Civil War: Does Urbanization Reduce or Raise the Risk?

Ed Glaeser writes;  “Cities aren’t just places of economic productivity and cultural innovation. For millennia, they have also been the epicenters of dramatic political upheaval.”   Glaeser’s piece is vague about what caused the initial uprising.

I can think of one big salient counter-example to his core urban density facilitating social contagion story.   Leading development scholars have worried about the costs of Civil War in sub-Saharan Africa. One well known 2009 PNAS paper argued that climate change will raise deaths in this region by over 300,000 by 2030.  These scholars claim that the probability of civil war is higher when average temperatures are higher.  While they do not discuss “urbanization” in their piece, the only causal logic I can think of is that higher temperatures affect agricultural yields and that “Mad Max” from Thunderdome scarcity issues arise and this sparks violence.  The PNAS paper appeas to conflict with Glaeser’s density point. In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, I wonder if Civil War risk would decline as urbanization accelerates.   Why?  Fewer people would rely on subsistence agriculture for their incomes.  Globalized free trade will provide the food for their cities.   If civil war interests you, and you believe that economists have “value-added”, then read this!

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

4 thoughts on “Civil War: Does Urbanization Reduce or Raise the Risk?”

  1. I’m genuinely curious: Does crowding people into cities actually give them something besides agriculture to earn a living at, or does it just result in many of them not earning a living at all? Increased urbanization may reduce the number of people relying on agriculture for their incomes, but that doesn’t mean anything is replacing that reliance, except maybe foreign aid. Routed through the local government, creating a population dependent, and thus subservient to, that government…

    We’re all aware of the “extractive resource curse”, but is it any worse than the “foreign aid curse”?

  2. There tends to be more crime when temperatures are higher (e.g. more crime in the summers than the winters), which suggests that there are alternative possibilities for why rising temperatures could increase the chances of civil war. One theory for the temperature-crime link is that the heat makes people become more agitated and aggressive, another is that people just go out more when it’s warm. Either theory could provide a city-based reason for political upheaval.

  3. “I wonder if Civil War risk would decline as urbanization accelerates. Why? Fewer people would rely on subsistence agriculture for their incomes.”

    Glaeser makes a rhetorical connection between cities and the series of revolutionary civil wars, beginning with the Dutch Revolt, that marked the transition from a political economy of degenerate feudalism to the modern, globalized, capitalist market economy, but he doesn’t analyze its implications. The English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution and Civil War, the French Revolution and the waves of European revolution and reaction circa 1830-32, 1848-50, and 1867-71, finally, the First World War, all belonged to this series of war, in which nation-states replaced empires, democracies and popular authoritarian regimes replaced hereditary aristocracies, and the industrial revolution progressed.

    The England of manor and monastery was almost entirely rural, the London that crowned Henry II King of England may have had as few as 40,000 denizens. From the earliest records of the Dark Ages down to the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, the focus of elite ambition was war and pillage, and western Europe witnessed nearly continuous civil war. The manorial economy was organized to supply great magnates with the stuff of private armies, including the men. Contra Glaeser, there were certainly instances of mass popular uprisings, as well. Somewhere between Henry Tudor and the Glorious Revolution, degenerate feudalism gave way to the early modern economy. The English East India Company, the Bank of England, the London stock exchange, a sovereign Parliament emerged in the 17th century, and by the 18th, the English landed aristocracy and gentry were refocused on turnips, canals and consols, their martial instincts projected outward on imperial conquests. A gradual revolution in agriculture and the opening of North America fed the British cities of the Industrial Revolution.

    A key factor, here, is what does the elite do with the people, who rely on subsistence agriculture in a pre-modern economy. If the elite must be stationery bandits, then war is their primary production process. 17th century Holland and 18th century Britain found an alternative.

    It is certainly possible to imagine a city, which relies on war as a production process. Classical Rome appears to have been such a city, dependent on conquest and pillage, as its economic mainstay. But, the cities of the industrial revolution found manufacturing on an increasing scale, and commerce.

    In the post-modern economy, I think it might be worthwhile to ask if the elite has any use, at all, for a good portion of the masses. In the U.S. a policy of high unemployment has been adopted that condemns 5% of more of the labor force to prolonged unemployment. In Egypt, the unemployment rate, evidently, is much higher.

  4. “Fewer people would rely on subsistence agriculture for their incomes. Globalized free trade will provide the food for their cities. ”

    If they don’t have any way of making a living, then globalized free trade will avail them little.

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