The Economics of Dissent

Vrinda Saxena
Delegate, Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations

To anyone vaguely in-touch with the social affairs currently, the words ‘dissent’, ‘protest’, ‘opposition’ and the likes would seem oddly familiar. Activism, it seems, has joined the ranks of hot topics like religion and politics that dominate tea-time discussions. As you glanced through the morning newspaper the other day, did it seem evidently distinguishable that people are now speaking out? Did the ‘Pinjra-Tod’ protests of DU students against curfew timings spark off personal or heard instances of university activism?  Did you mark yourself interested on social media in one of the many pride-parades post the Section 377 verdict? Now, of all the times, can you place without fail what #MeToo is?

Not that dominant ideas and regimes have not existed prior to this, and not that opposition is a new concept, but today all of this is more in the face. About the things mentioned above, the average citizen derives most of his/her knowledge on these through platforms such as social media. Facebook and Twitter have made it easier in terms of significantly reducing the cost of expressing disapproval and increasing the cost of supressing it. With easier communication technology and effective propagation mechanisms available at their disposal, the so-called dissenters can make use of the force that large numbers allow, given the vast population. An average employee speaking up against harsh conditions at the workplace and tagging those at stake has a higher chance today to spark off a discussion- good enough to at least initiate diversion from the status quo.


The other day, a friend put up a Facebook post calling out at the malpractices in a college fest’s administration. An hour later than it was posted, it stood at some decent number of comments and likes as modest symbols. Another 5 hours and boom! The post had evidently created quite a stir. Apart from the few praising his effort to speak up, other batches had emerged- some countering the criticisms, some criticising him on other grounds. As a way of its working, Facebook kept propping up the post on my news feed repeatedly. Also, as if to not let my enthusiasm die down, regular notifications kept telling me as and when more people commented (I had too). The platform was adamant on keeping the topic hot and kicking. Not to mention here, how revenue models of social media sites as these are wired to cash in on such stuff. Another interesting observation was that while his issue garnered attention from the authorities too and a lot of people came out in support, other issues that people opposing him had put up did not do so.

The only logical conclusion that offers an explanation is, as reported by Economy Watch in one of their articles, that people will revolt as long as the expected mass of supporters exceeds what they think that the authority can repress. As a practical manifestation of the law of large numbers, we can observe that the more number of people join, the more the outcome is as per the dissenters’ wish- beginning of a change/reform, that the authorities could have dodged otherwise. Of course, after some point it may break into a race of who can raise the costs more for the opponent- the protesters by garnering more numbers or the authority by raising costs for the dissenters by resorting to measures such as jailing or pacifying them by guaranteeing action.

Furthermore, speaking of scale -the site and its working allowed more visibility for the post than it already carried. On the aggregate level too, news forums increase the visibility of an opposing viewpoint considerably. A tweet online or a speech in public that was intended only for limited audience acquires a much, much wider reach with essentially no additional costs once it becomes a question of respecting dissenting ideas and acting for reform. Who makes big money is outside the purview of discussion here.


Another subtle side to dissent is how it gradually changes consumption and production patterns in the economy. Even if it didn’t change the overall outcome, the composition definitely undergoes transformation as a result of the soft power that accompanies activism. A case in point could be the visibility of ‘Pink Capitalism’ – an incorporation of LGBTQ movement and sexual diversity in the market economy. What started off a while ago as opposition to ostracism of people on grounds of their sexuality, has today become so large a movement that corporate honchos have not shied away from mainstreaming it. Pink party clubs, clothing options, tourism etc., are trends that are slowly and gradually gaining popularity and business-owners are strategically striking now when the iron is hot. Plus the consumer base is not limited to members of the community alone, but includes supporters of the cause- clearly win-win.

The notion of dissent is even more interesting to study in the light of welfare economics. As the course of history stands proof dissent never was and neither is static. In fact, society itself is shaped a great degree by recurring differences in opinion. The first fundamental theorem of welfare economics states that any competitive equilibrium leads to a Pareto efficient allocation i.e. an outcome from which it is impossible to deviate without making any one of the parties worse-off. If we assume dissent as a product of such competitive markets, it is probably the case that the society is not functioning at the social optimum and hence the market forces are working to fix that. Additionally, since one of the groups always loses out, and the market forces are also forever active, dissent is bound to occur repeatedly. The twist is as follows. A critical paradox here is that as and when major differences of opinion capture public interest they end up changing the society, here analogous for the market, itself. A set of notions that prevail in the society don’t remain homogenous enough for the market to be perfectly competitive. We assume that dissent is when one idea clashes with another hitherto popular belief. If the set of ideas contains all possible ideas prevalent in a society, and popular movements end up say promoting one liberal idea over a conservative one, both of them still remain parts of the set yet are not left to be perfect substitutes. So the perfect competition element vanishes and the first theorem doesn’t hold. Whether that nullifies the assumption of looking for a Pareto efficient outcome is another question.  

Macroeconomic theories too account for an unanticipated expectation error that affects both the equilibrium price level and output level. No surprises here that the aftermath of a dissent campaign has considerable impact.

It is thus safe to say that what every eye perceives changes ultimately what every eye finally sees!

Vrinda Saxena

Vrinda Saxena

Vrinda was a delegate to Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations Conference. She has worked with HT and ToI as a campus reporter.

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