It now seems obvious that there were at least three distinct types of people involved in the riots:
1) Angry disaffected male youth with low self-esteem, no jobs, no education and no hope for the future – these were at the core. Mainly, but certainly not exclusively, black – although black youth are disproportionately represented in this class as a whole – and also because of the initial trigger, which was the shooting of a young black man by the police;
2) Professional criminals and fences using the cover of the mob to inject their own criminal gangs into the melee purely for the purpose of looting and mugging;
3) People of all classes, ethnicities and both sexes, not normally ‘criminal’, who impulsively took advantage of open and damaged stores to grab some free goodies.
This last lot is very interesting because they were really displaying the same kind of ‘criminality’ as tax-evaders (even little ones), politicians-on-the-take, officials-on-the-take, people who fiddle their expenses, people who ‘nick’ stationery from their work, members of the press corps who indulge in nefarious and illegal practices (or hire others to do it for them), ‘big wheels’ in investment banks and other financial institutions who do immoral things bringing our whole economy down and senior executives of any large company (remember Enron?) who take such large sums of money out of their company in the way of bonuses, gaming the system to make the bonuses larger, as to bring the company down – while they personally walk away rich and otherwise unscathed. In other words – people of all types who cannot resist an opportunity for self-gratification and enrichment, usually allaying any conscience they may have with the thought that they would be mugs if they didn’t – because – well, ‘wouldn’t you?’ and ‘everybody is doing it’. These are not ‘professional’ criminals – but there is very little difference really, except that professional criminals do it as their main living. Like dishonest investment bankers.
So – what public policy needs to be adopted, in order to try to ensure this kind of problem doesn’t happen again, or as rarely as possible?
What is clear is that assuming the ‘rioters’ were a homogeneous bunch of people will not lead to any kind of sensible policy for avoiding the problem again. My view is that types (2) and (3) above would not have had a situation to take advantage of, had not the disaffected youth been sparked into rioting in the first place. Therefore the solution must be to focus on the two issues of (a) dealing with the anti-social behaviour of the individuals who make up the gangs of young people with no jobs and no hope and little self-esteem and (b) longer-term, reducing their numbers. Interesting stuff on the first part has been going on in Scotland recently (Strathclyde ‘Community Initiative to Reduce Violence’ – based on the USA Boston Mass. ‘Ceasefire Project’). But one thing is sure – for the longer term we need to deal with the issue, well-demonstrated by an econometric study, that social unrest is related to austerity policies. [Edit] : A very recent academic paper – a study by economists Hans-Joachim Voth and Jacopo Ponticelli shows that from 1919 to the present, a policy of austerity has lead to violence and instability. In their summary the authors concluded:
Does fiscal consolidation lead to social unrest? From the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s to anti-government demonstrations in Greece in 2010-11, austerity has tended to go hand in hand with politically motivated violence and social instability. In this paper, we assemble cross-country evidence for the period 1919 to the present, and examine the extent to which societies become unstable after budget cuts. The results show a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability. We test if the relationship simply reflects economic downturns, and conclude that this is not the key factor. [My italics]
Regarding type 1) above – soon became obvious that, outside London at least, these not mainly black
Regarding the difference in effect on people between an economic downturn and government austerity measures, this makes sense. Why? Because in an economic downturn people may get less work or become unemployed, but tend to see it as ‘one of those things’, maybe suffering greatly, but not actually able to blame someone for taking something away from them (OK – maybe I need to work on this argument a bit…). However, austerity measures cause some people to have their taxes increased (but not all) and some people to have some benefits withdrawn or decreased. This is perceived as the government ‘taking something away from me’. The feeling may just as equally affect the rich as the poor (I recall seeing a relatively wealthy friend going red in the face with anger and spluttering that he was simply going to stop working after the 50p tax rate was first announced – needless to say he didn’t stop working). Behavioural Economics experiments well demonstrate that people are highly loss-averse. This is loss. Not surprising, therefore, if it spills over into social unrest, while a downturn alone may not: downturns make people depressed, austerity targeting makes people angry.