The Summer Riots – causes and prevention

Whilst I was away on holiday in Pembrokeshire, riots broke out in the cities of London, Birmingham and Manchester. The following comment was just posted to John Redwood’s blog:-

We should look at this in context. All the riots except the first in Tottenham were copycat riots. People saw that with sufficient numbers of people, looting could be carried out without fear of arrest. There was also the adrenalin rush of rioting, just like football hooliganism. The rioting stopped when people started being arrested in large numbers. They also stopped in Manchester when it started raining.

We should not overreact in issuing draconian laws. Rather it is to understand that people react to the opportunities presented to them. We had in the inner cities for a few nights to opportunity to riot and loot in the belief there would be no punishment. Many took that opportunity. This can be gleaned from the work of Prof. Gary S. Becker, who pioneered the study of the economics of crime.

Prevention of the riots in the near future might simply be to show that many of those who rioted had been caught. Therefore the belief that criminal acts in a riot would go unpunished is a false one. Beyond this, there might some minor changes. First, by more rapidly escalating the intensity of Police action in an area and nationally. Second, by instituting temporary powers of arrest in, or near, riot areas for those covering their faces. Third, if riots are in the summer, for helicopters to spray water to simulate a heavy downpour. The water might also contain a harmless dye visible under ultraviolet light (that can be removed with soap and water) to identify those who duck into side streets.

The ideas are minor. They will not quell a serious political riot – but the more serious riots of the 1980s in Brixton & Toxteth were also stopped by the rain. These are superficial “shopping riots“*. They are only a reflection of a breakdown in society insofar as there are large sections of society who lack the moral sense to respect property and other people even when there appears to be no possibility of being caught for breaking the law. The rule of law needs to be respected by vast majority of people for the vast majority of the time for civil society to exist. Otherwise, the peace can be maintained only by draconian laws and thuggish law enforcement. In such authoritarian societies the civil peace is maintained only by fear of arbitrary arrest and restraint of peaceful activities.

*This is not an endorsement of David Starkey’s other comments on the subject.

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