Bryan Caplan  

The Missing Martyrs

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My colleague Lawrence Iannaccone is the world's leading researcher on the economics of religion. His work fascinates me, but at the end of the day, I wonder how much of it is true.

One juicy tidbit:

In "The Market for Martyrs," Larry argues that there is an ample supply of people willing to die for a cause. The limiting factor, contrary to popular opinion, is demand. There usually aren't many organizations that want to recruit suicidal terrorists. At times, Larry's goal is simply to get us to stop neglecting demand. But as best as I can tell, his main point is that anti-terrorism policies would be more effective if they focused on demand.

Interesting, but is he right? Toward the end of his paper, he poses a deep question: How come American opponents of abortion engage in almost no terrorism, much less suicidal terrorism? My knee-jerk answer is: Despite their fiery rhetoric, almost no Americans want to go to jail or die just to stop abortion. (Yes, Arnold Kling has a point - deeds - and lack thereof - sometimes speak louder than words!)

Not so, says Larry:

[M]any millions view the act of abortion as murder... [T]ens of thousands of anti-abortion "true believers" already devote substantial portions of their time and money to anti-abortion activities. Thus, the potential supply of militant anti-abortion "martyrs" is vast.

So why aren't abortion clinics blowing up every day?

But the actual supply remains effectively zero, because no Christian organizations have entered the business of recruiting, training, and launching anti-abortion militants... [C]ontemporary realities make religiously-sponsored violence unprofitable for American religious "firms." Any church or preacher advocating anti-abortion killings, much less planning them, would suffer huge loses in reputation, influence, membership, and funding, not to mention criminal prosecution...

So let me get this straight. There are lots of people willing to sacrifice their lives to stop abortions, but not enough sympathizers to sustain one splinter church that blesses their jihad? I can see why Jerry Falwell doesn't want to lose his social position, but surely some hungry religious entrepreneur would be happy to lead a small church for people who admire suicide bombing of abortion clincs.

In other words, for every person willing to die, there must be at least one hundred sympathizers who would join a church that advocated suicide bombing. If you can't get one hundred people to join a church that preaches suicide bombing, you probably can't find anyone willing to practice suicide bombing.

So why don't American opponents of abortion do suicide bombing? My story, anyway, is that (a) Larry is right that there is little demand, but (b) Contrary to Larry, this virtually implies that there is vastly less supply.


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TRACKBACKS (6 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/242
The author at The Club for Growth Blog in a related article titled The Economics of Religion writes:
    Are terrorists rational? What is the supply and demand for suicide bombers? Bryan Caplan gives his thoughts on the economics of religion, highlighting research done by the field’s leading expert, Larry Iannaccone. Fascinating stuff.... [Tracked on April 20, 2005 4:47 PM]
The author at Acton Institute PowerBlog in a related article titled Economics of Martyrdom writes:
    Although purporting to be a post about the "economics of religion," EconLog's Bryan Caplan discusses what is really the "economics of martyrdom," or, to be even more accurate, the "economics of a particular type of 'martyrdom,' suicide terrorism." Caplan' [Tracked on April 21, 2005 11:53 AM]
COMMENTS (14 to date)
Randy writes:

Bryan,

It does make sense - they're just missing an entrepreneur.

Lancelot Finn writes:

There's a simpler solution to the "puzzle" of the missing anti-abortion terrorists: Christ taught a Gospel of love, "turn the other cheek." Anti-abortion terrorism is against the Christian faith.

What this (amusing) post illustrates is: Economists REALLY don't understand religion.

Robert Schwartz writes:

Suicide bombing is not a religious phenomenon. It is a political tactic, invented by radicals in Eastern Europe and later perfected by the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers. Its use by Islamo-fascists attracted the muslim notion of martrydom, but that idea is not central to the practice.

Brandon Berg writes:
There's a simpler solution to the "puzzle" of the missing anti-abortion terrorists: Christ taught a Gospel of love, "turn the other cheek." Anti-abortion terrorism is against the Christian faith.

"Turn the other cheek" applies to crimes against oneself, not to crimes against others, right? Your answer doesn't hold up when you consider the fact that most conservative Christians support the death penalty and certain wars.

If abortion is murder, and if the death penalty is a proper punishment for murder, then it follows that doctors who perform abortions should be killed not only in retaliation for their past crimes, but also to protect the unborn whom they will probably kill in the future.

