The London riots were not caused by ‘moral decay’ or inequality


Being too busy torching, looting and vandalising, the London rioters and their offshoots in other cities could not be bothered to prepare banners expressing their ‘political demands’, or voice them in the form of chants. They have thus provided a huge blank sheet upon which commentators and politicians of all hues can now eagerly project their own grievances. Hence the mushrooming of prefab explanations along the lines of:

‘I am not condoning these vile acts in any way, but it needs to be said that if we [insert here the policy or social phenomenon which you are personally most angry about], we are increasing the likelihood of such events.’

The advantage of these telepathic exercises is that they are irrefutable. You can always claim that the rioters were simply too inarticulate to put this into words, but if they had been as articulate as you are, then this is what they would have said. There is a danger, of course, that while we learn a lot about what worries journalists and politicians, we don’t learn anything about the riots.

Let’s have a look at the two possibly most popular explanations. The first narrative goes that society as a whole has lost its moral compass, especially its elites, and that the rioters were merely imitating, in a more violent way, what everybody else does. When bankers help themselves to large taxpayer-sponsored bonuses, when MPs fiddle their expenses, and when big corporations dodge their taxes, then how can we expect the most difficult members of society to behave any better?

The problem here is that one the one hand, these commentators emphasise how disengaged and alienated from mainstream society the rioters are, while simultaneously ascribing an astonishingly high level of political awareness to them. Somebody who was not following the political and business news last year would barely have heard about bankers’ bonuses and MP expenses. But anyone who has heard of them must have noticed the public outrage which they provoked. If it was true that society as a whole had lost its moral compass, then such misconduct would either not be considered worthy of mentioning, or people would even express admiration for the ‘cleverness’ of the wrongdoers. It is all well and good to be angry about these other forms of misconduct as well. But why don’t we just criticise them on their own terms, instead of forcing everything into an all-encompassing super-narrative?

The second popular explanation is that inequality caused the riots. It is true that inequality in Britain is fairly high, even though that isn’t exactly new. It has been like that for over two decades:

Income inequality in Britain, three measures, 1988-2008

 More importantly, the national income distribution only matters to aficionados of The Spirit Level. For most people, comparisons of income and consumption take place within peer-groups of similar socio-economic characteristics (see here, pp. 91-102). If we must use inequality as an explanation, it would at best explain why the rioters largely trashed their own neighbourhoods instead of attacking the prosperous boroughs.

And here lies a problem for the inequality camp. Suppose the problematic parts of Hackney and Brixton suddenly became magnets for entrepreneurs, who would rush in to create lots of jobs and apprenticeships with great career prospects on-site. Other things equal, this would compress the national income distribution a bit. But it would widen the income distribution within these areas, and could also aggravate frustration amongst those who would still not benefit. A truly consistent egalitarian would have to oppose this development.

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

7 thoughts on “The London riots were not caused by ‘moral decay’ or inequality”

  1. Posted 30/08/2011 at 12:16 | Permalink

    Kristian, another thoughtful piece. As someone who has lived in East London for 25 years, mainly Hackney, I also happen to work in recruitment.

    I pose the question, if you gave some of these people a £30,000 a year job, relatively stimulating but undemanding, with some prospects how many would pass the 3 month probationary period?

    With having to adhere to discipline, absenteeism, work as part of the team, my feeling 50% at least would fail.

  2. Posted 30/08/2011 at 13:14 | Permalink

    ” A truly consistent egalitarian would have to oppose his development.”

    Which would explain why the left are so keen on levelling down.

  3. Posted 30/08/2011 at 16:20 | Permalink

    Dave makes a telling point. A fundamental problem is the high time preference of the rioters and their culture. In other words, they find it difficult to defer gratification – even if the long-term results of such short-termism are highly negative. This also helps explain their criminality. The welfare state clearly heightens time preferences, for example by discouraging saving and bailing people out when they make poor decisions, though there are also cultural factors involved.

    We should also remember the many advantages enjoyed by typical rioters in London. They are subsidised to live in close proximity to one of the most dynamic and diverse labour markets in the world. Their low-rent social housing also means they enjoy relatively high work incentives compared with those claiming housing benefit in the private sector.

  4. Posted 30/08/2011 at 17:54 | Permalink

    The riots occurred for one reason only. For too long the justice system has put out the message that the consequences of bad behaviour will be slight.

  5. Posted 31/08/2011 at 20:57 | Permalink

    But what then is the answer Kristian?

  6. Posted 01/09/2011 at 12:34 | Permalink

    As a practical free marketeer, in our lifetimes we are not going to see government disappear in a hurry, my solutions would be:

    1. After 1 child no extra benefits no matter how many you have. One is excusing a mistake.

    2. Welfare payments go down the longer you are on them.

    3. Vouchers for education and health to use in the private sector.

    4. Abolition of Employers NI.

    5. Set the tax free limit at £20,000 a year.

  7. Posted 03/10/2011 at 13:40 | Permalink

    This comment comes a long time after this was posted, but I do think there are a number of issues with this examination of events.

    Firstly, I do agree with the premise of it being a blank sheet for projecting grievances onto. This was evident straightaway and a big problem because it clutters the narrative with knee-jerk responses. For me I felt one of the sources of comment most interesting was front-line workers in the areas hit. These were often volunteer workers without salaries giving up their own time, and so less likely to have a motive to simply want more money pumped into their particular schemes.

    Secondly, what are ‘difficult’ members of society? Do you mean ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘difficult to reach’? I haven’t come across the term ‘difficult’ in policy debates or social research. On this note, your moral compass argument seems confused. If the whole of society lost their compass, would they not all riot? Yet then you note it is an isolated section that lost it who would be judged by the rest of society? This isn’t clear.

    I do agree political knowledge can be low, but I completely disagree that it requires an “astonishingly high level of political awareness” to know about MPs Expenses and Bankers bonuses. School children know about these issues, they were both of the biggest news stories of the year for the UK. They also permeated various forms of media, from comedy show quizes to morning chat shows. I think this argument underestimates how wide these issues were reported / discussed.

    Finally, the spirit level is not a perfect argument by any means, having studied it I don’t find it particularly convinced on a number of, well, levels. However, I have a problem with the notion of a” truly consistent egalitarian”. This takes egalitarianism too far, unfairly. Is there such a thing as a truly consistent Conservative or Liberal? Probably not. What you do highlight is simply an issue of scalar measurement issues. Intra-variance can increase whilst the overall variance compresses as you say, and inequality can be achieved effectively by reducing everything. But this is not a common argument of egalitarians. It is a straw-man summing up of the idea and does not help any debate. As a commentator noted, you can have a ‘practical freemarketeer’, which is a fair assessment, so I think that should be applied to someone who is egalitarian as well.’

    Another problem with the Spirit Level is issues of scale and data. You do the same here by not linking or outlining where your data is from for the graph and especially how it was calculated.

    Like I say, this is out of date now, but thought it would be interesting to provide comments underneath the article to highlight other perspectives.As another commentator under here noted, I would be interested in what you think did cause the riots.

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