The Economics of Protest

Published October 17, 2017

The increasingly divided nature of US politics has made policy agreements and compromise seemingly impossible, and instead has led to a lot of shouting and protests. This push to protest has migrated into professional sports, with players across the NFL kneeling for the US anthem, a practice tracing back to then San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and soccer star Megan Rapinoe of the US Women’s National Team. Isn’t protesting a time honored, American tradition? And what does economics have to say about it?

When economists think about human behavior, they recognize that people are selfish, taking advantage of one another when it benefits them. (One need look no further than the looting after the recent hurricanes). People like to have authority, not necessarily live under it. When people interact there needs to be a set of “rules” designed to help them live together in harmony and prosperity, without a lot of bad behavior. These rules can be laws, customs, social stigmas, family expectations, or religious doctrine. That is to say, a country―a people living under certain rules―can be understood as an institution. Under this institution, a rule could be that differences in opinion are settled at the ballot box, not in the streets. Another rule could be the “melting pot,” where people of different backgrounds come together and conform to these and other rules, such as individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And so forth.

What does this have to do with protests? Well, institutions don’t survive on their own―getting selfish people to abide by a common set of rules isn’t easy. Implicitly countries have sought to get around this problem by founding itself upon common religious doctrine, social values, or tradition. They can also use certain means to encourage trust and solidarity when these commonalities begin to fray, things like public education, arts and the media. But perhaps equally useful is public ceremony: national holidays, competitions, and yes, even monuments, flags and anthems. Through these shared experiences and heritage, people develop a common outlook and attitude to abide by certain rules. To protest the anthem, then, is to work against the country trying to, effectively, keep itself together.

In contrast to a romanticized view of protest, through which courts have recently permitted even flag burning and calls to violence, at the foundation of the country protest against American “rules” was viewed quite cautiously. In 1798, harsh punishments were meted out for just writing critical things about the US government. Similarly, broad authority was given to quell dissent under the sedition laws of 1918 and 1940. Though these laws were occasionally exploited for political gain, the legislative record suggests governments want a unified people to govern, particularly in times of upheaval. Other countries have like laws and histories. Even in times of antiquity, fragile governments such as the state of Israel had very severe consequences for political disobedience.

It is unlikely that these NFL protests amount to sedition. But they do likely serve to undermine American rules and the means needed to unify a nation under them. This is perhaps why the reactions to these demonstrations have been so strong: two-thirds of respondents believe players should stand for the anthem, even if they believe they have the legal right not to. Indeed, many perceive the protests as fundamentally remaking America and not in an “American” way. That is, not only does a country have rules, but also rules for how to change them. Compare, for instance, the Jesus movement and Young Americans for Freedom rallies in the sixties and seventies, with the often violent, leftist demonstrations of the same era. Americans aspire to engage, persuade, bring people together, not divide and conquer. After all, if the flag doesn’t bring us together, what does?

This seems to leave us with the difficult paradox, but one that is at the center of anthem protests: it may be American to have the right to protest, but it may be un-American to choose to use it.