By now, most people are aware of the disgraceful and embarrassing “protests” that have engulfed London over the past few days. Looting, burglary and arson are spreading, not only across town but also to other cities, with reports of violence coming in from Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.
The rioters claim overly extensive and harassing police activity as the cause of the unrest. Not only is this a poor attempt to seek undeserved validation, it is ironic since it is exactly this kind of reckless, irresponsible and brutal criminal activity that justifies extensive police powers in the first place. The causes run much deeper, and although the criminals responsible are largely unconscious of those causes, it is important to understand them. It is not, however, a political protest against the police or a class war.
This is understood by and large, but many are still trying to excuse the rioters’ behavior. Ken Livingston, the former mayor of London, has blamed the violence on the government’s austerity measures. “If you’re making massive cuts, there’s always the potential for this sort of revolt against that,” Livingston said. It is one thing to stand back while Rome burns, but to seize it as a political opportunity by giving the arsonists a principled foundation is disgraceful. It is also misleading. Studies indicate that riots are rarely caused by income inequality, as political scientists Denise DiPasquale and Edward Glaeser write in their paper “The Los Angeles Riot and the Economics of Urban Unrest”:
We find some support for the notions that the opportunity cost of time and the potential costs of punishment influence the incidence and intensity of riots. Beyond these individual costs and benefits, community structure matters. In our results, ethnic diversity seems a significant determinant of rioting, while we find little evidence that poverty in the community matters.
Prime Minister David Cameron has referred to the riots as “criminality, pure and simple.” Criminality it may be, but pure and simple it is not. While cuts in government spending are not the cause of this monstrous show, government has helped cause it. For weakening community bonds and undermining personal responsibility, the top-down government expansion that has gone on for years must be held partially responsible for the riots.
Young people in London are angry that provisions and services have been taken away, which has left them feeling abandoned, disillusioned and without futures, but this does not follow from spending cuts. It is the opposite. The problem is that state spending has been and continues to be used to fund misguided programs of social engineering, creating a system of services so centralized and impersonal that it fails to facilitate social order and detaches youths from the society around them, rather than bonding them to it. Benevolent social institutions cannot be imposed by a central authority. They can only emerge through the willing consent of individuals in communities. Indeed, in the clear absence of government authority, Londoners are coming together to help each other and stop the riots.
For days now, Londoners have been calling for tougher policing, and it may be necessary for the government to take extreme measures to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens. But what is more important than the how is the why. The lesson here is not that increased spending prevents disaffection and creates sustainable institutions of merit, but rather that an overarching and illiberal nanny state does exactly what it says on the tin. It creates spoilt, lonely and irresponsible brats.
Benjamin Cumming is currently entering his final year of a M.A. in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, having completed a year abroad at the University of Mississippi, where he studied Political Science and Economics. He has represented the United Kingdom in the European Union and is an avid libertarian.