London burning
Lewis Whyld/AP PhotoLondon burning

Complex human events have no single or final explanation. The last word on the outbreak of looting and rioting that convulsed large parts of England, including London, in August will therefore never be heard. But some of the first words were foolish, or at least shallow, reflecting the typical materialistic assumptions of the intelligentsia.

An August feature story on the riots in Time offered a particularly striking example. The author suggested that to understand the riots, we should start with “something called the Gini co-efficient, a figure used by economists to indicate how equally (or unequally) income is distributed across a population.” In this traditional measure, the article notes, Britain fares worse than almost every other country in the West.

This little passage is interesting for at least two reasons. First is the unthinking assumption that more equality is better; complete equality would presumably be best. Second is that the author apparently did not think carefully about the table of Gini coefficients printed on the very same page and what it implied about his claim. Portugal headed the list as the most unequal of the countries selected, with a 0.36 coefficient. Next followed the U.K. and Italy, both with a 0.34 coefficient. Toward the bottom of the list, one found France, with a 0.29 coefficient, the same as the Netherlands. Now, it is true that journalists are not historians and that, for professional reasons, their time horizons are often limited to the period between the last edition of their publication and the next. Even so, one might have expected a Time reporter to remember that in 2005—not exactly a historical epoch ago—similar riots swept France, even though its Gini coefficient was already lower than Britain’s. (Having segregated its welfare dependents geographically, though, France saw none of its town or city centers affected by the disorder.)

As it happened, when I read the Time story, I had an old notebook with me. In it, among miscellaneous scribblings, was the following list, referring to the riots in France and made contemporaneously:

Cities affected 300
Detained 2,921
Imprisoned 590
Burned cars 9,071
Injured 126
Dead 1
Police involved 11,200
Average number of cars burned per day before riots 98

And all this with a Gini coefficient of only 0.29! How, then, could it have happened? It might also be worth mentioning that the Netherlands, with its relatively virtuous Gini coefficient, is one of the most crime-ridden countries in Western Europe, as is Sweden, with an even lower Gini coefficient.

At least Time does not go in for the theory that what caused the riots was the coalition government’s reduction in spending, which my Polish publisher tells me is the almost universally accepted view in the Polish press. This Ping-Pong theory of youthful misdemeanor, as one might call it, suggests that if only the state provided enough services for potential rioters—including such amenities as leisure centers with Ping-Pong tables and other diversions—they would behave better. (In the U.S., the theory would promote midnight basketball.) Apart from the empirical unlikelihood of the Ping-Pong tables’ exerting the hoped-for prophylactic effect, the theory suggests that it is government’s duty not merely to keep the peace but to keep the population happy and amused. It is hardly surprising, then, that when people claim that service reductions provoked the riots, they are unable to see that if this were so, the problem would be not the removal of services, but dependence on them in the first place. In any case, as Time pointed out, the effects of the proposed—and economically inevitable—spending reductions have yet to be felt (and few of the reductions have been implemented to date).

But Time also proposed, perhaps without fully realizing it, a more plausible explanation of the riots: that “some of the disaffection with Cameron and his government has more to do with who they are than what they’ve done.” And what they are is upper-class. This theory implies that the rioters’ “disaffection” was more self-consciously analytical than was probably the case; but it does capture a characteristic of the rioters and, indeed, of many British intellectuals: resentment.

Resentment is a powerful, long-lasting emotion that usually is self-serving and dishonest (I have never heard a criminal complain that his defense lawyer is upper-class, as he often is), as well as useless. Resentment is undoubtedly part of everyone’s psychology, at least potentially, and few of us have never heeded its siren song. A population’s general level of resentment, however, is not a natural phenomenon that one can analyze in purely mechanical terms, as if it increased geometrically with the Gini coefficient. Britain itself has been far more unequal in the past without widespread riots’ breaking out, so it is clear that we cannot understand people’s behavior without referring to the meanings that they attach to things.

John Maynard Keynes famously observed that “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” But why should this servitude apply only to the kind of men whom Keynes regarded as practical—businessmen, for instance? After all, for every 1,000 people who intone that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others, only one has actually read John Stuart Mill (they never seem to quote Mill’s contention that a father who abandons his children may rightfully be put to forced labor). And when Keynes goes on to say that madmen in authority are distilling their frenzy from some earlier academic scribbler, he does not explain why this should apply only to madmen in authority. Why not to madmen who loot and commit arson?

