A few months ago a friend of mine, Reuben Seligman, recommended that I read Radical Religious and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism by Eli Berman. Many people recommend books to me, I welcome it and I occasionally even get around to reading them, particularly if it comes from a person whose taste I have a high regard for. I put this book on my Amazon wish list and ignored it. This person continued to pester me about why I had not bothered to read it. Finally he asked for my address and sent me his copy. Publishers and authors have sent me books to review before, but this was clearly serious. So I had no choice but to read this book and write about it. Let me say that this book was worth every bit of Seligman's pestering. Think of it as Freakonomics devoted to terrorism and religious radicals. Dr. Berman analyzes the relationship between radical religious groups and violence. He offers a highly edifying trip from Meah Shearim to Gaza and Afghanistan. The book treats both Haredim and Islamic fundamentalists with an economist's indulgence; they are rational beings who respond to worldly incentives. Dr. Berman assumes that there is a relationship between religious radicalism and terrorism, but does not indulge in any simplistic religion causes intolerance, which leads to violence as the believer attempts to enforce his beliefs on others. Berman's offers the intriguing if subversive model of social welfare groups, something that organized religions and particularly religious radicals seem to do better than anyone else, becoming the foundation for successful insurrectionists engaging in either conventional warfare against established militaries or terrorist attacks against civilians. The key to this is what Berman refers to as the "defection constant." What would it take to cause a member of a group to sell out? For example a Hamas operative to phone in to Israeli intelligence the planed suicide bombing against a bus or a Taliban fighter to hijack the cargo of a caravan of trucks on a Taliban controlled road through Afghanistan. The higher value the target, the greater the reward will be for betrayal. Western intelligence will offer more for information that stops a plane being flown into buildings than they would to stop a bus bombing. Western countries can pay more for defectors than non-Western countries. Assumedly, everyone has their price, money or otherwise, and the leadership of a group, better than anyone, has a rough idea what that price is for its members. This in turn sets a limit to what you might trust your people for. The same person that you might trust with a simple kidnapping job might not be trustworthy with a weapon of mass destruction. This means that groups with a higher defection constant, whose members require a higher price to sell out, will be able to attack higher value targets and thus become a more successful terrorist or insurrectionary force, without fear of betrayal.
So what does this have to do with organized religions, even religious radicals, let alone religious social welfare networks? The social welfare network offers a highly effective self selecting method of weeding out people with low defection constants. The social welfare network is premised on the notion of members helping each other when needed. The problem with this is that it is a system that invites free riders. I might join the group and take advantage of your help, but when I am called to lend a hand I will conveniently be unavailable. Because of this, social welfare groups need to actively weed out free riders by demanding that their members demonstrate their good faith by making sacrifices. Thus social welfare networks have a ready supply of members, who have demonstrated their loyalty to the group and their high defection constant. This becomes decisive the moment the service changes from visiting sick members in the hospital to blowing up hospitals full of non-members of the group. Religious radicals have the inside track on creating social welfare networks because they demand regular demonstrations of sacrifice as signs of allegiance, the keeping of religious restrictions such as what you can eat or what clothes you can wear. Berman advices, only half in jest, that graduate schools put the following rules in place to ensure that students all prepare for class:
- Avoid alcohol consumption with anyone not in our group.
- Do not travel by car.
- Avoid beaches, coffee shops, and movies.
- Do not watch television or use the Internet.
- Do not read books other than texts of our profession.
- Follow our own very unusual dress code.
- Eat only according to the strict rules of our membership.
- Speak only our fairly arcane language.
- Adhere to rules about how, when, and with whom you can have sexual relations.
People might be attracted to this lifestyle and embrace its restrictions if the rewards were suitably enticing, say being able to belong to such an elite group, full of people willing to make such sacrifices, and attend the very interesting class it gives. As long as the penalty for breaking the rules is high enough, say expulsion, then people will agree to pay the price. What might, in theory, work for graduate students, has proven to work very well for religions.
(To be continued …)