Wanton destruction of people's stuff. Isn't it great? Gawker sure thinks so—and argues that there are undeniable benefits. But wait: Don't hurl your laptop or smart phone through your local convenience store's front window just yet! Let's examine this claim.
Matt Bruenig, a writer for Demos and Salon, penned the article, titled "Actually, Riots are Good: The Economic Case for Riots in Feguson." Contrary to what the headline suggests, Bruenig doesn't actually commit the broken window fallacy and argue, as some Keynesians do, that destruction is economically beneficial. One has to dig deep down into the article—past a deeply misleading claim that "rioting is economically efficient"—to get to the crux of the argument.
Bruenig thinks that under certain conditions, rioting is efficient because it punishes the police for their bad behavior. If police react to riots by killing fewer black teenagers, then the cost in lives saved (in real dollars) outweighs the property destruction. Bruenig explains:
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.
That argument is laughably terrible and really much dumber than the broken window fallacy, but let's return to that in a minute. Bruenig actually tries to compute how much money society is going to make off the rioting. Remember, every store you loot is a worthwhile economic trade-off if it saves a life:
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.
So what's the big problem with his argument? For starters, it assumes that riots "impose costs on state authorities." But the police aren't the ones getting their shit destroyed; innocent, random store owners are. So that cost is imposed in an extremely indirect manner, if at all.
In fact, what's to say this is a cost on the police, even indirectly? Do riots cause police departments to say, "Man, we have to police more cautiously and timidly"? Do they cause the store owners to demand less strident policing? Do they galvanize Americans into wanting a less active police force? I think you can argue persuasively in each of these cases the answer is no. It seems to me that if anything, rioting redirects people's sympathies away from the cause of rioters. Destroying other people's stuff is actually a great way to give the police greater license to commit abuses in the name of public safety.
Which is not to say that riots—or protests, in general—have never done society any good. Bruenig cites examples throughout history of revolutionaries triumphing via some version of rioting. But there are also plenty of examples of authoritarian state agents pointing to some destructive mob as justification for their brutal crackdowns. It seems to me it works better when people riot against the actual agents of evil—Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall, for instance—rather than some third-party victim, as in the case of the Ferguson riots.
Of course, if you're utterly without sympathy for the small business owners whose stuff is being destroyed, as Bruenig appears to be, maybe that calculus is a little easier.
At Reason, we would rather address the rioters' economic needs by lessening the burden of petty fines than by wrecking other people's stuff and expecting the state to get the exact right message from that.