The rioting in Florence, Missouri appears to have hit a momentary calm. We know the proximate cause of why they started in this case.
But there is a large school of thought as to how most civil disturbances start. Sociologists, pundits, politicians, activists all have opinions on the causes of people taking to the streets and behaving in uncivil manners, and the question is always asked when outbreaks occur.
Harvard economics professor Edward Glaesar notes that “decades of social-science research has delivered insights about these outbursts of violence, but hasn’t explained why they erupt when and where they do.”
In a paper titled “The L.A. Riot and the Economics of Urban Unrest” for the National Bureau of Economic Interest, Glaesar examined the Los Angeles riot of 1992. That uprising resulted in 52 deaths, 2500 injuries and an estimated $446 million in property damage.
Using international data, evidence from the race riots of the 1960s in the US and census data on L.A. from 1990, Glaesar and co-author Denise DePasquale (a University of Chicago economic professor) noted that the opportunity to riot and the perception of punishment influence the incidence that sparks the conflict and intensity of the conflict. Community structure is another factor. The more people that participate, the lesser the chance of going to jail.
They also noted that “ethnic diversity seems a significant determinant of rioting, while we find little evidence that poverty in the community matters.”
After riots, Glaesar noted in a later Bloomberg View article, there is often an attempt to explain the outburst as the result of large societal forces. Riots in the U.K. in the 1990s were blamed on growing inequality and the government imposition of an austerity program. US riots in the1960s were attributed to racism.
But Glaesar notes, there has never been much of a link between unrest and inequality or poverty. The riots of the 1960s were slightly more common in cities that had more government spending. “Riots were significantly less common in the South, where the Jim Crow laws were making their long overdue exit,”
In fact, Glaesar concludes, the riots of the 1960s “were actually slightly more common in cities that had more government spending. Riots were significantly less common in the South, where the Jim Crow laws were making their long overdue exit.”
Whatever happens in Florence over the next few days and weeks, one thing is certain: many of the businesses that were looted and/or damaged will close and likely not return. Many insurance policies contain exemptions for civil unrest, as many of the Florence retailers are no doubt discovering to their chagrin. Ultimately, whatever the cause of the civil unrest, the losers stand to be the people in the area who no longer will have access to those businesses and the employment opportunities they provide.