Still Baltimore

There were riots in Baltimore, responding to what to many seems to be systematic police abuse of force on blacks. Some have blessed the riots, claiming that at some point, violence is the only answer. Others have condemned the riots, claiming that destruction and violation of property rights is never a good long-term solution. Some say that the majority of rioters were simply opportunistic looters, taking advantage of the moment to steal from the very groups that had already been harmed by the prevailing injustices. Some say that destruction and violation of property is precisely what is necessary to demonstrate the illegitimacy of the systems responsible for the particular distribution of property that exists.

Perhaps it would have been better if the riots had taken place in Chevy Chase or Annapolis instead.

My question is: was this an organized riot or a wildcat riot?

James C. Scott in “Two Cheers for Anarchism” talks about the wildcat riot and how it is the most threatening form of protest to those in power. This is exactly right, from a public choice point of view, and perhaps right anyway.

When a protest is organized, we can count upon the organizers to act in their self interest. They will attempt to control the protest such that the marginal cost of the protest, in terms of the organizers’ loss of credibility with existing powers, is equal to the marginal benefit, in terms of the organizers’ capacity to gain influence over the existing powers. But it is really all about the organizers.

In a wildcat riot, the real point is that the entire system is broken. Community leaders are recognized to have no power to change the situation for the right. The bargaining and compromise necessary for marginal reforms is recognized to lead to insufficient reforms for those most urgently in need of change.

I hereby invoke the transitional gains trap. When the reform that is possible through the usual channels of politics is known to be insufficient, the only way to sufficient reform is an exogenous shock. We have to enter a prophetic stage, in which voices at the fringes, those who have no political capital and who do not stand to gain any political capital send the people scurrying about as independent agents to burn the system down. The riot will destroy. It will take lives. It primarily says to the system: you do not work for us, and we know it. The riot does great harm, and in my understanding is the only ultimate alternative to the sacrificial altruism that I preach. And those two options are polar opposites in terms of strategy, but of the same end.

The riot will go on, and will send the correct message, so long as it remains wildcat. But the moment demagogues arise within it, the moment some leaders start to gain some social capital, the moment it becomes apparent to some agent that they can get some goodies for the riot while quelling it and appeasing the establishment, and the moment that the riot yields to these demagogues, the wildcat nature is gone. It is politics as usual.

I’m afraid that the failure of the Burkian good folks to do the right thing led to the alternative of the wildcat riot, but that then the demagogues arose. The riots will be meaningless in the end. Some innocent bystanders will have been harmed. Some new demagogues will arise. Mostly the same old demagogues will take advantage of the situation.

When it all settles down, it will still be the same Baltimore. I am grieved.

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