Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What's Wrong With Protestors Today?

One of the more intriguing questions surrounding the domestic reaction to the Iraq War is why has the anti-war movement been so placid? I have written before about this, arguing that a primary explanation for this is the absence of the draft, which takes away any direct interest most people have in protesting.

But why take my word for it? Two of this country's most distinguished scholars, Gary Becker and Richard Posner, have addressed this issue on their always interesting blog. Posner doesn't like the argument about the impact of the draft, instead arguing that five factors explain the lack of serious and violent protest over the war:

First is that the opponents of the war in Iraq have the support of one of the two political parties....The Left knows that violent protests against the war would weaken Democratic Party opposition and the likelihood of a Democratic President's being elected in 2008. Moreover, they have less need to protest because they are aligned with a powerful political force.

Second, the opportunity costs of time are higher today than they were in the 1960s and early 1970s for potential protesters.

Third, the great expansion of the electronic media, including the advent of blogs, gives people outlets to blow off steam that are much cheaper, in cost of time, than street demonstrations or acts of violence.

Fourth is a learning factor. The violent protests against the Vietnam war probably did not shorten the war, but instead helped Nixon become President.

A fifth factor [is] cultural rather than economic or easily expressed in economic terms: For many of the Vietnam war protesters, the war was a symbol of what they believed to be deeper and broader problems with the United States and the entire Western world. They thought the "system" rotten and entertained Utopian hopes of overthrowing it and substituting a socialist or anarchist paradise. This belief gave the war more resonance as a target. Partly because of the collapse of communism, partly because of greater prosperity, few Americans are hostile to the American system. Most blame the Iraq war on the incompetence of the Bush Administration rather than on some more pervasive social or political pathology. This tempers their anger and their willingness to take career risks by engaging in protests against the war.
Becker, however (and obviously infinitely more accurately), agrees with me:

The absence of a military draft is the most important factor behind the minimal number of violent protests against the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq.

Representative Charles Rangel of New York has proposed to reinstate the draft. He has claimed that President Bush would not have invaded Iraq had a universal draft been in place. I do not believe he is right, but I do believe the pressure to withdraw earlier would have been far greater if young men were being drafted in large numbers.

The war in Iraq is being fought only with volunteers for military and civilian service, although some members of the armed forces and the reserves would not have joined if they anticipated the war when they enlisted. The reliance solely on military volunteers means that "taxes" to fight the war are spread over all taxpayers, and are not concentrated on young people.

Thoughts? What explains this puzzling lack of protest?


Anonymous said...

Posner has the right framework, but Becker (and you) supplies an important data point. Obviously, the correct analysis is the benefit/cost analysis--what is the cost of spending time in protest and what is the gain? When 95% (or more) of the relevant population is gainfully employed in a world with wages higher than ever before and leisure opportunities even higher (and cheaper), it's no wonder that fewer people choose to spend their time chanting mediocre rhymes, holding placards and venting to little effect.

At the same time, however, the benefits are significantly smaller when your own life isn't on the line. And when others' lives aren't on the line. And this is the key. There are two components to the expected benefit of protesting: the benefit itself (no war) and the likelihood that your efforts will bring it about. As it happens, the benefits of protesting are only realized when large numbers of protesters are involved (otherwise, it really is just a narcissistic (or at least empty) gesture). This creates a coordination game problem--before it's worth it to you to start making those signs, you need to know that 1000s more just like you will do it, too. That was probably a safe bet when draftees could count on the fear of death to motivate their fellow draftees. Gauging your fellow would-be protesters motivations now is much harder, and expected motivation much lower.

So not only are you innately less-motivated to get out there to protest (because you have less to gain by stopping the war), but the likelihood of achieving that outcome is much lower, as well. And the opportunity cost of protesting is much higher. A veritable "perfect storm" (man, what a hackneyed term that has become!) of anti-protest sentiment.

Matt Eckel said...

While I agree that the absence of a draft is one of the main reasons protest against the Iraq war is not more ubiquitous, it is worth remembering that the most visible, angry, violent protests of the Vietnam era were not driven merely by people who were angry at being drafted. There was also an element of the anti-war movement (I've heard an informal estimate of 20%) that genuinely supported international Communism. This was, at the time, a legitimate (if somewhat misguided) ideological choice for someone raised in a Western socio-ethical environment. It is difficult to imagine support on a similar scale for Islamic extremism, which nobody outside the Islamic world seems to consider particularly progressive. The lack of a draft has precluded mass sacrifice, and thus mass indignation, but the modern anti-war movement also lacks a core group of people who are convinced that we are on the wrong side.

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