What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”? Do you visualise a dissatisfied couple purchasing items they can scarce afford in an attempt to appear as though they are of the same status as their neighbours? Do you sneer at the thought of the type of person who seems to ever want what their neighbour has, never satisfied with their own possessions?
The recent riots in London have divided people along two key lines of argument: those who think that inequality of opportunity has left the youth dissatisfied versus those that argue we’re raising a generation of morally bankrupt individuals; kids lacking in scruples because they have grown up in homes where parents are unable to properly discipline them for various reasons including Government regulation; inadequately supervised because their single parent has to work all hours of the day to make ends meet; council estates where it’s cool to be “bad”, and so on and so forth.
I think there’s a lot of water in the former argument, that of inequality. I recall a certain example from my Development Economics lessons in university; I don’t know who to attribute this to because I honestly don’t remember. The example went something like this. Imagine you’re stuck in a traffic jam on a dual carriageway or any other two lane road; you’re tired and exasperated of waiting when you see the other lane begin to move. Initially, you’re happy because if that lane has started moving then soon yours will too. However, to your chagrin your lane stays put well after the other lane has achieved a steady flow. So what do you do? You try to cut into the other lane by any means possible. If they're moving, you feel entitled to also start moving, it’s not fair otherwise. You can’t see the obstacles that have been circumvented to clear up the bottle neck in their lane but for you, that is beside the point.
Think of the lane with moving traffic as the rich in society and the lane that is not moving as the poor. The poor see the rich getting richer but for themselves, they see no way out. A poor education locks many out of lucrative professions; the “wrong” social networks can mean that whilst a well-connected person merely needs to make a few phone calls to secure an internship others don’t even know where to start with regards to securing professional internships. So what do you do? You want the same things that everyone else seems to have: the iPhones and Blackberries, the MacBook Pros and Ralph Lauren sweaters. You turn to crime or to the credit card. I would not recommend credit card fuelled consumerism but that is the solution some choose. Nor would I recommend crime obviously. So there has to be a third path.
The majority of those that were rioting probably can’t get approval for a credit card; they are young without a credit record or even a steady job. It is so easy to think of them as thugs without scruples and if I had been directly affected I probably would be saying exactly that. However, from the perspective of an outsider looking in, all I can say with certainty is that there is something very wrong when large mobs think it is okay for them to destroy and loot small shops or any shops.
The factors underlying each person’s motivations are probably mixed, complex even. Bar the odd kleptomaniac and the mentally unstable, nobody that has something to lose would risk it by stealing and bashing shop windows. We consequently need to start from that point: eliminating the existence of a large class of people that feel they have nothing to lose, that they have no hope.