That most anti-abortion types do not accept this conclusion suggests to me that they don't really believe that abortion is murder.

jaimito writes:

Interesting that the suicide bomber phenomenon should be tackled by economists. Israeli experience confirms that there is no dearth of voluntary would-be suicide bombers (in the Palestinian side). Their problem is to find de organizational framework to make their suicide an act of trascendental meaning. The suicide has to take place within an environment symbols, rituals, ceremonies, it has to have observers, commenters, public, to be worth the while. Without ideologues, organizers, journalists, TV cameras, there will be no suicide bombers.

Tom writes:

I've always been curious about the use of the term 'holocaust' to describe the abortion scene in the United States. If the users are implying an equivalence between the destruction of the Jews and the abortions that occur, are they also implying that they themselves would have been content (as either citizens or foreigners) to let Hitler annihilate the Jews as long as he wasn't invading other countries at the same time.

Indeed, would they consider it unethical to attempt to overthrow him? After all, GWB allows abortion under his reign. Would they endorse a foreign attempt to replace the government with one denying abortions? Would they even endorse the United States invading countries that support abortion...

I suspect that despite the use of the word, even the most die-hard realize that they feel no moral equivalence, which makes it a wee bit hypocritical.

Silviu writes:

My reply was a bit lengthy, so I posted it as a separate entry.

Lancelot Finn writes:

My comment was a bit flawed, and thanks to Brandon Berg for catching it:

"Turn the other cheek" applies to crimes against oneself, not to crimes against others, right? Your answer doesn't hold up when you consider the fact that most conservative Christians support the death penalty and certain wars.

If abortion is murder, and if the death penalty is a proper punishment for murder, then it follows that doctors who perform abortions should be killed not only in retaliation for their past crimes, but also to protect the unborn whom they will probably kill in the future.

But let me revise the point and say: Let's suppose that Christianity is a religion deeply skeptical of all violence, reluctant to endorse even violence by recognized legitimate states, let alone by private agents acting outside the law, and that extra-legal killing of abortionists would be considered by virtually all Christians, and by all traditional Christian authorities, to be a violation of the Christian faith.

How would an analysis of "supply" and "demand" for martyrs accommodate this little factoid? It can't. Which shows is that this is a ridiculous way to frame this particular question. You have to ask what good is to be achieved through martyrdom.

The big difference between economics and religion is that for economists, the purpose of life is a "black box," whereas religion plunges in and answers it.

metis314 writes:

First, since Christianity opposes suicide in general, the question should be: Why aren't there more anti-abortion people waiting outside clinics ready to shoot (or otherwise kill) doctors who perfrom abortions?

Second, I imagine a big reason why anti-abortion advocates don't do this is because they realized that it was not an effective way to turn public opinion against abortion. This is the only way in the long run to stop abortion - not through fear, since fear will eventually subside.

Finally, it seems that there is/has been a non-negligible amount of violence against abortion clinics - from http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_viol.htm (just the first google result):

"Violent protests, in the form of arson, firebombing, and vandalism started in the early 1970's in the U.S." ... "However, recent cases involving the assassination and attempted murder of abortion providers in both the U.S. and Canada have shown that perpetrators appear to be sheltered by a network of sympathizers."

"One source reported in late 1996, that there has been "over $13 million in damage caused by violent anti-abortion groups since 1982 in over 150 arson attacks, bombings, and shootings."'

Paul N writes:

People (like me) who are against abortion are also against suicide and murder. Besides, you don't need "recruiting, training, and launching" to become an anti-abortion terrorist - all you need is a gun and a phone book; to me it's obvious that there is very little supply.

jaimito writes:

Paul N,

Let me disagree. A terrorist act seems extremely simple to carry out, but in fact requires a certain environment and organization. There are no spontaneous suicide bombings - maximum, a person goes amok and takes the kitchen knife and kills somebody on the street. That is ineffective and can be dismissed. An effective spectacular act requires lots of work. Think it over. Supply of volunteers is endless, but there is a problem of quality. You need reliable, precise, trained, capable suicide bombers, if not, your whole investment goes up in a police success.

Boonton writes:

Why would radical anti-abortion groups embrace suicide bombings when they can just do regular bombings sans suicide? In the case of Israel & 9/11, one could argue that suicide missions were the most effective military tactic in those cases.

Remember the first truck bombing of the world trade center as well as Tim McVeigh's bombing of the Federal Building? They didn't utilize suicide bombers....even though the former was done by Muslim radicals. Since then it became very difficult to pull off non-suicide truck bombings around major landmarks like the Pentegon...hence the suicide mission on 9/11.

If Israeli security was not keeping a close eye on incoming Palestinians as well as 'packages' left alone in public I would expect them to suffer many more non-suicide bombings.

jaimito writes:

Right. What I am saying that the supply of volunteers is greater than the demand.

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