Thursday, 11 August 2011

London Rioters show Arab Spring Democracy not Enough

Vandalized Domino's Pizza a few blocks from my London flat.

Lorianne Updike Toler

Democracy means rule by the demos, or people. Self government or people-rule is considered a good and has become the normative standard for modern governance.  Yet what happens when some significant segment of the people have no respect for the rule of law.  What then, of self government?

I, along with other Londoners, have witnessed the tragic consequences such lack of respect produces as hundreds of youths have seized upon an excuse to vandal, arson, and loot with impunity their own neighborhoods in the last few days.  Many have compared the London riots to the Arab Spring.  Yet the largely non-violent, pro-democracy protests in the MENA region, as one blogger points out, bear little resemblance to the destructive, opportunistic vandalism of the rioting London youths, and the family who protested the shooting of their son in the taxi have decried any connection with or support for the gangs of youths who have seized upon their misfortune to aggrandize their fun and possessions.  Further, rather than being among a "feral underclass" who have been denied benefits by Cameron's austerity measures, the youths arrested Tuesday night are now reported to have stable jobs and futures ahead of them.

A connection might be found, however, in what we could learn about democracy and the rule of law from the London riots.

It may arguably be said that the United Kingdom has the oldest democracy, or form of self government, in the world.  True, it is shaped as a constitutional monarchy, but its unwritten constitution has evolved such that Parliament and especially the popularly-elected House of Commons and Prime Minister have greater power than the monarch or judiciary combined.

Yet there seems to be a certain generation and class of persons in Britain who clearly have little respect for the rule of law.  Why is this?  Democracy, in that it is seen as more legitimate, is theoretically suppose to breed voluntary compliance with the law, or respect for the rule of law.  What went wrong?

Here history, and particularly American history, has something to say.  One of the few things upon which there was unanimous consent among America's founding brethren was that self-governance (what they styled republicanism, but in general terms is called democracy today) requires morality.

And how is morality bred among the populance?  Again, the unanimous answer of the founding generation (even, eventually, Jefferson) was religion.  They assumed that piety and fear of God and eternal punishment would awake in a people a sense of duty towards one another.  After all, not killing, not stealing, and not lying, hallmarks of Old Testament Mosaic law, provided good starting points for any penal code.

(Clearly, religion isn't the only way to inculcate morals such to allow for self government.  One of the most moral individuals I know is an atheist.  An education which includes the teaching of ethics (and dare I say history?) might instill the kind of respect for the rule of law necessary for self-rule.  Some are calling for a re-emphasis of this kind of education in Britain, and are chastising parents for not inculcating their youth with ethics.)

These, then, are the relevant questions the London riots pose for their neighbors to the south and east - in addition to establishing democracy, how might they also create a culture which preserves the rule of law?  Will their faith and fear in God (or Allah) and an adherence to the Qur'an also help them to abide by each other's laws?  Democracy set up in a transparent and inclusive fashion will certainly help to promote voluntary compliance with the law, but democracy is not enough.     

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