'When I was a student, I took a course in the sociology of deviance. After weeks reviewing theories about the causes of law-breaking, the lecturer announced that we were asking the wrong question. "The real question," he said, "is not why some break the law. It is why we don't all break the law." Following last week's riots in Britain, politicians and commentators have similarly been asking the wrong question. What caused thousands of (mainly) young males to torch buildings where they live, loot local shops and attack fellow citizens is a no-brainer. Kicking against authority is exciting. Being in the thick of the action when the television cameras are rolling makes you feel important. And the chance to grab some designer clothing and a widescreen plasma TV is too good to pass up. Yet many people did not riot, and they are the interesting ones. Why didn't everyone cash in on the anarchy? The answer lies in external and internal constraints.'
So writes Peter Saunders, an honorary senior fellow in the social foundations program at the Centre for Independent Studies, a conservative 'think tank' in Australia, in an op-ed piece in 'The Australian' newspaper concerning the causes of the riots in England last week. There are, no doubt, plenty of things wrong with English society which have contributed to the recent descent into anarchy in some parts of her great cities - poverty, materialism, the anonymity and disconnectedness of urban life, fatherless sons and ethnic tensions with the police have all been cited by the pundits. Among those contributing factors we should not neglect what the recent parliamentary expenses scandal revealed about the venality of many of the British governing class; a society which is rotten at the top should perhaps not be surprised to find it cannot command the allegiance of those at the bottom.
But I think Saunders has identified the heart of the matter - which is not economic or racial or sociological but moral, and therefore ultimately religious, namely the loss of external and internal constraints, the outer and inner laws if you like, which restrain people from committing sinful and criminal acts, even when they think they'll probably get away with it (and if you think you're above the need for such constraints, when was the last time you exceeded the speed limit when no police were likely to be about?). Beginning in the 1960s, there has been a 'cultural revolution' in English society which, like most revolutions, has only made conditions for 'ordinary people' worse, in this case by attacking and destroying the previously accepted fundamental assumption that, in as much as we are fallen and sinful creatures, we need to be bound by external and internal constraints for the sake of the preservation and flourishing of our common life. If not for these constraints, the old Adam in all of us would be out there rioting and looting with the worst of them.