What Does Economic History Say About The Causes of Riots?

13 08 2011

Rioters in Croydon, 8 August 2011

In the wake of this week’s riots in English cities, some commentators and politicians have linked the youth unrest to the recent budget cuts.

Rioters in Chalk Farm

Two economic historians, Jacopo Ponticelli   and Hans-Joachim Voth, have done a detailed study of riots in Europe in the last century.

Voth and Ponticelli found that for most of this period there was  a strong link between government austerity and urban unrest in Europe. However, since the late 1980s, this statistical relationship has vanished:  in post-industrial societies, there is no longer any measurable link between spending cuts and rioting. The implication is that it was false for people to blame these particular riots on spending cuts.

I’m inclined to think that the recent riots were caused primarily by  non-economic factors.

First, the London riots were sparked by the police shooting of a Black man rather than the announcement of a price rise, wage cut, or other economic news.

Second, I can think of other recent riots in developed countries that were clearly non-economic in motivation: Vancouver, which is one of the most prosperous cities in the Western world right now, recently saw a riot after its hockey team lost a game.

An Idiot Attacks a Car, Vancouver Riots, June 2011

Smoke Rises Over Vancouver After Riots, 15 June 2011. Vancouver judged by The Economist to be the most desirable city on earth in which to live.

Third, riots caused by rises in the price of food, which were common in developed a few centuries ago, are now a thing of the past in such countries. There are no longer “bread riots” in Boston or “rice riots” in Japan.

Aftermath of 1918 Riot in Japan Caused by Rising Rice Prices

Recent Food Riot in Uganda. Ok, the guys in this photo have legitimate grievances.

It appears that as society has become more affluent, the causes of riots have shifted from economic  grievances to post-materialist ones. Needless to say, some post-materialist grievances (e.g., police racism) are far more legitimate than others (your hockey team loses)! But what the Vancouver and London riots have in common is that they appear to be driven primarily by discontent that isn’t strictly speaking economic.

Read more here, here, and here. Professor Voth has blogged about this paper here.

Hat tip to Olaf Storbeck, who is  the London correspondent with Handelsblatt, Germany’s business daily, and a fellow WordPress blogger.

Hans-Joachim Voth  is ICREA Research Professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. “He is an economic historian with interests in financial markets, long-run economic growth, as well as political risk and macroeconomic instability.”  I don’t know much about Jacopo Ponticelli, but his Twitter account suggests that he is a grad student.




One response

16 08 2011
Ryan MacKellar

Good post. I definitely agreet that this is not directly the result of austerity measures. I think that this impoverished underclass finally felt powerful after being marginalized and neglected for so long. The contrast with the vancouver riots is interesting as well, shows the role of oppurtunism in all of this. Many people just get caught up in the heat of the moment. It is interesting that many people attribute this to racial tensions, but it seems to me that manyd ifferent ethnic groups came together to defend their communities. I think these riots will serve to bring people together in this period where many point to the rise of right wing anti-immigrant groups like the english defence league.

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