There’s been a great deal of debate about the “root causes” of the recent violence in England. Unfortunately, some British and American commentators have tried to score partisan political points by arguing that government cuts to things like “youth programs” are ultimately responsible for the violence. Never mind that the thugs doing the looting and random killings have never expressed an articulate political agenda.
Now there is survey evidence showing that the vast majority of British voters blame either “criminal behaviour” or “gang culture” as the causes of the violence (68% of all voters). Only 8% blame “government cuts.” The other explanations on offer – unemployment, poor policing, and racial tensions – garner even less support. Even 50% of Labour voters agree that either criminal behaviour or gang culture is the main cause of the violence, while only 16% of Labour voters blame Conservative-Liberal Democratic spending cuts.
Of course, saying that “criminal behaviour” is the cause of the riots is a bit like saying that bribery is the cause of corruption. By definition, what is going on is criminal behavior. Nevertheless, what most respondents who picked this option are probably thinking is that the criminals participating in the violence are doing it for self-interested motives, either loot or the fun they get out of vandalism and murder. So then the question becomes: why have people with this mentality been able to rampage for so long? The political science literature on how temporal signals solve coordination games may help us here. The shooting of Mark Duggan six days ago triggered protests and sent a signal to would-be troublemakers that police would have their hands full. As police stood back and appeared to allow the violence to rage, it quickly spread. Individual criminals apparently counted on low risk of being caught. Last night’s surge of police onto the streets seems to have changed that calculus and begun to quell the violence.
But the coordination explanation only tells us why the violence happened now, not why it was possible to begin with. For my money, one of the best explanations comes from Brendan O’Neill, who argues that “welfare-state mobs” have been created by public policies that encourage irresponsibility and social atomization. As Guido Fawkes points out, in Tottenham, the neighborhood where the violence started, as many as 80% of families are fatherless. Welfare policies that reward women for having more children, regardless of whether a father is around, surely deserve some of the blame for that situation, as do lax welfare eligibility rules that allow able-bodied but idle young men to live off the taxpayer.