Mass Atrocity Economics

“Mass atrocities exact an enormous toll, a full count of which conceivably might approach one billion people over the past one hundred years”, writes Jurgen Brauer.

In a recent book, my co-editor Charles H. Anderton, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA, and I found that mass atrocities such as genocides are not rare events. Instead, their number, scale, and geographic scope are vast, as are their frequency and duration. Assembling datasets, we counted just over 200 episodes of mass atrocities from the year 1900 to 2014, averaging about two such events per year, in each of which governments alone killed at least 1,000 noncombant civilians. Depending on who does the counting, estimated fatalities range from 80 million to nearly a quarter of a billion people. Importantly, this total does not count victims suffering physical and psychological trauma or atrocities perpetrated by nonstate actors, nor even military casualties. And, quite apart from atrocities not meeting the 1,000 victims threshold, we know with certainty that many additional 1,000+ victims events are not captured in the datasets at all. In a word, mass atrocities exact an enormous toll, a full count of which conceivably might approach one billion people over the past one hundred years.

Enormous also is the short shrift the world community gives to these events. Judging by the overwhelming number of victims, it does seem that nothing much practical is being done about the ongoing slaughter in Syria, which started in 2011. The Rwandan genocide (1994) is infamous for the way that the killing just ran its course. Cambodia’s slaughter (1975−1979) ran up a death toll of about 2 million victims before Vietnam interceded. The Nazi-era  Holocaust (1933−1945) might similarly have been near-ignored, had Germany not also invaded a host of neighboring countries, forcing war upon them. Prior to that, Stalin’s pogrom in Ukraine and the massacre committed against people of Armenian heritage in Ottoman Turkey are additional examples, as are crimes committed against indigenous peoples of Australia, Canada, and the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Genocide, today, is defined under international law, as are crimes against humanity and war crimes (but not ethnic cleansing). Because much slaughter does not fit narrow legal definitions, we resort to the broader term of mass atrocities even if at times we employ “genocide” as a short-hand term. We write: “Genocide is a crime. It is not a crime of passion. Rather, it is deliberate, purposeful, and focused—one might as well say “rational”—in its strategic conception and in its practical execution. In the rationality of genocide, there lies hope.”

This sounds paradoxical! How can there be any hope in the “rationality” of genocide? Rationality, to be sure, may not lie in the wish to bring harm to other people. But it surely lies in how the despicable acts are carried out. The fundamental economic premise here is that to orchestrate a mass atrocity event even dictators have but limited resources at their disposal. For each “unit” of atrocity committed a price has to be paid. As Mario Ferrero, an economics professor at the University of Eastern Piedmont, Italy, asks: To remove a people from territory, shall the perpetrator use deportation (within the country), exile (to outside the country), assimilation (into society), or extermination (killing)? Given a binding resource constraint and different prices associated with each option, an economist surmises that dictators will wish to accomplish the greatest possible harm at least cost. Therein lies a genocidal dictator’s rationality, and therein lies hope—if one can manipulate resources and prices to reduce the harm done.

Victims, presumably, run through a similar scenario. One often hears that victims flee “at all cost.” But what does that mean when income and savings, or other assets, are limited or already have been confiscated and when the price people-smugglers charge is exhorbitant? Some victims, to their deaths, contribute what little they have so as to afford a child or other close relative to opportunity to flee. In our study, we were surprised to note how little time appears to have been devoted even by expert genocide scholars to understand victims’ economic circumstances. I felt that victims are victimized over again when scholars neglect to study victims’ options and when we consign them in our studies to the status of mere passive victims. In better understanding the economics of mass atrocities, might we not hope to possibly find and provide feasible escape routes for future potential victims?

The same logic applies to potential interveners. “Talk is cheap,” it is said, presumably because “Action is expensive,” subject to budget and price constraints. The question then arises if action can be made cheaper, for instance by designing more efficient interventions: The same number of people rescued with a smaller budget or more people rescued with the same budget. Or can the budget in fact be increased? In welcoming 1,000,000+ Syrian refugees, did Germany not effectively offer an “escape bond,” guaranteed by Germany’s taxpayer and to be “repaid” as Syrians resettle, retain, and pay taxes themselves? Sometimes it is not the monetary budget that is the binding constraint but the institutional budget, the way for instance that any action has to be cleared through United Nations or regional bodies or, in the case of unilateral action, through domestic legislative bodies. Here, too, though, thinking through the economic aspects of decisionmaking may yield helpful insights to mitigate or prevent future mass atrocities.

We find that rationality in mass atrocity—for perpetrator, victim, and intervener—is a curiously underexplored topic. And yet its study, in conjunction with psychological and sociological analyses, may be our only hope for designing and implementing effective schemes of intervention or, better yet, of prevention. I hope that quantitative scientists, including economists, will help supply part of the required solutions. After all, we surely do not want to see another billion victims over the next one hundred years.