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It's the Austerity, Stupid

[Guest post by Simon van Zuylen-Wood]

Yesterday David Cameron said that Britain was in the midst of a “slow-motion moral collapse,” while denying that his country’s austerity program was at fault for last week’s riots. Cameron is right that the early media hypothesis that the riots were in part anti-austerity protests, as in Greece, was largely incorrect. The London riots were not political in nature. No chanting youth, linked arms, or raised banners. But the circumstances were: If the government hadn’t cut so many social services for young people, they literally wouldn’t have been on the streets.

The prime culprit in the riots is youth boredom and anomie that have been exacerbated by the austerity measures. Youth unemployment is higher now in Britain than it’s been in 20 years. And it’s summer, meaning kids aren’t in school, either. Admittedly, not many of last fall’s austerity cuts have been enacted yet—but the few that have taken effect fell largely on the shoulders of poor, urban youth. As Sion Simon writes in The Daily Beast:

Youth clubs have already closed, youth workers have been sacked, and programs that in previous years have occupied urban youngsters in the long summer break are not running. As a result, many young people have “nothing to do.”

Cameron’s parliament has also shuttered the billion pound Future Jobs Fund, which helps unemployed and underemployed youth find work, and has eliminated subsidies often used for university tuition. Yet the Prime Minister blithely assures us that radical spending cuts had nothing to do with the riots. There is a sense, among conservatives in England, nicely captured by Polly Toynbee in The Guardian, that anything but the government is to blame: “The small-staters blame the collapse of moral values, school indiscipline and feral beasts without fathers or consciences, as if removing government allows morality to flourish.”

At least when Irving Kristol railed against America’s nihilistic “crisis of values” in the midst of urban and campus unrest in the mid-1960s, he understood that providing even less guidance to those in trouble would only breed more nihilism.

Not only do people not quite know what to believe about private and public properties; they don’t know where to turn for answers …. The value-creating and value-sustaining institutions in American life have traditionally been the family, the church, and the school. Events of the past decades have deprived these institutions of their authority over morals (and even over manners)—without, however, providing alternative authorities.

Kristol was making the same broad point as Cameron—that kids today have run amok. And, to be sure, he wasn’t arguing that government was the place to look for such guidance. But he also suggested that if the youth had lost their morals, they needed assistance finding them. By denying that the state has a responsibility to do that, Cameron is contributing to the problem.