A once civil and orderly England was recently torn apart by rioting and looting -- at first by mostly minority youth, but eventually also by young Brits in general. This summer, a number of American cities witnessed so-called "flash mobs" -- mostly African-American youths who swarmed at prearranged times to loot stores or randomly attack those of other races and classes.
The mayhem has reignited an old debate in the West. Are such criminally minded young Americans and British turning to violence in protest over inequality, poverty and bleak opportunities? The Left, of course, often blames cutbacks in the tottering welfare state and high unemployment. The havoc and mayhem, in other words, are a supposed wake-up call in an age of insolvency not to cut entitlements, but to tax the affluent to redistribute more of their earnings to those unfairly deprived.
The Right counters that the problem is not too few state subsidies, but far too many. The growing -- and now unsustainable -- state dole of the last half-century eroded self-reliance and personal initiative. The logical result is a dependent underclass spanning generations that becomes ever more unhappy and unsatisfied the more it is given from others. Today's looters have plenty to eat. That is why they target sneaker and electronics stores -- to enjoy the perks of life they either cannot or will not work for.
We might at least agree on a few facts behind the violence. First, much of the furor is because poverty is now seen as a relative, not an absolute, condition. Per-capita GDP is $47,000 in the U.S. and $35,000 in Britain. In contrast, those rioting in impoverished Syria (where average GDP is about $5,000) or Egypt (about $6,000) worry about being hungry or being shot for their views, rather than not acquiring a new BlackBerry or a pair of Nikes. Inequality, not Tiny Tim-like poverty, is the new Western looter's complaint.
So when the president lectures about fat-cat "corporate jet owners," he doesn't mean that greed prevents the lower classes from flying on affordable commercial jets -- only that a chosen few in luxury aircraft, like himself, reach their destinations a little more quickly and easily. Not having what someone richer has is our generation's lament instead of lacking elemental shelter, food or electricity. The problem is not that the bathwater in Philadelphia is not as hot as in Martha's Vineyard, but that the conditions under which it is delivered in comparison are far more basic and ordinary.
Second, the wealthy have not set an example that hard work and self-discipline leads to well-deserved success and the good life. Recently, a drunken, affluent young prospect for the U.S. ski team urinated on a sleeping 11-year old during a transcontinental flight. And the more the psychodramas of drones like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, or some members of the royal family, become headline news, the more we see boredom and corruption among the pampered elite. The behavior of John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Arnold Schwarzenegger does not remind us that good habits of elite public figures follow from well-deserved riches and acclaim -- but only that with today's wealth and power comes inevitable license and decadence.
Third, communism may be dead, but Marxist-inspired materialism still measures the good life only by equal access to "things." We can argue whether those who loot a computer store are spoiled or oppressed. But even a person in faded jeans and a worn T-shirt can still find all sorts of spiritual enrichment at no cost in either a museum or a good book. Did we forget that in our affluent postmodern society, being poor is often an impoverishment of the mind, not necessarily the result of a cruel physical world?
Finally, there is far too much emphasis on government as the doting, problem-solving parent. What made Western civilization rich and liberal was not just free-market capitalism and well-funded constitutional government, but the role of the family, community and church in reminding the emancipated individual of an affluent society that he should not always do what he was legally permitted to. Destroy these bridles, ridicule the old shame culture of the past, and we end up with unchecked appetites -- as we now witness from a smoldering London to the flash mobbing in Wisconsin.
Our high-tech angry youth are deprived not just because their elders put at risk their future subsidies, but because they were not taught what real wealth is -- and where and how it is obtained and should be used.