Makes Us Stronger: The Math of Protest and Repression

Like many people, especially here in St. Louis, the ongoing events in Ferguson have consumed my attention and, frankly, really shaken me.  After much thought, I have possibly come up with a manageable take on one angle of “the math of” the situation.

It is important to distinguish protest from rebellion. Protest is distinguished from rebellion on the basis of intent.  Rebels intend to replace the government.  Protesters intend to change policy.

Protest, not rebellion, is what is happening in Ferguson.

In the end, this distinction is important because, in a nutshell, rebels don’t care what the government “thinks.”  In fact, rebellions are sometimes most successful when the government doesn’t notice them (until too late). Protesters, on the other hand, are directly attempting to change what the government (and/or other voters) “thinks.”[1]  In another nutshell, protest is about changing the government’s beliefs about who is upset about the policy in question, and how upset they are.

Protest is a form of costly signaling. Costly signaling describes any action that, because it is “expensive” or “unpleasant,” can convey something about oneself to others.[2]  Costly signaling is generally more informative than “cheap talk” signaling, in which one basically just says “hey, I am mad” but pays no cost to do so.

I’m not the first to make this point, of course.  But I wanted to bring it up again because thinking about the incentives to signal through protest can help us understand (some of) the events in Ferguson.  Below, I try to succinctly make a couple of points along these lines.

Protests are instrumentally rational only if they might work. As perhaps the canonical example of collective action, the problem for organizers is convincing citizens that participation will have some effect.[3]  The probability that a protest will have an effect is, generally speaking, an increasing function of the number of protesters.  This highlights one incentive for anyone trying to prevent the desired change: namely, clear the streets. By keeping protesters off the street, the government eliminates the possibility of the protesters sending (one type of) costly signal to those citizens “on the sidelines.”  This is really effective if the government can simply keep the streets clear from the beginning.[4] However, once protesters are “on the streets,” clearing the streets can have unintended consequences that become clear in a costly signaling framework.  Specifically:

Putting down a protest increases protest’s signaling value. Think about it this way: suppose that the government started giving money to those who showed up at the protest.  The “protest” would probably grow in size, right?  It would also become less informative about “who is upset about the policy in question, and how upset they are.”  This is because some of the people there are presumably there only for the money.  Indeed, some people who are really upset about the policy but were (for example) missing work for the protest might leave when the government starts giving away money, because their individual presence at the “protest” would have a smaller ultimate effect on the policy.

The converse of this logic can hold, too: by tear-gassing and shooting rubber bullets at citizens, the government amplifies the content/credibility of the message the protesters are trying to send.[5]

Conclusion: Two Reasons to Not Clear The Streets.  There’s more that can be said within the costly signaling conception of protest, of course, but I’ll keep this short and simply point out that clearing the streets is not only fundamentally undemocratic and counter to fundamental American values—it can easily lead to ironic results.  Understanding the proper response to protest (even if based on cynical motives) requires thinking about why the protesters are there.  They aren’t just upset—they’re trying to show others how upset they are.[6]

Good governments don’t threaten their citizens because it’s wrong to do so.
Smart governments don’t threaten their citizens because it’s stupid to do so.

Given the events of the past 10 days, I’ll take either type.

With that, I leave you with this.


[1] This is a blog post, so I will simply note the sloppiness of ascribing “thought” to a deceptively simple collective such as “the government.” Apologies to Ken Arrow, as appropriate.

[2] I make a lot of costly signaling arguments on this blog (e.g., here, here, here). This is itself a costly signal of how useful I believe the concept to be. KAPOW!

[3] And, to complicate things, this cuts both ways: the successful organizer must convince his or her followers that the outcome can be achieved, but only with the followers’ help.

[4] Arguably not too different from the policy that is being attempted today in Ferguson (8/18)

[5] This is particularly true now that there are so many excellent livestreams of protests.

[6] I thought about discussing the incentives of the government to portray its actions as being “not about the protest” (i.e., protecting property, responding to gunshots/fireworks?) but I’ll leave that for another post.

3 thoughts on “Makes Us Stronger: The Math of Protest and Repression

  1. John – On collective agents and their “thoughts” you might have a look at Pettit and List’s recent book (assuming you’ve not already seen it). It is right up your ally. As for models of protest, you might find the old paper by Roger Petersen & Rasma Karklins (JoP, mid 1990s).

  2. Pingback: Tres estupideces que convirtieron un asesinato racista en un conflicto nacional | Sucesos Globales

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