A once civil and orderly England was torn apart by rioting and looting last week — at first by mostly minority youths, but eventually by young Brits in general. This summer, a number of American cities have witnessed so-called “flash mobs” — mostly African-American youths who swarm at prearranged times to loot stores or randomly attack those of other races and classes. The mayhem has reignited an old debate in the West: Are such criminally minded young Americans and Britons turning to violence in protest over inequality, poverty, and bleak opportunities?
The Left often blames cutbacks in the tottering welfare state and high unemployment. In this view, the havoc and mayhem visited upon us are a wake-up call in an age of insolvency: Do not cut entitlements or we will reap the whirlwind. Instead, tax the affluent and redistribute more of their earnings to those who have been unfairly deprived.
The Right counters that the problem is not too few state subsidies, but far too many. The growing — and now unsustainable — dole of the last half-century has eroded self-reliance and personal initiative. The logical result is a dependent underclass that spans generations and becomes ever unhappier and more unsatisfied the more it is given from others. The rioters were not fighting for survival. Today’s looters have plenty to eat. That is why they target sneaker and electronics stores — to enjoy the perks of life they either cannot or will not work for.
We might at least agree on a few facts behind the violence. First, much of the furor is because poverty is now seen as a relative, not an absolute, condition. Per capita GDP is $47,000 in the U.S. and $35,000 in Britain. In contrast, those rioting in impoverished Syria (where per capita GDP is about $5,000) or Egypt (about $6,000) worry about going to bed hungry or being shot for expressing their views — not about wanting a new BlackBerry or a pair of Nikes. Inequality, not Tiny Tim–like poverty, is the new Western looter’s complaint.
So when President Obama lectures us about fat cats with corporate jets, he doesn’t mean that wealthy people’s greed prevents the lower classes from flying on affordable commercial jets — only that a chosen few in luxury aircraft, like himself, reach their destinations a little more quickly and easily. The lament today is not having what someone richer has — instead of lacking elemental shelter, food, or electricity. The problem is not that the bath water in Philadelphia is not as hot as in Martha’s Vineyard, but that the conditions under which it is delivered are, in comparison, far more basic and ordinary.
Second, the wealthy have not set an example of hard work and self-discipline leading to well-deserved success and the good life. Recently, a drunken, affluent young prospect for the U.S. ski team urinated on a sleeping eleven-year-old during a transcontinental flight. And the more the psychodramas of drones like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, or some members of the British royal family, become headline news, the more we see boredom and corruption among the pampered elite. The behavior of John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or Arnold Schwarzenegger does not teach us that good habits on the part of elite public figures follow from well-deserved riches and acclaim — but rather that with today’s wealth and power often comes license and decadence.
Third, Communism may be dead, but Marxist-inspired materialism still measures the good life only by equal access to “things.” We can argue whether those who loot a computer store are spoiled or oppressed. But even a person in faded jeans and a worn T-shirt can find all sorts of spiritual enrichment at no cost in either a museum or a good book. Have we forgotten that in our affluent postmodern society, being poor is often an impoverishment of the mind, and not necessarily the result of a cruel physical world?
Finally, there is far too much emphasis on government as the doting, problem-solving parent. What made Western civilization rich and liberal was not just free-market capitalism and well-founded constitutional government, but the role of family, community, and church in reminding the emancipated individual in an affluent society that he should not always do what he is legally permitted to. Destroy these bridles, ridicule the old shame culture of the past, and we end up with unchecked appetites — as we are now witnessing from smoldering London to the flash mobs of Wisconsin.
Our high-tech angry youths are deprived not just because their elders put at risk their future subsidies, but also because they were not taught what real wealth is — and where and how it is obtained and should be used.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.