The spate of `Islamist’ violence recently perpetrated by individual people is a puzzle for mainstream economics. In the world of rational agents intent on maximizing their wealth, the destruction of human or material resources is only sensible when that destruction provides a direct competitive advantage. Why then would Homo Economicus walk into an office, market, or cafe, and start destroying the productive resources belonging to economic entities that are not in economic competition with him? Because this behaviour just doesn’t square with mainstream economic models, economists have not taken it upon themselves to explain it.
Yet there are direct economic effects of this destructive behaviour (e.g., loss of valuable human capital, inventories, and so on), and also the effects created by a loss of security: economic activity in the affected regions may temporarily wane or at least shift in terms of industry mix (more personal bodyguards, less tourism to national icons). Drawing a box around public destruction of this sort and saying `economists don’t get this!’ will only limit the ability of economics to accomplish its core mission of helping societies move to their highest-welfare frontier. The more human behaviour we claim flummoxes us, the more we are at the mercy of our models being trumped by `exogenous shocks’ – the economists’ version of the doctor’s `idiopathic condition’ (`I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but clearly it’s something!’).
What then is happening? The people who have engaged in this violence are not stealing resources or killing competitors. They seem motivated by a desire to protect something very different than their personal livelihood. `Defending the Prophet’, `punishing <entity X> for its insults against <entity Y>’, and similar abstract ideas are typically claimed as at least proximate motivations, despite the fact that the extremism of the destruction wrought is of the sort typically observed in developed societies only in situations where one’s own personal safety is in grave danger and there is no recourse but to violence.
The first step in understanding this is to understand that in the mind of the perpetrator, he IS the abstraction. Let’s take the motivation of `defending the Prophet’ as an example. A person claims that he engages in the destruction of human and material resources in order to defend the honour of someone who is long-dead and thus certainly not in a position to repay the favour, even if we accept the premise that the entity for whom the act is committed would perceive it as a favour. The perpetrator of violence is devoted strongly enough to whatever it is that this long-dead entity represents in his mind (e.g., `the honour of Islam’) that he will kill someone whom he has perceived to have insulted the entity. He is what we would call `loyal’ to this entity – just as a soldier in a national army is motivated to kill on the battlefield because of his loyalty to the abstract concept of `his country’ and everything that his country stands for in his mind. In his mind, his self includes the entity: hence, a threat to the entity is a threat to the self.
Now, plenty of us regular Joes living in today’s peaceful nation states hold entities in our minds with which we similarly identify, and to which we are similarly devoted. For me, what my children represent in my mind best fits this description. If someone came to my house and posed a clear and present danger to the physical welfare of my children, then I would certainly fight him and if necessary kill him. But if someone drew a cartoon making fun of my children, said very rude things about them to their faces, or even publicly humiliated them, then would I quietly obtain an assault rifle and put a bullet in him? No. And why not? For two reasons.
First, no one in a position of power over me would condone or encourage such an act. It would be considered by all groups to which I belong to be shameful, weak, and altogether unacceptable. If I murdered someone in cold blood, I would lose my professional status, my networks, and my personal friends: I would become a pariah. It would just be super-dumb from the perspective of my own personal advancement.
Second, my identification with and hence devotion to other abstractions is more powerful in my mind than my devotion to protecting my children from humiliation. Those other abstractions—things like peace, tolerance, love, and understanding—would be directly insulted by murder. As a result, by murdering someone in retaliation for ridiculing something I hold precious, I would lose respect for myself. Balancing my devotion to protecting my children from humiliation against my devotion to these abstractions, there is simply no contest. Any child of mine, I would tell myself, should be strong enough to withstand, learn from, and ultimately prove wrong any insults or other rude behaviour. I would of course comfort and staunchly support an insulted child, but taking lives because of a non-violent insult? It would simply never cross my mind.
I venture that the previous few paragraphs resonate with most readers who have been raised in the developed world by peaceful, reasonably well-off parents and who are lucky enough today to enjoy status and friendships that they value. How is the internal world of the terrorist different?
First, he is encouraged in his destructive act by others who lead him to believe that his own status will rise when he commits the act. This means he sees the act as a way to advance himself personally. Unlike me, he either does not have, or does not value as highly as I do, personal respect from peace-loving groups. Hence he does not internally perceive that he has (as much of) this respect to lose.
Second, the other abstractions with which I strongly identify, and which pull my behaviour away from violence, are not ones with which he identifies as strongly. The perpetrator’s devotion to `the honour of The Prophet’ and what this represents in his mind is simply stronger than his devotion to `peace’ or `tolerance’. The natural explanation for this is that he was not conditioned in the way most people in the developed world are as children. While in my childhood I was told repeatedly by parents, teachers, and other figures of authority that killing people was unconditionally wrong, he may have somehow escaped that strong conditioning and built his identity at least partly using the building blocks of other abstractions, such as honour or domination, for example. Alternatively, he may have grown up with a weak sense of self, not being encouraged to identify with powerful peaceful abstractions, making him the easy prey when a young adult of any group that understands how conditioning works. This could be seen as a failure of parenting, and/or a failure of the state in which he was raised to infuse his education with the peaceful values that are conducive to economic prosperity. Events like the march yesterday in Paris, however, are prime evidence of the depth of identification with peaceful values that is present in the hearts of people in modern developed countries – and hence of the broad success of modern conditioning efforts.
The internal world of the terrorist, like the internal world of most of us, is hence driven by his identification with abstractions. This world is built through socially-mediated encouragement towards that identification. Our remarkable ability to abstract, and then to identify with the abstractions we conjure such that they expand our sense of who we are and strongly influence our behavior, is something uniquely human. We owe to it the wild success of our nation states, and even the basic ability to imagine and plan for our future economic activities, so it is fundamental to the workings of our modern economies. It is also a trait that enables the de-railing of people who escape modern conditioning systems and can subsequently become instruments of terror.
Some argue that even if one of these `Islamist terrorists’ had been under the influence of violence-promoting entities for some time, he should `wake up’ and censor himself once he realizes what he is being asked to do. As we know from the stories of Nazi camp soldiers, however, this is not easy. In the face of a powerful group telling him that killing will be rewarded – a group that has strongly encouraged him to identify with an abstraction, and then fed him the story that that abstraction has been damaged by people whom he holds the power to kill – and with weak pre-existing personal commitment to peaceful abstractions that might counter that message, the young man is a sitting duck. There but for his conditioning goes my own son.
The upshot for economists? Our definition of individual rationality is implicitly conditional upon the prior conditioning of the individual in question. Not only cold material realities, but the abstractions we identify with internally, exert a powerful influence on our economically-relevant actions.