The riots-not-linked-to-poverty fallacy

Did poverty play a significant causal role in the riots?

Those who would prefer this was not true often employ the following argument - they say, "ah, but these other poor people didn't riot, so poverty cannot be the cause."

So for example, David Cameron: "These riots were not about poverty. That insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this."

Letter to Newsweek magazine: "Saskia Sassen blames conditions in disadvantaged areas for the UK riots, ignoring urban areas for the UK riots, ignoring that other deprived regions - Glasgow, Tyneside, South Wales - didn't riot."

By the same logic we could also show that smoking doesn't cause lung cancer. "Smoking clearly wasn't the cause of Dave's lung cancer. After all, Mary, John and Peter also smoke and they didn't get lung cancer, did they?"

Poverty may or not be a causal factor re the riots (obviously it was a factor), but this sort of logic reveals nothing other than the desperation of those who see the obvious potential link and want to bury it.


Anonymous said…

Aren't you picking relatively feeble versions of this argument? One is from a politicians statement to the press, the other a letter to a magazine.

Perhaps something like this would be a better place to start:
James said…
"Poverty may or not be a causal factor re the riots (obviously it was a factor)"

It was a factor but not a causal factor? What do you mean?


You are right to identify that as an invalid argument. It doesn't show that poverty cannot be the cause. But it does show that poverty is not a sufficient cause. And it indicates the possibility that poverty might not be a cause at all.

So is the conclusion true anyway? I haven't seen any decent attempts to actually demonstrate that poverty did cause the riots. It's all just assertion. What's your evidence that they were a factor?


My take on it:

These riots differ from previous ones in that mobile-phone-assisted flashmob looting is new. It's a phenomenon which the police were unprepared for. If enough people coordinate raids on shops in lots of different locations, the police will be overstretched.

People rioted and looted because they knew they could get away with it. The probability of arrest, and therefore the expected punishment (where punishment = sentence * probability of arrest) was low.

Therefore, a necessary condition of the riots was that people were not sufficiently disincentivised to riot and loot. It may be the case that there were other necessary conditions (e.g. poverty). But the great thing about necessary conditions is that you only have to fix one of them.

Therefore, preventing further riots is an engineering problem.
daz365 said…
After the riots there were so many comments on facebook/twitter etc, claiming that in wartime the British people, although poor worked together and would never have resorted to this kind of behaviour.
Then I read a piece by Gavin Mortimer which included the following:
“In April 1941 Lambeth juvenile court dealt with 42 children in one day, from teenage girls caught stripping clothes from dead bodies to a seven-year-old boy who had stolen five shillings from the gas meter of a damaged house. In total, juvenile crime accounted for 48 per cent of all arrests in the nine months between September 1940 and May 1941 and there were 4,584 cases of looting.”

Now I'm pretty sure these people were taught respect for others, capital and corporal punishment were the norm, Education was (for some) at the standard people always hark back to and Immigration wasn't seen as a major problem.

But what they did have was squalor, disease, unemployment Poverty and an underclass excluded from society.

Read more:,news-comment,news-politics,a-nation-of-looters-it-even-happened-in-the-blitz-spirit-uk-riots-london#ixzz1XSIVEP7V
Tony Lloyd said…
The "causes" of the riots are interesting. Ken Livingstone thinks they're a direct result of government policy. Mel Phillips says they're a direct result of liberal intellectuals. David Starkey says they're caused by youth's tendency to speak a ridiculous affected slang and listen to dreadful "music".

I bet you a pint William Lane Craig would point the finger at a lack of religion.

Cameron's rebuttal may be lazy and incomplete, but then so are all the "the riots were caused by [something I don't like], we need [something I've been banging on about]" analyses.

I wrote a bit more on this (and the quite horrible situation of ending up agreeing with Micheal Gove, here : )
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