Looting, the Riots, Families and the Role of the State
I described the events last week as a "game changer". I think they are as they highlight the substantial numbers of people who basically don't feel a personal commitment to following the rules of society and are willing to simply fight their own corner.
There seems to be a dispute between those who argue that it is a question of poverty and those who argue it is a question of discipline and law and order.
The problem is that actually it is both. Given a static situation in terms of discipline if there is greater poverty then there will be more people tempted to break the law. At the same time poverty in itself does not require that people don't follow the law.
Hence we need to look at both aspects and not pretend that either aspect doesn't matter.
The high levels of youth unemployment we see today are a problem. What the statistics have concealed, however, is that there have been growing numbers of people who are "economically inactive".
The jolt to the economy caused by the mistakes of the past which resulted in the credit crunch and recession has increased unemployment. What is behind this, however, is a more general increase in the numbers of economically inactive people.
Technology is the driver for much of this. Let us ignore for the moment the limits on availability of resources which will be constraining economic activity further in the future. There is actually a limit as to what each individual can consume and consuming more does not necessarily improve the quality of life. However, technological changes have made it possible to produce goods and to some extent services with far fewer people.
Even in supermarkets there is now a personal checkout system which weighs the goods that people buy so that there is no need for someone to operate a cash register.
My own view is that we need to look carefully about how to create more jobs. For example the quality of service on buses was historically better with a conductor. However, that increases the cost of the service. On the other hand having conductors who otherwise would be unemployed is a benefit for society. It makes an argument that it is worth the state agreeing to use some of the state's savings in terms of lower costs to provide a partial subsidy to the costs of providing conductors.
The wider question of quality of life for society as a whole has to be given a greater importance. We can have a society which has a small number of people working very hard and a large number of people on benefits. On the other hand we could try to share out the workload to have a better quality of life. I take the view that the latter is required. It would also be good to look at having a mechanism to ensure that organisations that provide services to the state also have some people in employment from the long term unemployed. Similarly this had wider benefits. Obviously we need to avoid doing anything that undermines international competitiveness. However, we need a greater focus on ensuring that people have opportunities to participate in society. This should apply to everyone not only those who have broken the law.
In a similar manner bringing back schemes like the Community Programme is something that does offer a mechanism of creating a more positive society rather than one of pure dependency. Our tax and benefits system should also encourage part time working. At the moment many part time workers are prevented from claiming in work benefits because they don't work enough (24 or 16) hours a week. It is far better for society where possible to have two people in work rather than one in work and one on benefits.
Doing all of the above, however, would not deal with the issue of the looting. That in part is because of the development of a subculture which has no commitment to the rule of law. This also goes hand-in-hand with a reduction in social capital.
A certain concentration on the existence of gangs and their role in the looting has occurred recently. What this ignores is that gangs are the inevitable consequence of the decay in the rule of law. There is always a balance between the rule of law and the rule of person. The gang acts as a group which has a tribal loyalty to the gang and it is controlled by the gang leader. This model is quite common. Some countries maintain this model as the underlying political structure (eg tribal areas). Other countries, however, have strengthened the rule of law and reduced the rule of person. This has moved away from a feudal structure towards what most people are used to in the UK.
Gangs develop where the rule of law has weakened. If a teenager feels under threat from other teenagers at school because of potential violence on the bus (which has no conductor) then that teenager can look for support from the gang. What the gang offers the teenager is the protection of a threat of retaliation from the gang against anyone who threatens the teenager. The weaker the discipline in a school and after school on the bus the stronger the development of a gang structure. Alternatively if the teachers provide the protection to the school children then there is less of a pressure on children to join gangs.
It gets worse when the gangs offer an alternative career path to low paid jobs or unemployment. We have seen in many cities how you then have disputes between gangs. The shootings which are normally called turf wars are more often retaliatory attacks, debt collection, rows or situations where someone has been shot in error as a bystander.
The question then is how to encourage people to develop a respect for the rule of law and be willing to hold back on their own wishes because of conflicts with others.
This is the area in which the intervention of the state has undermined families. Babies have no understanding of the rule of law. The first key development psychologically is that of attachment. At the moment the actions of the state create many children with attachment disorder, but the unaccountable nature of the child protection system conceals this.
As children grow older they need to learn to take into account the desires of others. That starts out with the rule of person in the home. Their parents are the authority figures who are "in charge" and they need to learn from their parents about how to behave. They also learn from being in school and at play.
There does need to be some constraint on the way parents and teachers deal with children. However, the greater the constraint then the more that parents and teachers are undermined as authority figures. At the same time this allows children to learn that they don't have to do what others say. This means that the habit of considering the response of others to their actions (and particularly the response of the rule of law) is weakened.
It is, therefore, important for society that the state intervention in families that undermines parents is kept to a minimum. The question is how to determine that minimum. It is easy to identify situations which intervention is appropriate. Peter Connolly's case (Baby P) is clearly one in which intervention was necessary.
It is important, however, to clarify the situation in respect of how parents are allowed to discipline their children. There are family workers who argue that parents should not shout at their children or say no. I think that these family workers should not do this.
Susan Pope's case
reported in the Daily Mail was a good example of a damaging intervention.
I have sadly seen lots of cases where the state has intervened in a family to undermine the parent (or parents) and done damage as a result.
If we consider the high proportion of children who were arrested during the looting who were in care we can see that state parenting is not of a high quality. Whereas I agree that if intervention is warranted it should be done at an early stage rather than a later one, firstly we need to ensure that intervention is not damaging.
Social Workers tend to be left to their own devices when dealing with families. This gives them too much power. There needs to be much clearer guidelines as to when intervention is appropriate and what intervention is appropriate.
Some children need a firmer approach to discipline than others. Applying, therefore, the same standards to everyone results in some children being less willing to adjust their behaviour than others. The approach needed has to be identified on an individual basis and is best done by the parent.
The Conservatives have picked upon the issue of marriage as being somewhere in this. This again is an over simplification. It is obviously better for children for their parents to both remain in their lives and ideally together. However, it is not the case necessarily that having more people being formally married will achieve this. There are situations in which a single parent creates a better environment for children than other situations where the parents are together. Furthermore a small financial benefit to marriage as opposed to couples living together will not have a massive impact on people's decisions.
There is a wider question as to whether it is right to have a system that financially encourages couples to separate. England is known as the divorce capital of the world because it often provides a large financial return to the applicant for divorce. A review of family law needs to look as to whether this is of a social benefit.
I did raise the issue of the undermining of parental authority with the Prime Minister last week. His response was positive. However, this is an area where the details are very important and I am unsure that people are managing to think outside the tramlines of conventional wisdom.