Just Cause? Inequality of Opportunity and the London Riots

In the wake of the fearsome rioting that spread among youths through London and England, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, observed that social deprivation was no defense. “There is no excuse for violence, no excuse for looting, no excuse for thuggery. . . . I think this is about sheer criminality.” The Prime Minister, David Cameron, calls it “criminality, pure and simple.”

For youths aged 16-24 in the United Kingdom, the unemployment rate had already hit a depression-like 20 percent prior to the stern austerity measures the present Conservative government began to implement last year. Some commentators have called the riots the “no future” revolt. The unemployment rate coupled with the austerity measures left many British youths in situations of little economic opportunity and, at the same time, little available assistance.

The question is, should this combination—the absence of both opportunity and assistance—be of any relevance to how we judge occurrences of rioting? Does it excuse the rioting and exonerate the rioters? Does it demand an immediate community response to correct the lack of opportunity and assistance? The Prime Minister and Home Secretary think not. Who would disagree?

The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and most of the leading Founders would. Here’s what Jefferson had to say: “Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been extended so far as to violate a natural right. . . . If, for encouragement of industry, we allow [the earth] to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed.”

This was no isolated comment on Jefferson’s part. It followed from a foundational principle of natural law that “All men are created equally free and independent,” which was Jefferson’s own wording in his draft of the Declaration. The same principle was so widely accepted at the Founding that it headed the Bill of Rights of several of the newly created states, including the two most populous states, both Virginia and Pennsylvania. Being “independent” meant having the economic ability to provide a decent living through means under the individual’s control.

Today, as in Britain, opportunity is scarce in the United States. Five Americans are unemployed for every available job opening, a condition that has prevailed for many months. Adding the workers in part-time jobs looking for full-time employment to those who are jobless, the underemployment rate among Americans nears 17 percent—a staggering 25 million workers. Unemployment now lasts more than nine months in length on average, a level most Americans have never before seen in their lifetimes.

There is in the United States today, unquestionably, a severe shortage of opportunity alongside immense wealth—exactly the same condition that Jefferson described.

Should underemployed and unemployed Americans, then, follow Jefferson’s advice? We all want to shout a firm and loud “no.” Yet, our insistence that the excluded restrain themselves can be justified, ultimately, only if the nation makes a good faith effort to bring about and assure the economic opportunity that Thomas Jefferson and the Founders believed every American is owed.

The principles of the Left emphasize helping the unemployed and the underemployed. The principles of the Right, and particularly the Tea Party, emphasize returning to the foundations of natural law—the very law to which Jefferson is referring in affirming the right of the unemployed to employment opportunity. Here is the rare occasion where principles across the political spectrum , from Left to Right, end up reaching the same conclusion.

Yet, we have done little. We have not even made a good start. It is long past time to begin.