London Riots and the Confucian Abyss

Loss of individual responsibility spurs societal collapse.

Our Confucian Cycle series expanded on Confucius' observation that human greed increases the cost of government over time.  Bureaucrats, regulators, lawyers, unions, and other special interests labor to increase their income at public expense.  When taxes and regulation get too expensive for society to support all the government overhead, the society collapses.

Western welfare states are founded on the conviction that society has a moral imperative to provide health care, housing, food. clothing, and other necessities to everyone and that capitalism generates enough money to pay for it all.  The facts and figures released during the recent fights over the American debt limit made it clear that moral arguments are irrelevant - regardless of morality, no Western economy can afford its welfare state.

Without "entitlement reform," the economies of North America and Europe will collapse.  Although it might be the "right thing to do," we simply can't afford public housing, free nursing homes, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, disability payments, and the whole panoply of government programs.  Unless our spending priorities change, we're headed for collapse due to fatal flaws in how Western societies manage resources.

Not One Flaw, But Two

The recent London riots have made it clear that our societies are facing not just one fatal flaw, but two.

Society can't survive unless, in the long term, every resident of the country produces more value than he or she costs society.  Some government employees produce actual value, but although many regulatory agencies produced value in the past, most have passed the point of diminishing returns and destroy value instead.

Prisoners in jail consume social value.  Retired people who don't work expect to continue consuming food, clothing, and housing just as welfare recipients consume.  Insofar as they're supported by the government, they too consume social value, but at least they contributed value when they were young and working.  Welfare recipients can't even say that.

When the riots broke out, liberals accused the conservative government of being so stingy that the rioters felt they weren't getting enough.  In actual fact the proposed cuts were just that: they hadn't even been put in place yet.  The Wall Street Journal explained on Aug. 31, p A13:

The cause was not injustice; this was not a revolt of the downtrodden masses, breaking into stores looking for food. The causes were greed, selfishness, a respect and even lust for violence, and a lack of moral grounding.

The problem isn't that welfare recipients get too little, the problem is that so many feel free to take out without putting anything in.

The British welfare system was put in place after WW II; the American system got its modern form with LBJ's "Great Society."  Both suffered a fatal flaw.

As Newsweek put it in 1993, “We gradually moved from an era in which people did not want to use government for anything to today when people use government for almost everything.”  The Daily Telegraph explained how Britain followed the same road:

The welfare state, as conceived by the great social reformer Sir William Beveridge and implemented by the Attlee government after the Second World War, was a sublime idea. It rescued millions of British citizens from the degradation of poverty and lifted the fear of illness. It guaranteed employment or, if jobs were not available, universal benefits. It offered security in old age.

Welfare advocates assumed that even though penalties for idleness and failure were removed, people would work as hard, be as responsible, and look after their families as well as when survival depended on their efforts.  Reformers assumed that tax revenue wouldn't fall because the welfare system wouldn't reduce individual work incentives enough to stop people from working.  Welfare costs would remain small because most people would work if they could.

This was a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature and the past half-century has shown it to be disastrously wrong in every possible way.  The cash costs of welfare society aren't the worst effect - spending can be cut, albeit with huge pain.  The London riots drove home the point that we've raised several generations who have no expectation of ever working, of ever contributing anything to society of any value, and no notion that perhaps they ought to.

"A population thinks (because it has often been told so by intellectuals and the political class) that it is entitled to a high standard of consumption, irrespective of its personal efforts; and therefore it regards the fact that it does not receive that high standard, by comparison with the rest of society, as a sign of injustice." Much of what they have is provided by others, but they are not grateful: dependency doesn't encourage gratitude but resentment.

It's easier to convince people that they're entitled to whatever they want than to convince them that they must work to earn what they want, particularly if they can have what they want without working.  Supporting these people cost more than we can afford and their riotous behavior adds even more to the costs of keeping them alive and breeding.

Peter Pan Speaks

"This has all happened before and it will all happen again" quoth Peter Pan.  This isn't the first time welfare brought down a great civilization.  Tieman Dipple's book, the New Legacy, summarizes Edward Gibbon's explanation for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire:

  1. The sanctity and dignity of the home were undermined.
  2. Taxation became higher and higher, with public money being spent for free bread and circuses for the people.
  3. There was a mad craze for pleasure and violence, and sports became more exciting, brutal, and immoral as people grew increasingly desensitized.
  4. Armaments were built when the real enemy was the decay of individual responsibility.  [emphasis added]
  5. Religion degenerated into mere form and lost its touch with life and no longer had the power to guide people in spiritual directions.

Those who ignore the lessons of history are compelled to repeat them.  We ignore the lessons of Rome's decline at our peril.  Let's discuss them in order.

Families in North America and in Europe are in decline.  Divorce rates are high.  More and more kids live in single-parent homes or in foster care.  In the Telegraph, Allison Pearson asked, "Where are the parents?  The adults are afraid and the children, emboldened by adult timidity, are fearless."  There are many reasons why Western families can no longer constrain young people or teach them responsibility, but that's a subject for another article.

