Thursday, February 28, 2008

Civil disobedience

Arnold Kling writes:

The idea of civil disobedience is that it allows a minority to confront a situation that the majority of people are passively tolerating. It allows the minority to show intensity of feelings, and it forces others in society to look at the issue and choose sides... Another way to think of it is that there are multiple equilibria in politics, and in social norms in general... And maybe the only way to [change the] equilibrium is through civil disobedience.

The way I see it, the issue behind civil disobedience is one of the transaction costs needed to coordinate the actions of a group who already agrees with an idea (or perhaps is willing to agree with it if exposed to it). It has little to do with changing the opinion of the majority (in fact, that group could already be the majority itself). Good ol' Coase, good ol' collective action.

Let me explain: let's say that

  1. Change requires a simple majority (we will lift this assumption later).
  2. There is a minority with a true "better idea:" a blueprint for an alternative set of institutions that leads to a Kaldor-Hicks improvement.
  3. This minority is failing to convince enough of the electorate to demand a new course through the existing mechanisms.

The problem could be that: (a) the majority is not interested in paying the cost to become informed, but would agree if informed; or (b) is informed and agrees, but fails to act because of the usual issues of collective action augmented by ignorance with respect to the size of the group (even if we all acted, would it be enough to generate change?); or (c) would disagree if informed or is informed and disagrees.

If the problem is (c), then no amount of civil disobedience would lead to much. Perhaps the majority is truly irrational (a la Caplan's "Myth of the Irrational Voter") or perhaps they are rational but mistrust the new institutions to (re)distribute the Kaldor-Hicks welfare improvement in a way that benefits them (could that be called "a constrained Pareto improvement"?). This is precisely the case in which the majority approves of state repression of those violating the rules. If their minds can be changed, it's not likely to be through civil disobedience. End of story. (We do it too: nobody thinks that every thief is a Robin Hood.)

But if the problem is either (a) or (b), it is then equivalent to one in which a majority already exists, albeit one suffering from transaction costs that are too high either at the information stage or, being informed, in overcoming the usual barriers to collective action/public good provision. I would further argue that (a) is really caused by (b): why would an agent choose to remain ignorant if not because he or she cannot see a positive return to acquiring the information? So I will concentrate on (b).

And in this situation, civil disobedience is one of the many alternatives used to overcome collective action issues, much like talk radio or grassroots movements.

Say a small group with a low activation threshold protests and gets arrested; if their case makes it to the evening news and is seen by a larger group with a higher activation threshold, this might be enough to signal to them the existence of others and to inform them of coordination mechanisms (like a march on Saturday to show support for those arrested). From then on, the meme can spread through coverage of each successive (and larger scale) act, and so activate other agents with even higher thresholds as two things happen: information about the size of the group is revealed (as long as it is revealed to be large enough to show that a cost-benefit analysis of taking action can be passed in the positive); and coordinating action becomes less costly through the spread of high-profile information about what, where, and when to do.

Here, we can lift the assumption of a simple majority to enact change: large enough minorities can exert sufficient pressure on legislators when they are better coordinated than the majority, as any lobbyist worth his/her salt knows.

This poor-researcher's model might be enough to suggest when civil disobedience is more likely to be effective as a mechanism for social change. There needs to be a group large enough to enact change, but ignorant of its own size and facing informational costs that make coordination mechanisms too expensive. There can either be heterogeneity within this group with respect to the activation thresholds, all the way down to some individuals willing to pay a really high cost to see change enacted; or some random shock on an agent's environment that leads this one to act first. Finally, there must be a medium which allows information to spread cheaply once someone gets the ball rolling.

Two things are missing from this model: first, details about the characteristics of the medium and the message. Let me go out on a stereotyping limb for a second. Blogs are cheap to consume and can spread quickly, but they transmit information with a (relative) low emotional quotient as it must be read and thus relies on a (relatively) higher appeal to reason compared to emotion. The evening TV news are also cheap to consume and can also spread quickly, but they are transmitted through moving images of the real world. This allows them to appeal more directly to emotion and rely less on reason. And on top of all, there are the selection issues involved in who relies more on blogs and who more on evening TV news. Through which mechanism is civil disobedience more likely spread at an early stage, at an intermediate stage, at a late stage? I would place my bet on blogs triggering the pioneers into action and then TV kicks in to spread the call to action massively.

The other missing element is, of course, something to set the whole thing in motion. Again, I'm totally guessing, but I venture two triggers. In one scenario, there are low-activation threshold agents acting all the time, but the technology is not there to spread the news about it to inform the troops it's time to rally. Along comes a technological shock such the printing press, radio, TV, or the Internet that makes this cost-effective. (The exogenous shock could be something subtler, like a change in the news market that makes it more likely that this type of stories will be transmitted; for example, a change in ownership rules that make it possible to transmit more local news.)

In the other scenario, ideas and rhetoric become important again: the low-activation threshold agents are those who have lower costs in acquiring information (or in being swayed by it). Along come the intellectuals or the marketers as an exogenous shock that sets the whole thing in motion.

It is in this sense only that civil disobedience can disguise itself as a way to change the social consensus; but I would still argue that it does no such thing as it needs an audience receptive to the message, just waiting for enough of a spark (from the low-action threshold agents) to show to the its own self that it is out there and that it is large enough to merit action.

Hmmm... maybe I should write a paper... But no, I can't: I must go and file my taxes like a responsible, law-abiding patsy.

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