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Michael Huemer’s substack post Political Activism: What’s the Point, raises some intriguing inquiries regarding the actual utility of participating in political demonstrations. Much like other forms of collective action, the contributions of individual actors will have virtually no impact on the outcome. This parallels the dynamics of another notable form of collective action in politics, voting. If you divided your individual by the sum of all other votes, the aptitude of your single vote altering the results is exceedingly minuscule (p. Bohanon & Cott, 2002, p.592). But it is far more cumbersome to measure the influence of individual activists in comparison to single voters. Professor Huemer goes beyond the pure futility of the efforts of a single protester; and suggests that effectual change could not be the main force driving participation as people value their “..own welfare hundreds or thousands of times more than the welfare of strangers..”. It is more likely that people gain more from networking, personal ideological motives, and rights to virtue signal more than their concern for others being equal to their welfare.

However, he lists Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks as being exceptions to the drop-in-the-pan theory of effective activism. Both individuals are far different from the average protestor holding a sign at a demonstration. King and Parks undertook the costs of distributing communication and organizing activistic events. In theory, we could perceive them as being political entrepreneurs. A political entrepreneur per Public Choice scholar Randall G. Holcombe defines as:

“…Political entrepreneurship occurs when an individual observes and acts on a political profit opportunity. As with market entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial actions require, first, that a profit opportunity exists, second, that someone is alert enough to spot the opportunity and recognize the opportunity for profit, and third, that the individual is willing to act on the opportunity once it is spotted…” (p.143).

While civil rights advocacy did benefit people beyond King and Parks, they were still able to garner reputations as civil rights leaders. In effect, establish careers. Neither activistic leader would be able to have gained a following if there was not a demand for equality under the law. Mimicking the demand for a product or service in private markets. Regardless of our normative perception of civil rights, they both capitalized on the opportunity for social change. Analogous to how an economic entrepreneur fulfills a need in the consumer market. It is not necessarily morally objectionable that King and Parks benefitted from acting as political leaders since the changes they advocated for did achieve betterment from these societal advances. It would be wrong to classify these efforts as rent-seeking.

A high-profile activist such as Dr. King may act entrepreneurially in protest efforts, what about the rest of the demonstrators supporting King’s activist events? There is a certain amount of free-riding transpiring as this individual did not have to incur the coordination costs of planning the protest. Sure the costs of time and effort are present for even the lower-effort protestors, but King has already reduced the transaction costs of communication and coordination. Because these other demonstrators forfeited these enormous planning costs and the institutional risk, it only stands to reason that these other protestors are not even a footnote in history. Big risk equals big rewards. Dr. King paid the ultimate risk-cost for his political advocacy when he was assassinated. Few of King’s followers had to take on the costs of marching by side him. If anything his penchant for drawing like-minded followers exemplifies how he operated like a corporation for political activism. His ability to dimmish transaction costs for many protestors mirrors what corporate employers do for their employees. Corporations lower the transaction costs of employees finding clients needing service, typically on a large scale. A juggernaut; in the sphere of political protests like King effectively connects members of the same political movement in a superior manner to lesser community organizers. It is evident that without a strong unifying force, the collective action process fails and imposes costs on those less talented organizers that still opt to protest.

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6 thoughts on “The Economics of Protesting

  1. I wrote this comment about the anti-war protests when Bush ordered his illegal invasion of Iraq:
    Professor Becker, I generally agree with your post, but I would emphasize the meagre benefits of protesting today, as opposed to the large costs. In essence, in the absence of conscription (where there is then a strong personal incentive to protest), today the protesters find themselves in a kind of ‘prisoner’s dilemma’or ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation: the individual cost protesting is large relative to the small benefits of signalling one’s opposition to the war in Iraq. That is, the benefit to ending the war would be enjoyed by everyone (assuming, of course, that a US withdrawal would not make the situation in the Middle East worse), while the costs of trying to end the war must be borne by a small number of radical protesters. In the absence of a personal incentive to protest (such as the fear of being conscripted), we have a classic free rider or social dilemma.
    Here is the link to the original post:
    https://www.becker-posner-blog.com/2007/04/protests-and-the-iraq-war-becker.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent response. I might have been too focused on lower-tiered protestors free-riding, when society as a whole benefits from positive policies, the vast majority of the citizenry does not contribute to these reforms.

      Aside from this point, I suppose you do need the lower profile protestor as a group. While an individual contributor may not make a difference, it is the aggregated effort of all participants that matters, that is what will yield results. If no one chooses to protest, no change will occur.

      Yes, the Becker-Posner blog, I have heard much about this legendary blog over the years. A bit before my time, as I didn’t start blogging until 2016. Damn , if I had cultivate my interest in economics earlier in life I would have been frequenting their blog, but also my life would be vastly different.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Personally, I am not a huge fan of Becker, but my favorite Posner book is “Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation” followed by “The Problems of Jurisprudence”. P.S.: I have met Posner several times and am a huge fan of his.

          Liked by 1 person

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