Tax rates have been dealt with adequately elsewhere.  When there aren't enough incentives to work, entrepreneurs won't put in the absurd amounts of work needed to found new businesses and create jobs.  Ordinary people stop working and go on the dole.  When too many incentives favor taking out over putting in, society collapses.

Pleasure and violence have always been popular.  Games such as football, soccer, rugby, and hockey don't seem to be getting much more violent, but fan riots before, during, and after games are becoming more common and more intense, particularly in Britain.

Individual responsibility has been in decline for a long time, both in the US and in Europe.  The Wall Street Journal explained that the rioters have had years of experience not being punished by the British judicial system just as American inner city kids have nothing to fear from juvenile courts.  Many rioters are so irresponsible and so ill-educated that they're unemployable given the high British minimum wage and other government-mandated costs.  Employers hire young workers from other European countries even though Britain suffers from high youth unemployment just as American employers hire hard-working illegals instead of American layabouts.

Religious observation has been in decline in America and in Europe for decades.  All major religions with the exception of Islam teach their adherents to try to get along peacefully with other people, whether coreligionist or not.  The American tradition of behaving well because God saw and noted everything has been in decline for years.  The positive influence of religion on behavior is sadly missed.

Lest you think the London riots can't happen here, ponder the fact that Philadelphia has been locked down after a series of youth riots.  The weakening of the core ideas that held society together may mean that we'll collapse before our politicians are able to spend us into oblivion.

Throw Away the Key?

British citizens are calling for the rioters to be given long sentences, but the prison system is already overcrowded and new facilities would cost a great deal.  Britain simply can't afford to lock up all the rioters.

What to do, then?

The goal of the corrections system is to persuade people, "Don't do that!"  The British system has been based on non-punishment for so long that it doesn't give rioters enough reason not to riot.

The Singapore system of flogging for minor and medium-level offenses has much to recommend it.  It's cheap, doesn't cost the miscreant his or her job, doesn't give the offender an opportunity to learn more about criminality from other offenders while in jail, and it's unpleasant enough to discourage repeaters.  When an American was flogged for spray-painting cars, the April 1994 Independent explained why most Americans thought this was OK:

The fact is that Americans no longer care so deeply about the root causes of crimes or the social deprivation of the people who commit them. They are at war against crime and disorder on all fronts, at home and abroad...  [emphasis added]

With 2.7 million citizens, Singapore had 58 murders and 80 rapes last year, compared with 1,058 murders and 1,781 rapes in Los Angeles' population of 8 million.  [ed note - given their smaller population, Singapore's 58 murders are equivalent to Los Angeles having 171 murders.  Los Angeles' murder rate per person is 6 times Singapore's murder rate.]

This British article was written nearly 20 years before the London riots.  At that time, British saw America as the land of crime and thought it would never appear on their shores.  Most law-abiding Englishmen have now joined the American "war against crime."

Caning seems to work for Singapore, particularly for crimes against public order.  Would flogging work in London?  What about giving each looter, say, two stiff whacks, with the promise of 4 whacks next time, 8 after that, and only then jail?

Gibbon was correct in identifying the destruction of Roman families as a cause of the fall of Rome.  We'll explore that idea in a forthcoming article.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Those five bullet points on what doomed the Romans is *very* sobering. There's almost no reason to even surround them with commentary. Just post those and clear-thinking Americans will gulp.

August 23, 2011 11:12 AM

Atlas Shrugged would be proud of this article. What Ayn Rand wrote about in her epic novel is coming to fruition before our very eyes. The welfare, the crony capitalism, the moochers, etc. are all here and in force. Human nature being what it is will take anything free and in time, human nature being what it is, the producers will cease to produce and everything will implode.

Can we turn it around? Yes but doubtful. Reason: politicians will not enact the repeal of destructive laws to our society. Why not? They are not immune to human nature, they also want something for nothing. So until the public awakens and puts into office people with conservative, fiscal values like a Chris Christie, a Ron Paul, or anyone else that the media says is a kook in regard to fiscal conservatism we will slide into oblivion as did Rome.

The idea of caning would have my full support. When there are no consequences what will stop someone from looting? from rape? from assault? I think starting out with two is too few but even that would be better than the juvenile court system that we have today. It could be compared to putting your hand over an open flame and leaving it there long enough to get burned. If they knew that they were going to get swift and sure punishment that would hurt and be embarrassing most would stop at the first caning. The totally incorrigible would end up in jail and while they are in jail they should be forced to work for their meals, food, medicine, and clothing. No free rides.

August 23, 2011 11:37 AM

Helping people through the govt is NEVER moral and never "the right thing to do".

1) Taking welfare is immoral because the money was stolen from someone else.
2) Welfare destroys the person taking it because it undermines their mental/emotional ability for initiative and survival.
3) Welfare inflates the power of the govt, corrupting it, leading to a loss of personal freedom as it imposes it's will and power on its citizens.
4) Having established itself as the authority on matters of peoples lives, the govt moves on to imposing it's will on other nations.

Big Govt = small citizens

August 23, 2011 5:00 PM


Well said.


August 23, 2011 5:50 PM
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