Actually, Riots are Good: The Economic Case for Riots in Ferguson
Smirking St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch took his robes off long enough on Monday to announce to the world that the killer of Mike Brown would face no criminal charges. In lieu of the usual grand jury process wherein the prosecutor says it wants an indictment and then the grand jury automatically gives it to them, McCulloch clearly did everything he could to make sure officer Darren Wilson would never face a trial. In the wake of such transparent rigging, Ferguson quite naturally exploded into fiery riots.
The media reaction to the rioting has thus far been uniformly ridiculous. As much as we all love AutoZone and Doritos, hysterically sobbing at the sight of the former being burned and the latter being looted is a tad over the top. A clip of bullets was unloaded into an unarmed black boy and then his killer was ushered through some sort of cop-loving kangaroo court, after all. Some charred car refreshers are hardly something to get worked up about in moments like these.
Even coverage that didn't exhibit Don Lemon levels of absurdity still endlessly bleated on about how the riots are obviously regrettable. Big time news outlets that generally abstain from telling you directly what to think have decided to make an exception for the rioting. They have discarded their usual straight face of objectivity to tell you that riots are definitely bad and that all right-thinking people should definitely be against them.
But is this really so? There is, of course, the historical case to be made for rioting: the past is replete with examples where rioting gets the goods. But there is also, I'd submit, an even more straightforward case for rioting: at the right levels, rioting is economically efficient.
One need look no further than famous economist and Nobel laureate Gary Becker to see how this is true. According to Becker, punishing bad behavior increases the costs of engaging in such behavior and thereby reduces the amount of it. This is the underlying theory of most criminal justice schemes. Rioting that occurs in response to gross police misconduct and criminal system abuses imposes costs on doing those things. It signals to police authorities that they risk this sort of destructive mayhem if they continue on like this. All else equal, this should reduce the amount of police misconduct as criminal justice authorities take precautions to prevent the next Ferguson.
To be sure, burning down AutoZones is not an optimal way to impose costs on state authorities. It would be, as some interviewed Ferguson residents noted, far more effective to target police equipment or other property nearer to criminal justice authorities. But these targets are often difficult and risky to reach, unlike local business interests. Since state authorities are always and everywhere most concerned about capital and business interests, threatening to impose costs on them via rioting should have a similar impact on police incentives.
Although rioting, through its imposition of costs, can theoretically deliver huge benefits by dissuading bad behavior, that doesn't mean it makes sense to riot all the time and at any level of intensity. Just like enforcing and imposing criminal sanctions is costly, sanctioning via rioting is costly. Economic wealth is destroyed and economic activity is temporarily interrupted. For rioting to be economically efficient, it has to be the case that the costs of rioting (measured in terms of how much stuff is destroyed) are lower than the benefits of curbing bad police behavior.
Conducting such a cost-benefit analysis on the Ferguson riots, though necessarily speculative, is not impossible. It's estimated that white officers kill black suspects 96 times a year. Cost-benefit analyses conducted by safety regulators peg the value of a human life at $9.2 million. This means the economic cost of white cops killing blacks is around $883 million per year. If the jolt caused by Ferguson's rioting can chill police authorities and cause adjustments that save just 3 black lives per year, that's an economic savings of $27.6 million. It's hard to tell now how much damage rioting in Ferguson has caused, but I'd doubt it's anywhere near that figure.
Of course, chilling police authorities has other impacts beyond saved lives. If we can scare police departments away from being so needlessly aggressive towards blacks, we can reduce incarceration, which commands enormous amounts of economic resources. And that is not even to mention the hedonic value that blacks, and people of color more generally, would get out of not being constantly in fear of police oppression. That value is hard to quantify, but surely sums up to a rather enormous economic loss.
Thus far, the rioting question has been focused on whether it's good or bad, as if those are the only two answers. From an economic perspective, surely the question is whether the level of rioting is optimal: Do the potential benefits of Ferguson rioting as a police sanctioning tool outweigh its immediate wealth destruction? I suspect it does and, in fact, that the current rioting level is likely economically suboptimal.
Matt Bruenig writes about poverty, inequality, and economic justice at Demos. He is a Texas native and graduate of the University of Oklahoma.