Jonah Goldberg

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 Labor 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.

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.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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