Perseus Fighting Phineus and his Companions

The Geopolitical Reading List: The Economics of violence

As a follow-on from our 2020 Geopolitical Reading List, in this piece we review Gary M. Shiffman’s work on the links between behavioural science and terrorism, insurgency and crime, “The Economics of Violence“.


“The enemy? His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he comes from, and if he really was evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home, or he would not rather have stayed there… in peace? War will make corpses of us all.” – J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings

Gary M. Shiffman, Ph.D, is a Georgetown University teacher drawing from a deep background in the world of violence, having served in the U.S. Military, Department of Defense and Homeland Security, in addition to the U.S. Senate. Shiffman has leveraged this background through his firm, Giant Oak, which seeks to blend big data and behavioural science to identify malicious actors intent on carrying out acts of violence. In his latest work, “The Economics of Violence: How Behavioural Science can Transform our View of Crime, Insurgency and Terrorism“, Shiffman explores the idea that people are more predictable than might be imagined, and that if economists can explain violence, then their same models might be used to predict and prevent it.

Shiffman argues that focusing on labels such as “religious extremist” and “nationalist” when attempting to understand the motivations driving violence can be misleading and often unhelpful, and that the economist’s lens of scarcity, resources and market forces may offer a better insight into predicting violence. Shiffman argues – neatly applying fictional works such as Tolkein as a route to empathy with perpetrators of violence – that those behind these hostile acts are rarely acting out of pure malice or bloodlust, and that deeper motivations must be centralised in analysis. Drawing on case studies ranging from the Narco-terror of Pablo Escobar through to the Islamic State under Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, Shiffman takes a bold approach to explaining their actions as “entrepreneurs” of violence. He argues that violence is driven primarily by conditions of scarcity in which humans are incentivised to compete for resources through violent means.

Shiffman also explores routes to improved security through his “economics of violence” hypothesis. He argues that by regarding violent groups through the lens of business, analysing their “firms” economically, and by fighting them with the mindset of a competing entrepreneur, security practitioners will out-compete them in the bidding war for recruits, support and territorial control. By learning from and working with the private sector, Shiffman argues that states can create more agile and adaptable structures for combating violence; a hybrid force to defeat hybrid threats.

This book was pleasantly accessible, and should be considered as important reading for students and experienced analysts alike in the fields of national security, insurgency, crime and terrorism. The idea of integrating behavioural economics into the field of security is novel, refreshing, and holds significant potential for improving both fields, and as such I strongly recommend “The Economics of Violence” to all practitioners in the security field.


Encyclopedia Geopolitica was kindly provided with a review copy of “The Economics of Violence” (ISBN 9781316136072, $19.99) by Cambridge University Press for this article. 

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with extensive experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in security, geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the technology sector, the oil & gas industry, and the financial services world.

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Cover Image: Luca Giordano’s “Perseus turning phineas and his followers to stone.