There is reason to think that it should so apply. One rioter told a journalist that his compatriots were fed up with being broke all the time and that he knew people who had absolutely nothing. It is worth pondering what lies behind these words. It is obvious that the rioter considered being broke not merely unpleasant, as we all would, but unjust and anomalous, for it was these qualities that justified the rioting in his mind and led him to suggest that the riots were restitution. Leave aside the Micawberish point that one can be broke on any income whatever if one’s desires fail to align with one’s financial possibilities; it is again obvious that the rioter believed that he had a right not to be broke and that this right was being violated. When he said that he knew people with “nothing,” he did not mean that he knew homeless, starving people left on the street without clothes to wear or shoes on their feet; none of the rioters was like this, and many looked only too fit for law-abiding citizens’ comfort. Nor did he mean people without hot and cold running water, electricity, a television, a cell phone, health care, and access to schooling. People had a right to such things, and yet they could have them all and still have “nothing,” in his meaning of the word. Somehow, people had a right to something beyond this irreducible “nothing” because this “nothing” was a justification for rioting. So people have a right to more than they have a right to; in other words, they have a right to everything.

Tangible benefits, on this view, come not as the result of work, effort, and self-discipline: they come as of right. This inflated doctrine of rights has turned into a cargo cult as primitive as that in New Guinea, where the natives thought, after a laden airplane crashed in the jungle, that consumer goods dropped from the sky. Apparently, all that is necessary for people like the rioters to live at a higher standard of living, equal to that of others, is for the government to decree it as their right—a right already inscribed in their hearts and minds.

This doctrine originated not with the rioters but with politicians, social philosophers, and journalists. You need only read Henry Mayhew’s nineteenth-century account of the laboring poor in London to realize that the notion of having rights to tangible benefits was once unknown to the population, even during severe hardship. But the politicians, social philosophers, and journalists transformed things evidently desirable in themselves—decent housing, for example—into rights that nothing, including the behavior of the rights holders, could abrogate. It clearly never occurred to the well-meaning discoverers of these “rights” that their propagation might influence the human personality, at least of that part of the population destined to become increasingly dependent on exercising them; and it required only an admixture of egalitarianism to complete the dialectic of ingratitude and resentment.

What about unemployment as a cause of the riots? If there are no jobs, there is no opportunity for self-advancement. And as Time points out, unemployment for Britons between 16 and 24 years old has increased from 14 percent to 20 percent over the last three years and is much higher in the areas where most of the rioting took place.

Here, too, the explanation is superficial. The current British unemployment rate, to start with, is not especially high by European standards, though perhaps it is too early to say that similar riots could not happen elsewhere in Europe. More to the point, in the boom days before the financial crash, Britain already had high levels of unemployment among the unskilled young, even as the country imported large numbers of unskilled immigrants to work. For every 20 unskilled jobs created in the run-up to the crash, 19 immigrants found work in Britain, while millions of natives remained in state-subsidized idleness.

Three reasons explain this seeming paradox. In the first place, foreigners, initially without British welfare entitlements, found the wages for the jobs on offer sufficiently enticing to accept them. For natives on welfare, however, the financial difference between working and not working—especially when they could supplement their welfare benefits with a little trafficking or casual work in the black market—was insufficient to get them into the workforce. A locution that welfare recipients frequently use is revealing: “I get paid on Friday,” they say, referring to getting their welfare funds. Their work, apparently, is existence.

Second, many of the young foreigners possessed qualities superior to those of their British counterparts, making them more attractive to employers. Few are the jobs, especially in the service economy, in which such characteristics as punctuality, reliability, politeness, and helpfulness are not important; but these qualities were not much in evidence among the young British population. While in France, one can run a good hotel with young French employees, it would be impossible in Britain with young British employees; in Britain, hotels and many other services are good in proportion to their employment of foreigners. And while educational standards may have fallen elsewhere, it is rare that young migrants to Britain are as uneducated as young Britons. The foreigners, unlike the Britons, can do simple calculations, and they often speak an English that, if not more fluent, is more refined than that of the young Britons.

Finally, the existence of subsidized public housing, or “social housing,” as we term it in the U.K.—it would be more accurate to call it “antisocial housing”—discourages recipients from moving to find work. Because the benefit is not transferable from one location to another, moving would mean that the tenant would have to pay rent at an unsubsidized rate. At the age when young people should be most geographically flexible, many become attached to their lodgings by iron hoops of subsidy. That is why public housing in Britain so often resembles a prison without walls and without warders, and why the riots had some of the qualities of a prison riot.

