moral, religious, or political values. The latter are those that defeat our reluctance to act in exchange for social approval. Extrinsic motivations can crowd out intrinsic motivations (Frey & Jegen 2001), as in the well-known experiment conducted in a nursery, where a fine was introduced for parents arriving late to collect their children. The result was that more parents started arriving late: payment turned out to be demotivating, as parents interpreted the fine...

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