Three Essays on the Political Economy of Nonviolent Action

Joshua Ammons

Advisor: Christopher Coyne, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Virgil Storr, Peter Boettke

Online Location, Zoom
April 17, 2024, 01:00 PM to 03:00 PM


This dissertation elucidates peaceful grassroots pathways to institutional reform, illuminating alternatives to violent regime change that may foster greater economic prosperity and human flourishing. Synthesizing literature across disciplines, the first chapter underscores how nonviolent movements emerge to challenge perceived crisis and injustice, highlighting implications for economists. The second chapter explores nonviolent action as a mechanism for constitutional change, bridging gaps between research on revolutionary social change and constitutional political economy. The final chapter evaluates the institutional legacy of violent versus nonviolent revolutions, elucidating tradeoffs reformers and societies confront in political struggle.

Chapter one, co-authored with Christopher Coyne, provides an overview of key thinkers and writings on nonviolent action, a bottom-up approach to addressing crises of illegitimacy that has implications for economics and governance. By outlining the history and key features of nonviolent movements that sought policy changes or institutional reforms without using force, the chapter introduces readers to an alternative means of dispute resolution and social change separate from top-down state actions. Examples cited underscore how nonviolent campaigns have aimed to combat threats to economic activities, property rights, and other market-supporting institutions. The chapter ultimately argues that the study of nonviolent action can inform economists and policymakers on productive approaches to crisis response that leverage civic mobilization and cooperative, voluntary action as opposed to coercive interventions. It concludes by identifying areas for further research on the economics of nonviolent movements. This chapter, Nonviolent Action, was published in Bottom-up Responses to Crisis. 

Chapter two examines the role of civil resistance and nonviolent action in catalyzing constitutional change, situating these bottom-up movements within the framework of constitutional political economy. Tracing key concepts from founding thinkers like James Buchanan, the author outlines how "constitutional entrepreneurs" leverage civilian mobilization and coercive non-cooperation to reform pre-existing rules, norms, and governing pacts without bloodshed. Examples cited across recent decades highlight attempted transitions following mass protests, from the largely successful post-Communist constitution-building in Estonia to the turmoil in post-Arab Spring Algeria. While noting mixed outcomes, the chapter argues that studying civil resistance through a constitutional political economy lens can inform theories on the complex blend of individual interests, shared beliefs, and coordination dilemmas underpinning transformational political change. 

Chapter three analyzes the long-term institutional impacts of violent versus nonviolent revolutions and regime changes. While existing research shows nonviolent movements often succeed more frequently than violent ones in achieving political turnover, less studied are the downstream effects on democracy, security forces, courts, and wellbeing. Tracing consequences across cases of transformation via mass nonviolent uprising, terrorism, civil war, and foreign invasion, the chapter suggests neither violent nor nonviolent routes consistently yield "goods" in terms of economic and human development. Instead, both methods risk generating institutional "bads" like cronyism, instability, and state repression. However, the examination of the literature shows that nonviolent movements are more likely to result in liberal democratic institutions than violent revolts. By examining subsets of institutions affected, including electoral systems, courts, civil liberties, and more, the chapter aims to elucidate tradeoffs revolutionaries and societies face in struggles over the basic rules governing political and economic life.