The economics of rioting

Following the outbreak of serious riots on the streets of Baltimore, I wrote a post yesterday at Cato:

…More than twenty years ago in the Cato Journal, distinguished law and economics scholars David Haddock and Daniel Polsby published a paper entitled “Understanding Riots” that’s still highly relevant in making sense of events like these. Employing familiar economic concepts such as opportunity cost, coordination problems, and free-rider issues, Haddock and Polsby help explain why riots cluster around sports wins as well as assassinations, funerals, and jury verdicts; the group psychology of rioting, and why most crowds never turn riotous; the important role of focal points (often lightly policed commercial areas) and rock-throwing “entrepreneurs” of disorder; the tenuous relationship between riots and root causes or contemporary grievances; and why when a riot occurs the police (at least those in places like the United States and United Kingdom) seldom manage to be in enough places at once, more or less by definition.

I conclude that pundits and the news media are continuing to get the story wrong about riots like those in Baltimore, and link to the Haddock and Polsby article itself. The post is here.

P.S.: This is neat: Jack Shafer at Politico takes and runs with some of the paper’s analysis about prevention strategies and the spread of information about riot locations. And Jesse Walker looks further at the role of “outside agitators.”


  • Not too difficult to understand.

    Focusing on looting alone, it is opportunistic and occurs frequently in the absence of grievance: after natural disasters, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados…

    Not surprisingly, the enthusiasm for looting after a natural disaster is tempered substantially, even when a police force is stretched just as thin, by the possible confrontation with armed property owners and the general warnings sometimes issued by authorities that looters will be shot on sight.

    It is also no coincidence that riots occur with regularity in areas with strict gun control laws. I can be persuaded that I am completely wrong about this, but not until rioters smash through windows to gain entry and loot any urban convention center hosting an annual gun show.

  • Haddock and Polsby article is worth the 15 minutes to read. It was written more than 20 years ago, and thus can be evaluated for its validity by considering how well it holds up in predicting the behaviors and occurrences of riots and looting that happened subsequent to its writing.
    Also, rioting can be viewed as event where the police are the rioters. Some examples include the many events where a large group of officers release a hail of bullets. Each claims that they fired because someone else started shooting first; the rock through the window as described in the article. Amado Dialo, Sean Bell, Misty Holt(link below), Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams…
    All police mass shootings where once one police officer ‘riots’ with his gun, they all begin to free fire with everything they’ve got.

  • Mr. Olson’s CATO post references a David Weigel article on Bloomberg News trying to explain how Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not mean what she said when in a press conference she said:

    “I made it very clear that I work with the police and instructed them to do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech,” she said. “It’s a very delicate balancing act. Because while we tried to make sure that they were protected from the cars and other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. And we worked very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate.”

    Many people jumped on that statement and on Monday, the Mayor’s Office – not the Mayor herself, tried to walk back the statement and claim she had misspoken, left out a few word or whatever excuse they could come up with.

    The problem is that while the Mayor wanted people to believe one thing, the actions of the police aligned exactly with her original “space to destroy” comment. The police did not move a muscle to protect businesses in the Inner Harbor area on Saturday. The police followed that performance up on Monday watching homes, vehicles and businesses burn and be destroyed.

    It was hard to believe the Mayor’s attempted “clarification” when the police acted in the manner she originally stated.

    Now there is this:

    Despite a firm denial by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a senior law enforcement source charges that she gave an order for police to stand down as riots broke out Monday night, raising more questions about whether some of the violence and looting could have been prevented.

    The source, who is involved in the enforcement efforts, confirmed to Fox News there was a direct order from the mayor to her police chief Monday night, effectively tying the hands of officers as they were pelted with rocks and bottles.

    Asked directly if the mayor was the one who gave that order, the source said: “You are God damn right it was.”


    The evidence is overwhelming. The police acted exactly as Rawlings-Blake wanted them to and directed them to.

    Her “mistake” was letting her orders out of the bag.

  • Sorry, but there’s plenty wrong with Gitarcarver’s narrative, aside from its heavy dependence on a conveniently unsourced Fox report. The BPD Monday night was by no means passive, as hours of live camera coverage showed. Faced with multiple serious threats, it concentrated on blocking the main body of rioters from getting close to high-value downtown targets, a reasonable tactic that failed only in part (one detachment of rioters headed east several blocks before turning south into downtown; that group accounted for a lot of the damage to middle-class landmarks). Yes, the police on Monday used tear gas and other less lethal weapons while generally refraining from heavy nightstick use or shoot to kill orders. So far as I can see, the Larry-Hogan-led policing effort on later nights has followed basically the same strategy.

    There is much to criticize in Rawlings-Blake’s handling of the situation (she should have called the state of emergency faster, and no one would think of confusing her style of crisis command with, say, Rudy Giuliani’s; I would also want to know why later in the evening the Mondawmin Mall was left with so little protection). But the conveniently anonymous Fox account is also conveniently lacking in specifics about what type of force the BPD wanted to use (live ammunition?) that it was denied, which might let us weigh the risks and advantages. And now, as before, the notion that R-B welcomed riots and wanted to create space for them is conservative wish fulfillment.

    • While I appreciate Mr. Olsen’s comments, I am not sure we see the facts differently but we do see the so called “optics” differently.

      Mr. Olsen says that the police blocked off streets with the intent of preventing the rioters from getting to “high value downtown targets.”

      I agree. That was the tactic and strategy.

      But in blocking off routes, the police gave the rioters “room to destroy” within the area. In watching the coverage and talking with childhood friends that still live in the city of my birth, no one saw the police moving to protect property within the cordoned off area. If they did, certainly the amount of looting and burning shows their alleged intervention was very ineffective.

      Also, while the Fox source on standing down was anonymous, Sheriff Micheal Lewis of Wicomico County who went to Baltimore to help relates that he too was told to stand down and let the people loot and destroy.

      “I was sick to my stomach like everybody else. … This was urban warfare, no question about it. They were coming in absolutely beaten down. The [city officers] got out of their vehicles, thanked us profusely for being there, apologized to us for having to be there. They said we could have handled this, we were very capable of handling this, but we were told to stand down, repeatedly told to stand down,” he said. “I had never heard that order come from anyone — we went right out to our posts as soon as we got there, so I never heard the mayor say that. But repeatedly these guys, and there were many high-ranking officials from the Baltimore City Police Department … and these guys told me they were essentially neutered from the start. They were spayed from the start. They were told to stand down, you will not take any action, let them destroy property. I couldn’t believe it, I’m a 31-year veteran of law enforcement. … I had never heard anything like this before in my life and these guys obviously aren’t gonna speak out and the more I thought about this, … I had to say a few things. I apologize if I’ve upset people, but I believe in saying it like it is.”

      The point is that the actions of the police matched Rawlings-Blake’s original statement. No matter how hard the Mayor’s office tries to back away from that, the actions match her original words.

      Finally, I am not sure that this conservative sees the burning and rioting in the city I grew up in and still have friends and relatives in as any sort of “wish fulfillment.” I don’t see the actions / inactions of the Mayor and the police as any type of thing at which to rejoice. I would have thought that libertarians would have wanted police to protect property and people, but that may not be the case if this discussion is any indication.

  • […] also posted lately at Overlawyered and Cato on the economics of how riots occur; in this roundup, on the very harmful aftermath of the 1960s riots for the labor market in affected […]