The rioters and the social class to which they mainly belong thus have genuine reason to feel aggrieved, but that reason is not one that they often cite. In the name of equality and redistributionism, the state has provided them with an expensive education that is nearly useless, thanks to the implementation of pedagogical theories from whose practical effects the better-off and better-educated parents are, to some extent, able to protect their children; entrapped them in de facto prisons; and driven up the cost of their labor so far by means of welfare subsidy that it is worth no one’s while to employ it. At the same time, their minds have been filled with notions of entitlement that can only breed resentment.

The state has failed these Britons in one other respect, perhaps the most significant in helping to explain the riots: it has not repressed their propensity to crime. It has given criminally inclined Britons the (correct) impression of impunity. Consider that the British police catch the culprit of just one robbery in 12 and that just one in eight convicted robbers goes to prison in the U.K. Since the number of robberies is much greater than the number of robbers—each robber tends to commit many such crimes—failure to imprison robbers, and to do so for a long time, is in effect to grant the state’s imprimatur to robbery.

When one bears in mind that leniency is shown toward criminals who have committed other serious offenses as well, it is no surprise that the young and criminally inclined should believe in their own impunity. They may not be able to do arithmetic, but they can certainly recognize long odds when they see them. They know, too, that they have respectable society on the run when successive lord chief justices have complained that too many Britons are sent to prison and that such sentences should not be administered to first-time burglars (meaning, of course, the first time that they get caught, not the first time that they burgle, a distinction that seems to have escaped their lordships). It would not be too much to say that recent lord chief justices of England are a major cause of the riots.

Crime, in short, has been normalized as a way of life. For further evidence of that proposition, recall that the pretext for the August orgy of looting and arson was the shooting of one Mark Duggan by the police, who thought that he had a gun and was going to shoot them. What Duggan’s friends and relatives said about him was highly revealing. Duggan’s girlfriend observed that if Duggan had had a gun and had seen the police, he would have run away. This is not exactly a paean to his peaceful and law-abiding way of life; she did not claim that it was unimaginable for him to have been carrying a gun. And if she knew that he might have been carrying a gun, she knew a lot more about him and his way of life than she was revealing. A sister said, yes, Mark was “involved in things,” but he was not violent. She delicately refrained from saying what those “things” were, but her way of putting it suggested that she was using a code that almost anybody of her milieu would be able to crack. A friend noted that she did not believe the original press reports, subsequently proved false, that Duggan had shot first at the police because “Mark is not so stupid to shoot at the police.” The word “stupid” implies only a prudential and not an ethical reason for Duggan’s behavior; presumably, there were others at whom it would not be stupid to shoot.

This impression could only be strengthened by a widely published photograph of Duggan in which he held one hand up as a gun, clearly in the pose of a gangster. It is possible that the gesture was only bravado; but at the very least, it suggests an admiration for gangsters not unconnected with the antinomial tendencies of most popular culture.

It is true that the British police have come to resemble not the force of uniformed citizens of which Sir Robert Peel (the founder of the modern police) dreamed, but a paramilitary occupier, feared mainly by the innocent and law-abiding. The police have become simultaneously bullying and ineffectual, the worst of all combinations, barking rudely at motorists who stop where they shouldn’t but disregarding manifestations of serious criminality entirely. The reasons for the degeneration of British policing are (again) complex, but one of them is the extreme leniency of the courts. For a long time, the police had little incentive to pursue criminals short of murderers, for the courts will impose a trivial punishment on them.

The riots might herald a positive change, at least in the official stance toward crime. In an implicit, maybe not even fully conscious, criticism of the last half-century’s criminal-justice policy, the magistrates have imposed much stiffer sentences on the rioters than anyone expected. A judge sent one woman to prison for four years (of which she will serve two and a half) for using Twitter and Facebook to incite rioting, for instance.

The liberal press viewed this sentence and others handed out after the riots as “disproportionate,” which, in a sense, they were. The Guardian noted that two-thirds of those brought before the magistrates and accused of rioting were remanded into custody and that only 34 percent received bail; the “normal” figure was 10 percent in custody and 90 percent granted bail. Likewise, 45 percent of those found guilty of rioting got prison sentences; “normally,” only 12 percent of those found guilty of assault, robbery, burglary, or brawling in public were imprisoned. Few in the media seemed to recognize that if there was disproportion here, it was because the system was too lenient before, not too severe now.

It is therefore just possible that the rioters will, in the long run, have done a service to the country by awaking it to its past follies. But no one ever made much of a mistake by overestimating the pusillanimity of the British political class.


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