The world increasingly finds itself under protest. As 2019 enters its final quarter, there have been large and often violent demonstrations in Lebanon, Chile, Spain, Haiti, Iraq, Sudan, Uganda, Indonesia, Ukraine, Peru, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Colombia, France, Turkey, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Brazil, Malawi, Algeria and Ecuador, among other places.
What gives? One possibility is that all of this is a random coincidence. Another is that news of such protests is now much more widely dispersed, and so they seem more widespread. But it is also worth considering what cause or causes these protests might share — and, more importantly, the means they have to spread their concern.
One frequent theme is people objecting to a price increase. In Ecuador, a focal point of the protests has been a demand for restoration of fuel subsidies. Petroleum price subsidies also have been central to the Haitian protests. In Lebanon, citizens have been upset at a new tax levied on the use of WhatsApp, with a social media tax also having been an issue in Uganda. In Sudan cuts to food and fuel subsidies have been a major complaint. In Chile, they are protesting subway fare hikes.
The trend is that price increases may continue to become less popular. And, crucially, the internet will help people organize against such changes.
Consider that an old-style labor-oriented protest can be organized through the workplace or plant itself, through on-the-ground techniques that long predate the internet. There is a common locale and set of social networks in place, including perhaps a union. Those who suffer from a price increase, in contrast, typically do not know each other or have common social ties. Just about everyone buys gasoline, either directly or indirectly. The internet, however, makes it possible to mobilize these people into protests with prices as the common theme.
In other words: Protests of workers seem to be becoming less important, and protests of consumers are becoming more important.
You may recall that one of the original demands of the “gilets Jaunes” protests in France was for free parking in Disneyland Paris. If you think that sounds a little crazy, you haven’t yet internalized the nature of the new millennium.
In the future, efficiency-enhancing or austerity-induced changes in prices may be much harder to accomplish politically. The new trend is neither central planning nor market liberal reforms, but rather frozen prices, especially when those prices are set in the political realm.
One lesson is that fighting climate change will be harder. Fossil-fuel subsidies are broadly popular, citizens do not seem exceedingly willing to take on economic sacrifices these days, and in most poorer countries climate change is not a major concern. The demonstrations mobilized by Greta Thunberg were mostly in wealthier countries, but future carbon emissions will come increasingly from emerging economies. Even in the Netherlands, hardly a right-wing country, farmers are protesting for the right to continue their nitrogen emissions.
Another lesson is that effective redistribution may well become harder. Economists tend to see simple monetary transfers as the most effective means of redistributing wealth, whereas keeping prices low tends over time to lead to shortages and lower quality. Protests are not an especially salutary form of egalitarian pressure, so the underlying problems are unlikely to improve very much, which in turn could worsen the political pressures.
Consumer protests organized by the internet are also less likely to be ideological in the traditional left-vs.-right sense. People of widely varying political views, including people who do not have much of a view at all, can get upset by high prices. The internet may also be encouraging a “least common denominator” appeal to generate the largest protests possible. The point is that anyone expecting these protests to bring about their preferred set of policy changes is bound to be disappointed.
In particular, I would caution against interpreting the protests within the American progressive framework of fighting inequality. While economic privation is a major theme, neither the absolute level of privation nor the degree of inequality seems to explain much. Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere and with some of the most dysfunctional politics, is seeing protests because the economic situation is so bad. In Chile, meanwhile, the wealthiest country in Latin America and with falling inequality, the demonstrations may be more a matter of high or rising expectations.
One thing is for sure: With mass protests, as with so much else, the internet is changing everything.
The writer is Tyler Cowen, an American economist, who is an economics professor at George Mason University. His research has a keen interest at the Center for the Study of Public Choice