When riots broke out this summer in England, the analysis of the cause was split between those who saw the violence as acts of personal irresponsibility and those who put the blame on social inequities.
Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister and other office holders blamed poor upbringing as the culprit. Parents, they said, have reared a generation of unbridled, anti-social nihilists who lacked a sense of social responsibility. And, of course, there were examples of just this, with rioters walking off with TVs, smiling and one even saying that it was all good fun. It is never hard to find an example of personal failure in the midst of social upheaval. Who knows but the band of Continental soldiers may also have had its share of those who were in it for a good scrum.
But what else could those in power say, that there was something wrong with the social system? To do that would be to challenge the very structures and institutions that benefit them. Those whose lives are pushed ahead by the existing system seldom criticize the institutions that succor them but instead find fault with individuals who act uncivilly shaking their chains.
When the heat is turned down, even those in power can give a more honest appraisal. Last week New York’s Michael Bloomberg, on a radio show in the city, said that two problems loom over the country—the enormous debt and the high unemployment. Then, he added unexpectedly: “You have a lot of kids graduating college who can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid . . . You don’t want those kinds of riots here.”
Clearly there is a relationship between difficult social and economic circumstances and social unease. Sometimes this leads to increased crime; sometimes it leads to communal indifference; sometimes it leads to civil unrest; sometimes it leads to revolution.
The mayor can say this now because people aren’t taking to the streets in his hometown. But they have elsewhere and they may someday here, too, as they have in the past. You can be sure that if and when people loot and riot, the establishment will blame it on bad behavior, lack of discipline and poor parenting. Politicians have to say that. If they don’t, they have legitimized criminal behavior. Only before and after the fact can we admit the reality.
If we don’t fix the economy soon and put people back to work with decent salaries so they can support their families, the burnings we have seen Cairo and Madrid and Athens and London will become domestic worries of the first order.
Bloomberg is right that there is the specter of riots by the jobless. Let’s not wait for the riots to breakout. There are plenty of good plans to put the jobless back to work and soon. But if you believe that government has no role in helping to create work for people, then the only role government will play is sending in the police and the military to put those troublemakers in their place.