What Makes a Terrorist? It's Not Poverty and Lack of Education, According to Economic Research by Princeton's Alan Krueger Look Elsewhere

By Krueger, Alan | The American (Washington, DC), November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

What Makes a Terrorist? It's Not Poverty and Lack of Education, According to Economic Research by Princeton's Alan Krueger Look Elsewhere


Krueger, Alan, The American (Washington, DC)


IN THE WAKE of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, policymakers, scholars, and ordinary citizens asked a key question: What would make people willing to give up their lives to wreak mass destruction in a foreign land? In short, what makes a terrorist?

A popular explanation was that economic deprivation and a lack of education caused people to adopt extreme views and turn to terrorism. For example, in July 2005, after the bombings of the London transit system, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, "Ultimately what we now know, if we did not before, is that where there is extremism, fanaticism or acute and appalling forms of poverty in one continent, the consequences no longer stay fixed in that continent." The Archbishop of Canterbury, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, King Abdullah of Jordan, Elie Wiesel, and terrorism experts like Jessica Stern of Harvard's Kennedy School also argued that poverty or lack of education were significant causes of terrorism.

Even President George W. Bush, who was initially reluctant to associate terrorism with poverty after September 11, eventually argued, "We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror." Laura Bush added, "A lasting victory in the war against terror depends on educating the world's children."

Despite these pronouncements, however, the available evidence is nearly unanimous in rejecting either material deprivation or inadequate education as important causes of support for terrorism or participation in terrorist activities. Such explanations have been embraced almost entirely on faith, not scientific evidence.

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WHY IS AN economist studying terrorism? I have two answers. First, participation in terrorism is just a special application of the economics of occupational choice. Some people choose to become doctors or lawyers, and others pursue careers in terrorism. Economics can help us understand why.

The second answer is that, together with Jorn-Steffen Pischke, now at the London School of Economics, I studied the outbreak of hate crimes against foreigners in Germany in the early 1990s. Through this work, I concluded that poor economic conditions do not seem to motivate people to participate in hate crimes.

The modern literature on hate crimes began with a remarkable 1933 book by Arthur Raper titled The Tragedy of Lynching. Raper assembled data on the number of lynchings each year in the South and on the price of an acre's yield of cotton. He calculated the correlation coefficient between the two series at -0.532. In other words, when the economy was doing well, the number of lynchings was lower. A pair of psychologists at Yale, Carl Hovland and Robert Sears, cited Raper's work in 1940 to argue that deprivation leads to aggression. People take out their frustrations on others, the researchers hypothesized, when economic conditions are poor.

While this view seems intuitively plausible, the problem is that it lacks a strong empirical basis. In 2001, Donald Green, Laurence McFalls, and Jennifer Smith published a paper that demolished the alleged connection between economic conditions and lynchings in Raper's data.

Raper had the misfortune of stopping his analysis in 1929. After the Great Depression hit, the price of cotton plummeted and economic conditions deteriorated, yet lynchings continued to fall. The correlation disappeared altogether when more years of data were added.

In 1997, Pischke and I, writing in the Journal of Human Resources, studied the incidence of crimes against foreigners across the 543 counties in Germany in 1992 and 1993. We found that the unemployment rate, the level of wages, wage growth, and average education were all unrelated to the incidence of crimes against foreigners.

WITH EVIDENCE FROM hate crimes as a background, next turn to terrorism. Terrorism does not occur in a vacuum. So to start, I considered evidence from public opinion polls, which can help identify the values and views of those in communities from which terrorism arises. …

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