I am interrupting my series of blog posts on the president’s power to use military force inside the United States to share this game-theoretic perspective of riots via The Scholar’s Stage (italics in original; hat tip: Tyler Cowen): “Riots then are best understood as a coordination problem. People must act together for the riot to proceed, and importantly, they must act at the same time. Corporations and military commands develop vast hierarchies to ensure that those in their employ work in concert. The rioter does not have this option available to him.” The late great Thomas Schelling (1960, p. 90) explains in his classic work “The Strategy of Conflict” (pictured below; and one of my favorite non-fiction works of all time) how would-be rioters are able to solve this coordination problem:
It is usually the essence of mob formation that the potential members have to know not only where and when to meet but just when to act so that they act in concert. Overt leadership solves the problem; but leadership can often be identified and eliminated by the authority trying to prevent mob action. In this case the mob’s problem is to act in unison without overt leadership, to find some common signal that makes everyone confident that, if he acts on it, he will not be acting alone. The role of “incidents” can thus be seen as a coordinating role; it is a substitute for overt leadership and communication. Without something like an incident, it may be difficult to get action at all, since immunity requires that all know when to act together.