Thursday, August 11, 2011

Amidst all the commentary about the recent rioting in Britain, one simple fact has been consistently ignored: for all their scale, the rioters represent a tiny minority of British "young people", or even "lower-class British young people". (Most of the rest, no doubt, are cowering at home with everyone else.) Those who interpret the unrest as proof of the foolish callousness of the government's austerity measures, or of the moral corruption of the welfare state, or of the decline of British culture, are therefore carelessly extrapolating from a few hoodlums to an entire generation of Britons.

Max Boot is more on target: whatever the "root causes" of the rioters' violent impulses--of which the most significant is no doubt the inevitable, inherent predilection of a certain fraction of humanity for mayhem--the direct cause of the riots has been simple opportunity, provided by negligent policing. We can say this with considerable confidence because the pattern unfolding in Britain--years of gradually increasing laxity in law enforcement, culminating in rampant lawlessness--is a near-perfect replica of the history of America during the latter half of the twentieth century.

From the mid-1960s through the early 1990s, riots in large American cities were frequent and devastating, and crime was rampant. Not only had huge swaths of every large city been turned into de facto "no go" zones, where criminals ruled and the police were effectively absent (allowing riots such as the LA riot of 1992 to spin out of control unimpeded), but even outside those areas, crime--including violent crime--was simply considered a normal element of city life. (I recall one New Yorker recounting to me his tale of being mugged in the middle of a Macy's department store.)

And then, following a massive crackdown on criminality--literally millions incarcerated, a flood of newly stringent laws, law enforcement rules and sentencing guidelines, and a revolution in sophisticated policing techniques--crime rates and criminal unrest finally peaked in the early 1990s, beginning a spectacular decline that has continued to this day. Most young urban Americans these days (outside a few still-dismal spots such as Detroit and Washington, DC) see the chaos in places like London and Paris and simply shake their heads, unaware that until a couple of decades ago, the head-shaking was all going in the other direction.

Note that the supposed "root causes" of crime--either an "underclass" culture of poverty, broken families, and low education and employment levels, or cuts in government social assistance and insufficient availability of social services, depending on whom you ask--have persisted at roughly the same (or worse) levels right through the period of steeply dropping crime rates. Law enforcement, on the other hand, has changed dramatically, and it's hard not to give it significant credit for the decline (though some have tried mightily--it seems that lawlessness, like terrorism, is fertile ground for political posturing). I predict that if the British simply try a dose of the American remedy--as it has been suggested they might do--they will experience the same "miraculous" cure.