An Economic look at Martyrs

At George Mason University there has been a new concentration called “Economics of Religion.” I have had the honor to have the founder Larry Iannaccone lecture on his article “The Market for Martyrs.”

He begins by talking about how we have, after 9/11, thought that people who are suicide bombers are poor, ignorant, has history of mental illness or attempted suicide.

This is in line with how us, in America, try to explain why people join cults. Iannaccone states:

“Cults were accused of gaining converts via deception and coercion…. We now know that nearly all the anti-cult claims were overblown, mistaken, or outright lies.”

He then describes who the majority of cult converts have been:

“Most cult converts were children of privilege raised by educated parents in suburban homes. Young, healthy, intelligent, and college educated, they could look forward to solid careers and comfortable incomes.”

But that’s not to say that cult weren’t costly because they were.

It is important to know that he explains that we have seen when someone starts a new religion or cult, their first converts are friends and family. (example: Joseph Smith and his brothers in founding the Mormon Church.)

To go back to Islamic militants, people who join a group to die for it have a lot in common with cult converts.

Claude Berrebi, who is mentioned in this paper, found that Palestinian suicide bombers were actually more educated and better economic status than the average Palestinian.

Iannaccone then leads us to put this in an economic perspective. He says that religious groups can be viewed as a firm that “produces” acts of violence in exchange for benefits that are both material and social. The group leaders are managers that recruit and train labor, that can be suicidal.

Then we have to look at the supply-side of the suicide bombers. Iannaccone’s equation is E[B(R,Z) – C(R,Z)], where B – C is benefits minus costs. R = Religious and Z = Economic. The benefits could be fame, honor, recognition, moral status, value of accomplishment, harms to others, and benefits go past life on earth. The costs are pain, costs to loved ones, risk of humiliation, capture, and possible execution.

The way that most countries have tried to stop this is by hitting the supply-side. Iannoccone states that it will be really hard to do that for 3 main reasons.

  1. Supply is small, so hard to find.
  2. Criminal penalties if caught doesn’t effect them that much.
  3. You can’t block all the motivations of these bombers because they all could be different.

Larry Iannaccone’s Conclusion summarize:

He states that there are thousands of cults in sects that are all around the world but yet very few of them actually turn into violence (or suicide bombing).  Then when you compare the Christian United States to the Islamic Middle East, we see many more suicide bombers in the Middle East.

He mentions abortion and how there are many evangelical Christians and Catholics that think that abortion is murder. People who believe this spend a lot of time and money in this particular issue, thus “the potential supply of anti-abortion “matyrs” is vast. But the actual supply is zero.”

He claims that “religious violence is unprofitable for American religious “firms.”

Iannaccone says “changing market conditions provides the only true solution to the problem of suicide bombing and militant religious radicalism.”

We need to fix these things:

  1. Reduce cooperation within terror firms
  2. Increase damaging competition between firms
  3. Undercut the firms’ ability to collect payment for services rendered.
  4. Diminish the underlying demand for those homicidal services.

In a lecture, Dr. Iannaccone said, we need to increase religious pluralism to create these things.

I understand that in his paper he says that you have to understand the market to make these four changes but what are the ideas for the middle east? How do we increase the religious pluralism?

Other than that this is a great read I highly recommend.


Published in: on December 1, 2007 at 3:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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