These are some short thoughts on the last few days rioting. All is preliminary, I have no partisan points to score tonight. Partly because nothing is more annoying than the assorted commentariat realising that these riots reinforce exactly what they thought in the first place. Partly because Bethnal Green Road is twenty meters from my front door and I’m a little scared someone will smash in my lounge window as I write this. I feel like Laurie Penny.
Policing tends to work through consent. You do as the police ask because it is usually wise to. You don’t break laws because it is rarely a good idea to break laws. You consent to be policed. It seems that a sizeable minority don’t consent to be policed, until now they have allowed themselves to be policed because they feared the consequences of not.
Where you consent to be policed there are multiple equilibria, from petty law breaking like shoplifting to rioting against police brutality. You break the law despite fearing the police and the consequences. This can be down to desperation or frustration, but you remain committed to the idea of a police force enforcing the law, even if you hope they don’t catch you.
But, when people only accept policing because they fear otherwise there are only two equilibria. The first is peace, you don’t break the law because you fear what will happen if you do. The second is war, once you have broken the law and have gotten away with it then there is nothing left to restrain you. You break the law because you no longer fear the law.
The character of the rioting reinforces my point. People aren’t scared of being caught, many are not even covering their faces. People aren’t making a political point, they are looting and destroying because consumer electronics are nice to own and destroying with gay abandon can be a lot of fun when you don’t think you’ll have to face the consequences.
I hope I am wrong, because if I am not then it seems a restrained police presence and operation will not be enough to return those that don’t consent to be policed to their original equilibria. We will continue to see mayhem on our streets and other crime will remain elevated long after these riots have fizzled out. The only thing that will restore the old peaceful equilibria is an operation to scare the kids who are rioting into submission. Only after that can people be convinced that they should stop being scared and start consenting to be policed.
If I’m right, which I hope I am not, then London and the rest of the UK may have passed a dangerous threshold from which they is no easy way back.