The Market for Martyrs [Iannaccone]
Laurence R. Iannaccone
Abstract: Despite its presence within all religious traditions, extreme self-sacrifice is by no means easy to explain. We rightly view most people who seek pain or death as mentally ill. Yet studies refute the seemingly obvious conclusion that religious self-sacrifice is likewise rooted in depression, obsession, or other forms of irrationality. Economic theory suggests ways in which many forms of sacrifice (such as restrictive diet, dress, and sexual conduct) can help groups produce collective goods and services otherwise lost to free-riding, but self-sacrifice aimed at injuring others has yet to be adequately explained.
Injury-oriented sacrifice can be modeled as a market phenomenon grounded in exchanges between a relatively small supply of people willing to sacrifice themselves and a relatively large number of “demanders” who benefit from the sacrificers’ acts. Contrary to popular perception, it is on account of limited demand rather than limited supply that markets for “martyrs” so rarely flourish. Suicidal attacks almost never profit the groups best equipped to recruit, train, and direct the potential martyrs.
Once established, however, a market for martyrs is hard to shut down. Supply-oriented deterrence has limited impact because: In every time, place, and culture, many people are willing to die for causes they value. Policies that target current supplies of martyrs induce rapid substitution toward new and different types of potential martyrs.
Demand-oriented deterrence has greater long-run impact because: The people who sacrifice their lives do not act spontaneously or in isolation. They must be recruited, and their sacrifices must be solicited, shaped, and rewarded in group settings. Only very special types of groups are able to produce the large social-symbolic rewards required to elicit suicide. Terrorist “firms” must overcome numerous internal and external threats, and even when successful they have trouble “selling” their services. Numerous social, political, and economic pathologies must combine in order to maintain the profitability of (and hence the underlying demand for) suicidal attacks.