British Riots: One Good Thing is Not Another

Every type of government and every method of organizing a society represents a gamble and an explicit or implicit declaration that the society values certain things over others.

No system does (or can do) everything perfectly. Some are better at preserving order; some are better at maximizing individual freedom and latitude;  some are better at enabling the production of wealth; some excel at nurturing a sense of community and shared heritage, and so on. Read any story about Russian society today, and you’ll see that many Russians would gladly trade all their newfound freedom of markets, press, etc. for three good meals a day and the sense of security they had before Communism splintered.

We must always remember Isaiah Berlin’s sober maxim: One good thing is not another, which I acronymize as OGTINA.  Liberty is a very good thing, but it is not necessarily security. Security is not prosperity, prosperity is not community, community is not individual freedom.  It’s possible to have one of these goods or several of them,  but it’s never possible to have all of them  at once to the maximum degree, because these goods exist in tension; strengthening one leads to the weakening of another.

If you want maximum security from crime, it’s best to live in a police state where cops cordon off entire blocks and go door-to-door searching for the guy who just  robbed the corner store. And when they catch him, they don’t mess around with calling a lawyer.  If you want a society that values freedom of movement and the presumption of innocence in law enforcement, you must accept the inevitable flip side:  Criminals will sometimes use those same freedoms to ply their trade and get away. If you want a society in which free speech is among the highest goods, you must accept a constant barrage of stupid, crass, violent and predatory misuses of that freedom.

I was thinking about this unavoidable dilemma  while reading about the riots in England. One British commentator, Llewellyn King, wrote this:

The state, under both Labor and Conservative governments, has sought to save ever-larger numbers of people from all the agonies of life at the bottom. But instead of achieving this it has created a new citizen, tethered to the state in all aspects of life, including health and child care; job training instead of a job; unemployment income that can last a lifetime; plus money for having babies, and arguably money for not getting a job.

If you fall through the cracks in Britain, kindly hands will comfort you, pay your rent, give you money, pretend to educate you and pretend to retrain you. They will also possibly trap you at the bottom, but they will certainly trap your children.

Life at the bottom is survivable in Britain — more so than most countries, including the United States. But it is corrosive and it has produced a culture of sloth, vulgarity, casual parenthood and celebrity adulation. These are the people who have been rioting across Britain, producing television images not reminiscent of Britain but of the intifada on the West Bank: hooded youths stoning the police and torching cars and buildings.

Again, this side of paradise, one good thing is not another. We must decide what we want more of and what we want less of, and live with the (sometimes unintended)  consequences of our decisions.

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