The Economics of Rebellion

Something else about the legitimacy of governments and the state (though more about governments than the state itself). The Arab uprisings are showing that the ability of people to organize to challenge a government has gotten easier, and the costs significantly less, than they used to be.

The ubiquity of cell phone cameras makes it possible to film things far less conspicuously than was once possible. The Internet makes it easier for scattered groups of people — Libyan exiles, for example, living in Washington DC, London, Rome and Dubai — to organize and mobilize. The amount of cell phone video coming out of Libya in the initial days of the February 17 Revolution, for example, was clearly well-organized and well-planned. And recently similar video came out of Daraa in Syria. Gone are the days when the leveling of Hama would take place in relative secrecy (and have to be filmed very surreptitiously, as one Hama video I remember seeing on ABC news in 1982). Libyan exiles are using their network to aid the Syrian opposition, with results that may end up being similar.

This may seem a “duh” moment, but consider: the costs of challenging and even toppling a government have gone plummeted, while the return on that investment has skyrocketed. At the same time, the cost of maintaining government control and stability has increased significantly and the return on that investment has declined significantly. A government without solid moral legitimacy and/or enough loyal backing to defeat a challenge is a government that will face trouble sooner or later.

But make no mistake: this is about control of the state in the belief that kelptocratic, authoritarian governments are not accountable to the people while the state can and should be. These are revolts to make the state work better. I believe all the same applies in the West, that Western populaces will eventually come to the same conclusions as Arabs facing down dictators and kings, but we have yet to see what will happen if Westerners try to organize — really organize — to topple unresponsive and unaccountable governments. Eventually, citizens in the West will discover elections cannot do this. I don’t know when that will happen, or how badly Western regimes will behave in order to protect themselves. But I’m fairly confident this will eventually reach the West. Not today, not tomorrow. But sometime.

It is only a matter of time.