In responding to the riots, many prominent public figures have suggested that the problem is a simple one. With regard to the criminals whose despicable behaviour has destroyed livelihoods, they argue that it is a straightforward matter of right and wrong. These people have committed appalling acts for which there can be no excuse. Others have suggested that, whilst there is no excuse for individual acts of criminal behaviour, there are complex underlying factors which have eroded communities and made such behaviour more likely. There is an element of truth in both of these positions.
However, in a typically reductionist analysis, Harriet Harman suggested that government spending cuts are at least partly to blame. Specifically, on prime-time television, Harriet Harman blamed cuts in the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the increase in tuition fees. Putting aside the fact that spending as a proportion of national income is only being reduced to the very high levels we saw in 2007 and the immorality of leaving younger generations larger and larger piles of government debt to service, this line of argument is fatuous.
Perhaps we should note, firstly, that the state has failed in its basic job of protecting its citizens and their property despite spending over half of national income. Those who know more about policing than I do - from both sides of the political debate - have suggested that there is a major failing of policing here. That failing arises, it is suggested, both in respect of the chaotic short-term response and the long-term policing strategy which, it has been argued, is based too much on the tolerance of wrongdoing in the name of appeasing those who are offending. Whatever the underlying reason – and we should also look at how much actual policing a constable does in an average working day, as opposed to bureaucracy and paperwork – it would appear that there is a clear failure of leadership in the police force.
But, what of the suggestion that the government must do more within these communities to end hopelessness and alienation, to create jobs and so on? Surely, this pretended solution has been tested to destruction. The tentacles of central government extend into economic, social and community life as never before. This is particularly true in poor communities: perhaps it is the problem and not the solution.
It is highly likely that a high proportion of those involved in rioting were receiving, in cash or in kind, most of their means from the state. As Iain Duncan Smith has pointed out, generation after generation has been dependent on welfare benefits in some areas. But little has been done – despite his own personal determination – to end this problem of dependency. Every pound that is earned by the least well off leads to them losing a roughly equal amount in the form of reduced welfare benefits and taxes. Similarly, nothing has been done, and nothing will be done, to end the situation whereby those who are married with children are heavily penalised through the tax and benefit system. Surveys suggest that in some areas that experienced riots, 80 per cent of fathers are absent from the home. When the family fragments, state bureaucracies tend to replace its functions and communities become dehumanised as a result. Other centralised interventions to deal with social problems are at levels never seen before. For example, the schooling and health systems strongly bias funding towards areas of high poverty and are hyper-sensitive to the needs of ethnic minority communities with no discernable improvement in results.
With regard to job creation, it is not more action we need from government but less. We have highly activist labour market policies such as employment protection legislation, minimum wages, and so on, ostensibly to protect employees. However, around 20 per cent of youths are unemployed. Empirical evidence suggests that employment protection legislation keeps the most vulnerable out of the labour market. Such legislation, together with the expansive means-tested welfare systems, also lead people into the black economy with corrosive results for communities.
Those who are calling for more government intervention and spending in response to the riots are wrong. A major study after the US riots in Los Angeles in 1992 suggested that there was a positive correlation between the size of governments and the likelihood of riots. There could be many reasons for this, but one reason must surely be that government has been treating people in poor communities as if they are not human like the rest of us. Our welfare system assumes that the poor do not respond to incentives and that neither marriage nor work matter in providing structure to life and providing financial independence. Our systems of so-called employment protection rest on the assumption that the disadvantaged would be better off not working than working under terms and conditions of employment they would freely choose. Our education and health systems assume that the poor can be nothing other than the passive recipients of services and cannot make choices for themselves: this is in the face of all the evidence showing improvement in education outcomes for the poor when there is more parental autonomy.
We also need to turn the assumptions about community that have been inherent in government policy – and also in the musings of our local Bishops on Catholic social teaching - upside down. Community is not something that is created by government but something that arises organically from beneath. As Pope Benedict reminds us, solidarity – that deep-seated feeling of compassion for fellow human beings – cannot be delegated to the state. At the same time, if we try to delegate solidarity to a state that does everything, we will crowd out the real thing and with it will go those interpersonal bonds that are the beginning of real community. In his critique of the welfare state in Centesimus annus, John Paul II noted: “In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need.”
At the height of the reach of the welfare state and central government interference in social, economic and community life we cannot argue that the solution to the problems underlying the riots requires more such action. Instead we should ask whether those very policies have de-humanised large parts of our society by denying them the opportunity to live the life and make the choices that autonomous, reasoning, acting human persons should be able to make. The welfare state and the high level of income confiscation that it requires implicitly erodes respect for property rights. The extension of the state into every aspect of social, economic and community life erodes people’s sense of self respect and responsibility for their families and their communities. The ultimate consequence of dehumanisation is, of course, the inability to tell the difference between right and wrong. This may not be the reason for the riots but supporters of more government intervention in our communities to should at least consider that it is a strong contender.
This article originally appeared in the Catholic Herald.