Riot rationalization misses the mark

Eduardo Carrasco/Flickr

People clean up the streets in Hackney after the London riots, Aug. 9, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • #Economic inequality, not poverty, is most cited as the root cause of social unrest

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  • There is little the government can do to fill the gaps of the core causes of social unrest

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  • .@JonahNRO - "Looters loot because they can" - the government has no control over #Britain

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Riots are fascinating things. How lawless greed, cruelty, and violence suddenly set fire to the minds of men is one of the most mysterious, almost magical (though not in the positive sense) manifestations of human behavior.

And because they are a manifestation of human behavior, riots are as old as human nature. They were a common affair in cities before ancient Rome was new. This should invite humility in anyone purporting to know why riots happen.

Already, on both sides of the Atlantic, lots of people are sure they know why England is burning.

"The economic stagnation and cuts being imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division," explained former London mayor "Red" Ken Livingstone. Livingstone is joined by an intellectual mob of liberal members of Parliament--particularly members of the Labour party, which ran the country for more than a decade (the social incubation period of most of the rioters)--and left-wing pundits both there and here who insist that the new Tory government's budget cuts have led to widespread violence, even though most of the relevant cuts haven't even gone into effect.

Of course, they always manage to say "there's no excuse" for violence. But there's always a "but" that leads a long parade of excuses.

"This is the shame of Britain right now. Four days of murder and mayhem demonstrated that the police have become an incompetent social-worker program." -- Jonah Goldberg

Invariably, these rationalizations amount to a license to spend ever more on the social programs that have, at the least, helped to produce the sort of "youths" who will burn homes and cars and beat people to death should the programs be even moderately curtailed. Indeed, according to liberal logic, the mere threat of reforming such programs is enough to cause wholesale violence.

In other words, the cuts don't justify the violence, but the threat of violence justifies avoiding cuts. It's a clever rhetorical trick, but policy-wise it's both appeasement of and appealing to thuggery, pure and simple.

This helps to clarify how economic inequality has come to replace poverty as the most cited "root cause" of social unrest. Poverty, while a more slippery concept than you might think, is still a definable thing. If you lack adequate housing, food, and clothing, you're very poor. Western democracies don't have much of a problem, comparatively speaking, with that kind of poverty.

But we do have income inequality. Inequality is a statistical artifact, an aesthetic offense. Its chief advantage as a bogeyman is that it will always exist and thus always justify programs to reduce it.

On the right, there are a host of explanations that hinge on theories of cultural decay, lapsed or nonexistent parenting, and the corrosive effects of a government that saps the vitality from civil society.

I'm much more sympathetic to this suite of theories. The last time I was in London, the tabloids were making a huge fuss over some lower-class parents' staging quasi-gladiatorial fights with their toddlers so they could put the videos on YouTube. That's not a good sign, I thought at the time.

The problem, of course, is that even if conservatives are right, there's precious little government can do to fill the holes in such souls.

Moreover, I think we put way too much effort into intellectualizing or romanticizing mob violence. Whatever the root causes of such behavior, the simple and unavoidable truth is that looters loot because they can. As one looter explained on a British radio show: "The government aren't in control -- because if they was, we wouldn't be able to do it, could we?"

This is the shame of Britain right now. Four days of murder and mayhem demonstrated that the police have become an incompetent social-worker program. As goons of all ethnicities destroyed the livelihoods of hardworking storeowners of all ethnicities (sorely in need of gun rights), as they targeted shops not for their political symbolism but for their inventory of the latest sneakers and video games, police held a delicate seminar on the propriety of water cannons.

Meanwhile, as the mobs' useful idiots organized conferences trying to imbue the wanton bloodshed and avarice with political nobility, the savages were announcing on their BlackBerrys which shopping district to swarm for "pure terror and havoc & free stuff."

Mustn't forget the free stuff.

There's an adage that the "plural of anecdote is data." Maybe so. But what we know for sure is that the plural of criminal is criminals. And the people tearing apart English society are simply criminals, whose villainy is not diluted by their numbers, but magnified by them.

If Britain lacks prisons to hold them, build more prisons. Call it a jobs program if it helps.

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.

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