Club loyalty

The Washinton Post reports on in interesting hypothesis being advanced by two political scientists, David Laitin of Stanford and Eli Berman of UC Santa Barbara:

Most people think of clubs as recreational groups, but Laitin and Berman are using a more subtle definition. Clubs are groups that tend to be selective about their members. Unlike political parties and book-reading groups, which allow anyone to join, clubs make it difficult for people to sign up. And once admitted, members must make personal sacrifices to stay. In the case of an exclusive golf club, the sacrifice might involve paying sizable dues. In the case of some religious orders, would-be members might have to go through lengthy periods of initiation.

The “club model” of terrorism explains why cogs such as Hamdan stay loyal. Across all kinds of clubs, when members make sacrifices, they are much more likely to become intensely loyal to fellow members. Berman and Laitin think this is because the sacrifices that members make to join a club reduce their value outside the club. If you devote years to learning a religious text, that knowledge can give you social cachet within your club, but your effort counts for little outside the club.

“If you have to spend your life reading the Talmud, you are not very good at software,” Laitin said. “The sacrifices get you social welfare, but if you took a bribe, your value outside of that club would be minuscule.”

Whereas software engineers who “defect” from one company to another carry their value with them — the skills are transferable — al-Qaeda foot soldiers might enjoy high regard within that club but be worthless outside it. This may help explain why religious cults and organized-crime syndicates reward members for acquiring arcane cultural, scriptural and linguistic skills — these are skills that cannot be easily transferred to the outside world.


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