Academic journal article Independent Review

Terrorism, Interest-Group Politics, and Public Policy: Curtailing Criminal Modes of Political Speech

Academic journal article Independent Review

Terrorism, Interest-Group Politics, and Public Policy: Curtailing Criminal Modes of Political Speech

Article excerpt

Terrorist incidents have occurred in the United States and around the world for centuries. Tax revolters, anarchists, war protesters, and other critics of government policy have often used violence to send messages to the policymakers controlling the issues of interest. The attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, have been widely interpreted as a comment on U.S. policy toward the Islamic world, especially U.S. policy in the Middle East. Indeed, terrorist attacks might be defined as violence for the purpose of sending a political message with the aim of influencing policy or at least of voicing disapproval. In this sense, terrorism is one possible method of "political dialogue."

Even when political analysts do not share the goals of terrorist groups, they may defend the use of violence as a method of sending messages because of the political nature of the message sent. After all, political messages and popular protests receive special protection in all liberal democracies, and civil disobedience has often generated improvements in government policies. The conjunction of the "political message" explanation of terrorist actions and a "free speech" justification of those actions clearly resonates with some proponents of popular resistance, but it is nonetheless a bit puzzling for most proponents of free speech. Those who advocate the former explanation might argue that the United States brought the recent attacks on itself by various foreign-policy mistakes made over the years. Most proponents of free speech will reject this conclusion as a justification for terrorism, but they have not yet found a clear line of argument with which to respond to it.

If terrorism is the organized use of violence to transmit "political messages," then a good deal about terrorist networks and activities can be understood by using the same models used to explain the existence and behavior of ordinary policy-advocacy groups. The basic mathematics of ordinary interest-group and terrorist "contests" are similar to those of ordinary competitive contests or rent-seeking games. Both terrorist networks and ordinary political-interest groups attempt to exert disproportionate influence on controversial public policies. The likelihood and the degree of success of their efforts increase as the resources devoted to exerting "influence" expand and decline with opponents' efforts to resist their aims, other things being equal. To the extent that participants are rational, institutional arrangements that change the probability of success among alternative methods of influence affect the level and allocation of group efforts across those methods. Terrorism is simply another method that groups may use to influence government decisions--another form of interest-group politics.

Moreover, terrorism and ordinary interest-group politics have normative similarities. In both cases, the direct participants in the conflict over the public policy bear costs. All politically active groups employ scarce resources in order to induce or avoid certain changes in public policy. To the extent that the resources used by opposing interest groups largely offset each group's efforts, each side might have reduced its efforts in a manner that would have left the policy outcome the same but would have freed resources for other, more productive uses. The more resources invested by those involved in such political conflict, the larger are such avoidable losses (what public-choice scholars call the deadweight loss or rent-seeking losses). The same reasoning applies to both ordinary interest-group politics and terrorism.

In the first half of the article, I explore why governments always treat terrorism differently from ordinary interest-group politics in spite of their similarities. Although the political aims of terrorism (and other forms of policy-motivated resistance) clearly resemble those of ordinary interest groups in their efforts to draw attention to specific policy issues, the two methods of political action differ significantly in their normative properties. …

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