For several days in London, hoodlums have been razing cars, breaking windows, robbing stores, and threatening the safety of passers-by. These riots are on a scale unseen in modern England. The itinerant, often hooded lawbreakers have made good use of social media in efforts to evade police and strike in poorly policed neighborhoods. As street violence elsewhere in Europe has become more frequent in the midst of economic crises, it is crucial to properly understand the nature of the riots.
Unfortunately, voices on the left have already seized the opportunity to blame fiscal conservative Tea Partiers for the irresponsible and lawless action of the London rioters. Two sociologist professors, writing for the New York Times, argue that the riots are a natural result of austere economic policies advocated by the Tea Party in America:
“The American right today is obsessed with cutting government spending. In many ways, Mr. Cameron’s austerity program is the Tea Party’s dream come true. But Britain is now grappling with the consequences of those cuts, which have led to the neglect and exclusion of many vulnerable, disaffected young people who are acting out violently and irresponsibly — driven by rage rather than an explicit political agenda.”
Many of the rioters would apparently agree. A few were caught on record voicing their hope that the riots would continue in order to show “the rich people and those with businesses” that “we can do what we want!” Their stated goal: “We’re redistributing the wealth.” What’s needed: more government welfare programs. The social welfare policies that have driven many Western countries to the verge of economic collapse have obviously failed to achieve social equality. Ironically, some of the rioters are themselves “rich people”; indicating that the only actual poverty at the source of the riots is moral in nature, not a material.
Public lawlessness inspired by dissatisfaction, financial hardship, or perceived unfairness is nothing new. But such violence is just as deadly to the peace and tranquility of society as the invading army of a foreign enemy. This realization by America’s Founding Fathers over two centuries ago was one of the primary reasons why a Constitutional Convention was called at Philadelphia in 1787.
Several months earlier, Daniel Shays had led hundreds of Massachusetts farmers in protests against taxes and in favor of paper money in order to lessen their own financial hardships. But the protestors, some of them Revolutionary War veterans, became riotous as crowds began burning barns and seizing property in an effort to intimidate Massachusetts law makers. The “disorderly, riotous, and seditious persons” were finally suppressed by an ad hoc military force, but the rebellion painfully revealed the inadequacy of the national government under the Articles of Confederation. It was clear that the future of America was in jeopardy. Writing to Henry Lee in 1786, George Washington summed up the feelings of many Americans on the subject: “Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.”
Despite the adoption of a new Constitution enabling the U.S. government to “insure domestic Tranquility” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty”, the American Founders recognized that peace could not be kept nor property protected without morality and virtue. For John Adams, it seemed clear that “it is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.” For Thomas Jefferson, it was equally apparent that “without virtue, happiness cannot be.”
The cause of the present disorder in London is not financial hardship; rather it is the irresponsible actions of immoral citizens of which welfare dependency is both a cause and a symptom. Leftist sociologists, committed secularists, and elected officials must recognize that the breakdown of public virtue goes deeper than mere economics. This reality has dawned on Prime Minister Cameron who has rightly noted that the London riots reveal a “moral collapse” in British society.
Law enforcement has a necessary role to play in enforcing public order and protecting private property. But contrary to the suggestion of learned leftists writing in the New York Times, the solution to broken windows and battered pedestrians is not more welfare. It is a more virtuous citizenry responsible for their own actions.
With the apparent benefits of public virtue now in mind, we should recognize demands for separation of morality and law as a threat to constitutional government. Those who prohibit public displays of the Ten Commandments, for example, are partly responsible for the current moral vacuum. As John Adams could have easily predicted, Londoners could use a little more “Thou shalt not steal” and a little less false hope in government programs.