What's causing the English riots?

Rioting in London has now spread to several other cities in England. After starting in Tottenham, North London (where 26 years ago the Broadwater Farm riots started) the riots are now in their 3rd or 4th day and have already resulted in multiple deaths and a huge amount of destruction. Notable losses thus far include a warehouse housing much of the English music and film industry's product stock, which many fear may bankrupt uninsured firms throughout the industry. So, what's causing the riots?

As always, it depends on what you mean by "cause." The proximate reason was the shooting death of unarmed father of four and / or alleged drug dealer Mark Duggan. The small but long-running empirical literature on riots reveals what I imagine most of us already suspect: these sort of events are common triggers but seem to serve a roll much more akin to catalyst than true cause. Much has been said in the mean time about the role of social media and easy cellular communication in advancing the riots, but much as Jared Cohen of Google Ideas said about the Arab revolts of this past year, it's hard to argue that either of those factors is really making a difference in whether the riots occur so much as simply helping rioters coordinate (for a particularly good write up of the role of social media in the riots, and the source of that Cohen Op-Ed, see this post at Gigaom).

So what's causing the riots and what can we learn from it? It obviously depends on the type of riot but a running theme is a simultaneous interaction between poverty, economic disparity, and political disenfranchisement. That's clearly not always the case, but this echoes a lot of what we know from the empirical literature on conflict, especially internal conflict. You're not likely to have a civil war if you have homogeneous social groups or an established political system respected by the public, and you're not likely to have riots if you have the same.

All of which is to say that riots generally seem to be very human expressions of discontent and powerlessness that are difficult to ascribe to purely thuggish motivations like a desire to loot. As more stories pour in ( "I saw 3 or 4 young women looting Tesco Express for nappies and milk tonight" "In Enfield most of those who gathered in the town centre were white. The youngest looked about 10-years-old" "No kids don't want to go to college no more coz they don't get paid") it's becoming clear that the English rioting seems to be driven by that same combustible mixture of poverty, inequality, and lack of options. Given that those factors seem to only worsening around the world, it seems wise to view the English riots not as a freak event but rather as part of a larger global trend.

1 comment:

  1. An old and much-respected friend pointed me to a representative counter-story op-ed by The Australian's Brendan O'Neill, here:

    with the comment "People are turning to violence after the state lowers their subsidies. That is the objective fact." Since I took the time to write him a reply, and since O'Neill's viewpoint is fairly widely espoused, I thought I'd post it in its entirety here:

    Any explanation of violent action that rests on large numbers of people choosing unemployment over viable employment opportunities (which is what "subsidized vs. those that work" framing implies) is verifiably flawed. The unemployed are measurably less happy (http://www.jstor.org/stable/2234639) and less healthy (http://www.jstor.org/pss/2136531) and they know it (see paragraph 2: http://www.slate.com/id/2155111/). Saying that rioters riot because they're just trying to hold onto their government benefits dehumanizes their choices. And I don't mean that in some abstract "let's talk about our feelings" way, I mean it as a very literally-minded economist. It implies that the poor value their leisure time at such astronomical rates and undervalue (or even less believably, don't know) the health and happiness costs of being unemployed to such an extent that they will engage in violence to stay in their "privileged" position of being cared for by the welfare state. It makes being poor sound rather enviable, which as anyone who's ever talked with poor people about being poor (much less looked at actual data) knows is false.

    I think you're right that fear of cuts to the social safety net is one of the factors contributing to people's decision to riot. That said, pointing that out without simultaneously pointing out how structural unemployment drives the issue hides a very important half of the story. Moreover, it conveniently hides the half of the story that would make the case for non-punitive government policy intervention, i.e., focusing on creating jobs and improving the lot of the poor. But that would fundamentally be a form of redistribution, which is why someone like O'Neill would rather use a line of logic that rests on the assumption that the poor are simply lazy.

    I should note, lastly, that this isn't some armchair liberal view that ignores the thuggishness of the rioters; anyone following the news has seen quotes like "We're not all gathering together for a cause, we're running down Foot Locker" right along side the quotes about being disaffected and mothers stealing baby formula. But the point is that thuggishness and property crime cannot be disentangled from bad living conditions, especially unemployment (empirically: http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/jlecono44&div=16&id=&page=), and saying something like "poor people need to just suck it up, start working for real, and stop acting like scoundrels" is akin to English viceroys identifying unrest in the colonies as merely the product of violent and ungrateful natives who don't understand how much better they are under British rule. It ignores what people's actions are actually revealing about their preferences and, as such, provides no meaningful way of dealing with the problem in the long run. And we know, to stretch the colonial British analogy, how well that attitude works in the long run.