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Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

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Making Economic Sense
by Murray Rothbard
(Contents by Publication Date)


Chapter 17
Rioting For Rage, Fun, And Profit

The little word "but" is the great weasel word of our time, enabling one to subscribe to standard pieties while getting one's real contrary message across. "Of course, I deplore communism, but . . ."; "Of course, I approve of the free market, but . . ." have been all too familiar refrains in recent decades. The standard reaction of our pundits, and across the entire respectable political spectrum, to the great Los Angeles et al. riots of April 29-May 2 went: "Of course, I can't condone violence, but . . . ." In every instance, the first clause is slid over rapidly and ritualistically, to get to the real diametrically opposed message after the "but" is disposed of.

The point, of course, is precisely to condone violence, by rushing to get to the alleged "real structural causes" of riots and the violence. While the "causes" of any human action are imprecise and complex, none of that is attended to, for everyone knows what the "solution" is supposed to be: to tax the American people, including the victims of the massive looting, burning, beating, killing rampage, to "assuage the rage of the inner cities" by paying off the rampaging "community" so handsomely that they supposedly won't do it again.

Before we rush past the riots themselves, the whole point of government, of an institution with a monopoly, or preponderance, of violence, is to use it to defend persons and property against violent assault. That role is not as obvious as it may seem, since the Los Angeles, state, and federal forces most conspicuously did not perform that function. Sending in police and troops late and depriving them of bullets, cannot do the job.

There is only one way to fulfill the vital police function, the only way that works: the public announcement--backed by willingness to enforce it--made by the late Mayor Richard Daley in the Chicago riots of the 1960s--ordering the police to shoot to kill any looters, rioters, arsonists, or muggers they might find. That very announcement was enough to induce the rioters to pocket their "rage" and go back to their peaceful pursuits.

Who knows the hearts of men? Who knows all the causes, the motivations, of action? But one thing is clear: regardless of the murky "causes," would-be looters and muggers would get such a message loud and clear.

But the federal government, and most state and local governments, decided to deal with the great riots of Watts and other inner cities of the 1960s in a very different way: the now accepted practice of a massive buyout, a vast system of bribes in the form of welfare, set-asides, affirmative action, etc. The amount spent on such purposes by federal, state, and local governments since the Great Society of the 1960s totals the staggering sum of $7 trillion.

And what is the result? The plight of the inner cities is clearly worse than ever: more welfare, more crime, more dysfunction, more fatherless families, fewer kids being "educated" in any sense, more despair and degradation. And now, bigger riots than ever before. It should be clear, in the starkest terms, that throwing taxpayer money and privileges at the inner cities is starkly coun terproductive. And yet: this is the only "solution" that liberals can ever come up with, and without any argument--as if this "solution" were self-evident. How long is this nonsense supposed to go on? 

If that is the absurd liberal solution, conservatives are not much better. Even liberals are praising--always a bad sign--Jack Kemp for being a "good" conservative who cares, and who is coming up with innovative solutions trumpeted by Kemp himself and his neoconservative fuglemen. These are supposed to be "non-welfare" solutions, but welfare is precisely what they are: "public housing "owned" by tenants, but only under massive subsidy and strict regulation--with no diminution of the public housing stock; "enterprise zones" which are not free enterprise zones at all, but simply zones for more welfare subsidy and privileges to the inner city.

Various left-libertarians focus on removal of minimum wage laws and licensing requirements as the cure for the disaster of the inner cities. Well, repeal of minimum wages would certainly be helpful, but they are largely irrelevant to the riots: after all, minimum wage laws exist all across the country, in areas just as poor as the inner cities--such as Appalachia. How come there are no riots in Appalachia? The abolition of licensing laws would also be welcome, but just as irrelevant.

Some claim the underlying cause is racial discrimination. And yet, the problem seems worse, rather than better, after three decades of aggressive civil rights measures. Moreover, the Koreans are undoubtedly at least equal victims of racial discrimination--and they also have the problem of English being their second, and often a distant second, language. So how is that Korean-Americans never riot, indeed that they were the major single group of victims of the Los Angeles riot?

The Moynihan thesis of the cause of the problem is closer to the mark: the famous insight of three decades ago that the black family was increasingly fatherless, and that therefore such values as respect for person and property were in danger of disappearing. Three decades later, the black family is in far worse shape, and the white family isn't doing too well, either. But even if the Moynihan thesis is part of the problem, what can be done about it? Families cannot be forced together.

A greater part of the cause of the rot is the moral and esthetic nihilism created by many decades of cultural liberalism. But what can be done about it? Surely, at best it would take many decades to take back the culture from liberalism and to instill sound doctrine, if it can be done at all. The rot cannot be stopped, or even slowed down, by such excruciatingly slow and problematic measures.

Before we can set about curing a disease we must have some idea of what that disease is. Are we really sure that "rage" is the operative problem? For the most part, the young rioters caught on television mostly did not look angry at all. One memorable exchange took place as the TV camera caught a happy, grinning young lad hauling off a TV set from a looted store and putting it in his car. Asked the dimwit reporter: "Why are you taking that TV set?" The memorable answer: "Because it's free!" It is no accident, too, that the arsonists took care to loot thoroughly the 10,000 stores before they burned them to the ground.

The crucial point is that whether the motivation or the goal is rage, kicks, or loot, the rioters, with a devotion to present gratification as against future concerns, engaged in the joys of beating, robbing, and burning, and of massive theft, because they saw they could get away with it. Devotion to the sanctity of person and property is not part of their value-system. That's why, in the short term, all we can do is shoot the looters and incarcerate the rioters.

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