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The Dispossessed: A Labor-Market Analysis of Extreme Political Violence

Feb 2010
Working Paper
09-007
By  Eva Meyersson Milgrom
Highly-educated individuals are over-represented among violent operatives of insurgent organizations in the Middle East. This suggests four inter-related questions: (1) Why do those who seem to have good prospects willingly endanger their own lives? (2) What incentives drive these highly educated individuals to terrorist organizations in particular? (3) Why do sub-state welfare organizations turn violent? (4) Why do these organizations send so many highly educated, thoroughly dedicated members to their deaths instead of employing them in some other way? We answer these questions using a multidisciplinary approach, organized in a supply-demand framework, to study the market for violent operatives. We show how the conditions of a failing state give extra salience to personal significance for highly educated but dispossessed individuals and raise their value as violent operatives, creating gains from trade between them and the leaders of extremist organizations.