Can employment reduce lawlessness and rebellion?

In short, yes. A new paper by me and Jeannie Annan:

We evaluate a program of agricultural training and inputs to high-risk Liberian men, mainly ex-fighters engaged in illegal mining, logging, and rubber tapping. We show that increasing farm productivity raised the opportunity cost of crime and rebellion and led to more peaceful occupational choices. After 14 months, treated men shifted hours of illicit resource extraction to agriculture by 20%. When conflict erupted in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire, they were also less likely to engage in mercenary recruitment. Expected future payouts appear to be a further deterrent to mercenaries. We see no evidence the program affected occupational choice through peers or preferences.

The insight is not rocket science, but tracking these guys over two years was about as hard as putting someone on the moon. Thank God no one does the cost-benefit analysis of my research projects.

Here’s why I think the result matters. The theory makes sense–crime is an occupational choice the wealthier are less likely to make–but to date there hasn’t been any rigorous, individual-level evidence this is true. Armed violence is rare, and studies that capture it are usually observational and use country- or district-level data. Field experiments seldom study men with opportunities for crime or conflict. Unless you happen to be a naive glutton for punishment.

Also, from a policymaker’s point of view, it’s not clear that high risk young men who used to wield weapons want to beat their swords into ploughshares. The worry is that farming could deter rebellion in Liberia as well as MacDonald’s jobs stops drug dealing in Detroit. I suspected it to work, but I’m sincerely surprised just how well this program reduced illicit work and violence.