The real problem in Britain…and elsewhere

Bad as the riots in Britain are, what’s most worrisome is the apparent lack of any ideas in the British establishment that could actually make such riots less likely in the future. The Tories seem vacuous, and Labour says, as ever, “The same! But more!”

The Blair years saw lots of trumpeting of “the stakeholder society,” but the proliferation of government benefits and the swelling ranks of immigrants and native-born Britons who simply cash their government checks and opt out of civil life made the state the only stakeholder that counted, with intermediate organizations shrinking dramatically (like the suicidal Church of England). Of course, for people to have an actual stake, they need actual property that they’ve earned and wish to maintain or even expand. A lumpen disdain for work combined with the old aristo contempt for being “in trade” have made the generation of wealth in Britain slightly suspicious. And they’ve now reached Mrs. Thatcher‘s famous point at which there’s no one else’s money left to spend.

The answer that American conservatives propose is, more or less, eighteenth-century Anglo-Scottish liberalism which is the basis of the American constitutional order and the starting point of things like Austrian economics.

The problem is that it is not at all clear that these ideas have much of a natural constituency outside of the English-speaking world nor, increasingly, within it. They are counter-intuitive, do not satisfy the passions, and can only really work when based on certain preconditions—an understanding of law as an independent, consistent means for neutrally arbitrating disputes, the idea that property must be protected, etc. Given the state of modern technology, the sole alternative is some flavor of statism (from social democracy to fascism to communism), unless your society fails comprehensively and you descend into the kind of anarchy that pockmarks the Third World.

The British have deliberately tailored much of their criminal law and social institutions away from these old understandings in the name of benevolence and egalitarianism, and in doing so have, among other things, robbed now-dependent classes of any chance of a meaningful existence. The thinking was surely that “freedom from want” would inspire a virtual Athenian agora of vibrant culture and people. The deliberate ignoring of flawed human nature, much less the fact that most people tell the story of their lives by what they accomplish and what they fail at, have left whole swaths of their subjects (for they’re no longer citizens in any meaningful sense) adrift in sybaritic anhedonia, enslaved to their degrading vices, and incapable of conceiving of life as a meaningful pursuit.

To be sure, gross and painful poverty is not a new thing—indeed, it was the lot of most city dwellers for the last few hundred years, until quite recently. Much of nineteenth-century London was horrible beyond its worst slums of today. What helped those people gain a sense of meaning in their lives? For many, it was John Wesley’s brand of low-church, evangelical Christianity. Alas for today’s Britain, the same people who shaped its society into its current dysfunction have also done an excellent job in convincing its populace that religion is either a few trivial rituals for which one goes into a church, or nonsense.

Would it be possible to re-moralize Britain to the levels of, say, the 1950s or 1960s? In theory, yes. But in practice, is there much chance of it? It doesn’t seem likely, and the rooting out of Christianity in the country has intentionally discarded the most useful tool for doing so. Of course, Britain could spontaneously re-moralize under the auspices of Islam à la Robert Ferrigno’s dystopian novels of the Islamic States of America, but that is improbable as well.

What’s likely? One hates to say it, but while there’s famously a lot of ruin in a nation, there’s not an infinite amount, and the current riots—and worse, the British establishment’s paralysis and cluelessness in their face—seem to betoken Britain’s reaching the end of their surplus “ruin.” Could the nation that built the modern world remake itself? One suspects and wishes so, but around then, one realizes that he’s whistling and passing a graveyard…