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The Forum > Article Comments > The biological difference between riots and revolution > Comments

The biological difference between riots and revolution : Comments

By Hendrik Gommer, published 22/8/2011

How can neurojurisprudence explain recent social upheavals?

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With all respect to Professor Gommer, I can’t agree. In fact, I think his got his argument 100% backwards.
The London rioters are not, in any sense of the word, ‘disenfranchised.’ They have a vote, guaranteed food, housing and medical care, educational opportunities, and social amenities which many mid-tier nations would consider luxuries. It’s more than a bit insulting to people living in Somalia, Iran, Tibet, Cuba or rural India to assert that they are ‘oppressed’ -- these riots weren’t about discrimination. The perpetrators did not steal flatscreen TV’s because they want ‘reciprocity’ from government. They aren’t anarchists, opposing the rule of law because it thwarts their legitimate aspirations.
It’s true that ‘the state is formed by an interaction of emotion, abstract thinking, and biological predispositions.‘ Professor Gommer might want to have a peek inside Matthew Ridley’s The Origin of Virtue: Human Instinct and the Evolution of Cooperation, a very sound and accessible summary of what’s known about how emotion and biology generate social behaviour. What we’ve seen in London is an almost canonical example of the Tragedy of the Commons. WIkipedia’s short definition is not bad: ‘The situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen.’
It’s rational, and in our own self-interest, to loot the corner shop ... but if and only if the penalty for doing so is small, or weakly enforced. Rather than suppressing the population, the London polity has made it clear that theft, violence short of rape and murder, and wanton destruction aren’t particularly serious offences, and WON’T be vigorously suppressed. Food, shelter, medicine, and a bit of pocket money are entitlements; there’s no reciprocity involved. And that’s the problem.
If Gommer’s hypothesis was right, the Great Depression would have generated continuous social unrest. Instead, it often engendered a strong sense of community and shared endeavour. Rational self-interest dictates respect and cooperation ... unless the state tolerates those who abuse the system.
Posted by donkeygod, Monday, 22 August 2011 8:41:05 PM
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Yes I tend to agree with donkeygod.

It's drawing a long bow to say that states evolve from human groups because states further the reproductive success of their members, since this ignores conflicts of interest between the state and its subjects.

The London riots were not an example of "anarchy" - no ruler. On the contrary, they are clearly an example of "archy" - they had rulers - the British government.

Clearly the state was failing to do the job which, in its own terms, is its quintessential function, but then the welfare state by its redistributive policies makes perfectly clear that it sees nothing wrong *in principle* with grabbing other people's property using violence or threats. The rioters were doing a bit of freelance welfare statism. According to the ethic of the welfare state, all the rioters would have to establish, in order to justify their actions, is that they were unequal.

As for the rioters being "disenfranchised", they weren't, for the reasons donkeygod mentions.

But besides, what about the role of the state in producing the economic disorder that supposedly disenfranchised them? What about the state's vicious addiction to inflationary finance? Its hocking future generations into debt? It's blithe disregard of other people's property rights and freedom? Its endless capital consumption, endless incompetent economic interventions, endless restrictions of every kind of productive activity, endless persecuting of employers as class enemies, endless leeching off businesses and employers, endless reverencing and rewarding of victim behaviour? And then ... surprise surprise ... there's a lot of unemployment! Well maybe if the welfare state wasn't spending so much time and resources criminalising employment, there'd be less "disenfranchisement"?

A better understanding of the state based on evolutionary psychology is this: people can either obtain wealth by work, entreprise and voluntary exchange - the economic means - or by forced taking, threatening, defrauding - the political means. The state is the organisation of the political means; it consists of a legal monopoly of acts it declares a crime for everyone else. It is an evolved device for making theft safe by making it legal.
Posted by Peter Hume, Monday, 22 August 2011 11:19:42 PM
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While it's obvious that ALL unemployed youth in Britain were rioting and looting, I haven't seen anything that declares that all those involved were all part of the same social group.

Then again, we didn't have social media during our own riots at Redfern and Macquarie Fields not so long ago.
Posted by wobbles, Tuesday, 23 August 2011 12:54:01 AM
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I'm sorry to read that there is so much disagreement about the word 'disenfranchised'. Until today I did not even know the word (I'm not a native speaker/writer), but the editor has put it in my text. My original text stated: 'Individuals feel society does not offer them much.' They féél that way, that does not mean it ís actually the case. So for the most part I agree on this point with Donkeygod. And of course I read Matt Ridley and although I do not agree with all his conclusions, most of the basics we agree upon. However, I do not agree with Donkeygod this is a typical case of Tragedy of the commons. This tragedy only takes place if there is no state and in the case of London, there is one. So the attempt to take a free ride of those who feel society does not offer them much, will be punished. At the same time, punishment alone is not sufficient. Unemployment makes people feel society does not offer them much, so unemployment is a problem for society as a whole. I think in essence Donkeygod and I do not differ much in our opinion, although I did not study the Great Depression well enough to say something serious about that period.
The same counts for Peter Hume. Yes, the government failed, because 'public bodies are expected by the population to act in the public interest', and they did not act adequately. A democratic state should indeed also increase employment. However, this is a difficult job. In addition, also in a democratic state leaders will have an urge to free ride. Still, in a democracy there are at least checks to expose free riding leaders.
Posted by Hendrik Gommer, Tuesday, 23 August 2011 2:44:35 AM
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Thanks, Professor, for the courteous response. We agree on most points, then. Let’s see how much closer we can get.

You see the Tragedy of the Commons in terms of law, perhaps; I meant to refer to its effect on the logic of rational self-interest, in the absence of law. It’s a truism to assert that ‘what is free to all is valued by none.’ She who pays the mortgage on a house will take tender care of it, since neglect devalues her property; it’s in her rational self-interest to maximise its value. He who’s given a council flat may well neglect it; since maintenance and repairs are council’s problem, it’s not in his rational self-interest to waste time and energy on keeping it tidy. I’d assert that what’s true of homes is also true of neighbourhoods (even states). A shopkeeper’s rational self-interest in the rule of law is obvious, but why should a looter refrain from stealing a laptop or a TV? What HE doesn’t steal, someone else will. It’s in his rational self-interest to NOT steal only if there’s a significant chance he’ll be punished, and that the penalty will be worse than living without a new TV or laptop. In London (and Australia, by the way), that’s clearly not the case -- ‘petty’ crime goes largely unpunished, and ‘disadvantage’ is a matter in mitigation. ‘Petty crime en masse equals riot.

If failure of government to ‘act in the public interest’ were the cause of such unrest, surely we’d expect breakdown of communities in ‘disadvantaged’ countries first, wealthy countries last. In fact, we observe the opposite. Penalties for theft, hoarding, waste and breaking custom in poor societies are large, because it’s in each individual’s rational self-interest to cooperate with neighbours in punishing local wrongdoers. This is ESPECIALLY true when they’re oppressed by government; in the Middle East, it’s the disadvantaged, under-employed COMMUNITY demanding the rule of law.

When society offers citizens too MUCH, rational self-interest precludes self-improvement. Offered too LITTLE, self-improvement is impossible. We need to find the mean.
Posted by donkeygod, Tuesday, 23 August 2011 8:44:37 AM
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