Waylaid Dialectic

August 13, 2011

A Crudely Simplified Model of Rioting and Looting

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:43 pm

This is just me jotting notes for myself. A blog post that doesn’t even warrant the epistemic status of blog post. Avert your eyes if you believe in blogging standards…

Rational utility maximising individuals would, if they wanted something, steal it if they could – if they thought they could get away with it.

Such styalised models of people would be stealing stuff from shops all the time if it wasn’t for the fact that we have law enforcement. When you’re on the own if you smash a glass window and nick the TV from the other side there’s a good chance you’ll get caught. The risk of getting caught isn’t 100% but it’s high enough, and the costs of getting caught are higher than the benefits you might get from the TV, so people generally don’t steal things in this manner. Expected Utility Cost of Getting Caught * Probability of Getting Caught > Expected Utility from said TV.

In a riot the rules change though. All of a sudden there are a lot of people smashing things, so the odds of you getting caught decrease rapidly. So why not do some yourself. The expected utility cost of getting caught is still the same, but the probability is much lower, so one * the other < the Expected Utility from the TV.

The change in odds here arguably explains much of the opportunist looting that’s taken place in London and elsewhere in the UK.

It doesn’t explain why rioting and looting start though. Here a collective action dilemma is present: no one wants to be the first person looting. For him the calculus remains as bad as before. It’s only once rioting and looting occurs in sufficient quantity that it makes economic sense. In the meantime the collective action dilemma needs to be overcome. For this you need unfairness. Experiments conducted by behavioral economists show that people are willing to sacrifice material gains if they feel the deal they are being offered is unfair. Or, in this case, willing to run the risk of taking on the police because they are angry about an injustice — the Duggan shooting. (Or in LA’s case, the Rodney King affair.) Such incidents seem to be enough to get the flames burning, after that – arguably – a form of economic calculation takes over. Having a large group of people already gathered in the form of a protest would help here too.

Even if correct (and it’s too simple to be wholly correct) this model still doesn’t explain a lot of what has occurred over the last week. Why did the riots spread from city to city? How did the rioters in each new city overcome the collective action dilemma presented above? It also doesn’t explain why the vast majority of people in all the effected areas didn’t riot at all. The shall I loot calculus ought to be the same for all of them. Possibly the one’s who didn’t riot have more to lose. Or maybe it’s the less risk-averse who riot. Or perhaps the ones who did riot are predominantly those who feel alienated enough from society not to care about social norms (which are, in a sense, a more subtle form of policing)?

So it’s a very incomplete model. But it seems useful to me at least as a way of starting to think about how injustice and opportunist theft can end up being mixed up in the same street disturbance.

Anyhow, if you’ve made it this far, you deserve something useful. So…

Via Crooked Timber, a relevant paper:

Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe,

Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth

Does fiscal consolidation lead to social unrest? From the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s to anti-government demonstrations in Greece in 2010-11, austerity has tended to go hand in hand with politically motivated violence and social instability. In this paper, we assemble cross country evidence for the period 1919 to the present, and examine the extent to which societies become unstable after budget cuts. The results show a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability. We test if the relationship simply reflects economic downturns, and conclude that this is not the key factor. We also analyse interactions with various economic and political variables. While autocracies and democracies show a broadly similar responses to budget cuts, countries with more constraints on the executive are less likely to see unrest as a result of austerity measures. Growing media penetration does not lead to a stronger effect of cut-backs on the level of unrest.

[Update: Thoughts from Bottom Up Thinking and Roving Bandit. While Stumbling and Mumbling has two interesting posts.]



  1. […] discussions of opportunity costs and other economic theory may provide us an intellectual handle with which to […]

    Pingback by Now the boot’s on the other foot « Bottom Up Thinking — August 15, 2011 @ 12:02 am

  2. I very much doubt that there’s a real economic calculation going on. Looting seems to be inspired by a principle – the sense of revenge, bravado or justice is much more a motivating factor than the actual material gain.

    The first time I ran across a ‘freegan’ happened to be in the midst of a riot – I overheard him questioning whether some food he was offered was looted or purchased – he was opposed to the purchase of animal products on moral grounds, but happy to eat dairy and eggs if the food had been stolen.

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — August 17, 2011 @ 7:26 am

  3. Hi Sam,

    I’m still mulling this over but…thinking about it, I’m dubious about actual conscious calculation too, and agree emotions associated with alientation, frustration, and bravado are probably more important factors.

    That being said, your use of the word ‘principle’ and your second point seem to imply that the riots were consciously political or in a way ‘principled’. If this is your point I definitely disagree WRT the recent riots, although I appreciate that not all riots are alike and motivations may be different under different circumstances.

    Comment by terence — August 17, 2011 @ 8:49 am

  4. Yes, the rioters were principled – revenge and self-centredness are principles, just not very good ones, and they were certainly political – the rioters are following a typical neo-liberal ethos, whether consciously or not.

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — August 17, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

  5. You’re playing with words Sam. When people say someone ‘has taken a principled stance’ or ‘stands by her principles’ they mean consciously held beliefs, not impulses. Similarly when someone says riots were political they normally mean the riots had some form of political objective, rather than simply displaying the behaviours that critics claim a particular political system represents.

    Also, “the rioters are following a typical neo-liberal ethos, whether consciously or not” — so you’re saying that the rioters were acting as self-interested utility maximisers? Funnily enough these are same assumptions that, in-part, structured my model above.

    Comment by terence — August 17, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

  6. No I’m not Terence, you are the one that decided I meant to ‘imply’ the riots were ‘principled’ – I didn’t use the word. And now you are getting all definitional on my ass about phrases I also didn’t use. I think the rioters were quite conscious of getting revenge and ‘a bit of their own back’. You’re welcome to argue about whether this fits the definition of a ‘principle’ or not – I couldn’t care less.

    And there’s a whole bunch of right-wingers out there denying the riots are political – not meaning ‘intending to achieve a conscious political motives’ – but in the sense of ‘having an underlying political cause – so I don’t think asserting they are political must imply the former. It needs to be asserted that these riots had political causes, because a whole bunch of commentators are putting them down to ‘bad guys’.

    And there’s a whole lot more to the neo-liberal ethos than simply being ‘self-interested utility maximisers’.

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — August 17, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

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