Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit: The Neoconservative Origins of Our Police Problem

By Mike Konczal |

Before it was anything else, the neoconservative movement was a theory of the urban crisis. As a reaction to the urban riots of the 1960s, it put an ideological and social-scientific veneer on a doctrine that called for overwhelming force against minor infractions — a doctrine that is still with us today, as people are killed for walking down the street in Ferguson and allegedly selling single cigarettes in New York. But neoconservatives also sought, rather successfully, to position liberalism itself as the cause of the urban crisis, solvable only through the reassertion of order through the market and the police.

(Image by Jamelle Bouie.)

Edward Banfield was one of the first neoconservative thinkers who started writing in the 1960s and ’70s and was a prominent figure in the movement, though he isn’t remembered as well as his close friends Milton Friedman or Leo Strauss, or his star student James Q. Wilson. Banfield contributed to the beginning of neoconservative urban crisis thinking, the Summer 1969 “Focus on New York” issue of The Public Interest, which began to formalize neoconservatives’ framing of the urban crisis as the result of not just the Great Society in particular but the liberal project as a whole.

In his major book The Unheavenly City (pdf here), Banfield set the tone for much of what would come in the movement. Commentary described the book as “a political scientist’s version of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom” at the time. It sold 100,000 copies, and gathered both extensive news coverage and academic interest.

The Unheavenly City’s most infamous chapter is “Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit.” Fresh off televised riots in Watts, Detroit, and Newark, Banfield argued that it was “naive to think that efforts to end racial injustice and to eliminate poverty, slums, and unemployment will have an appreciable effect upon the amount of rioting that will be done in the next decade or two.” Absolute living standards had been rising rapidly. For Banfield, this was entirely the result of market and social forces rather than the state, and the poor, with their short time-horizons and desire for immediate gratification, would largely be left behind and always be prone to rioting. Today’s classic, if often implicit, repudiations of poor people’s humanity were clearly expressed here.

Rather than political protests or rebellions, Banfield argued that riots were largely opportunistic displays of violence and theft. He broke down four types of riots: (1) rampages, where young men are simply looking for trouble and act out violently; (2) pillaging, where theft is the main focus, and the riot serves as a solution for a type of collective action problem for thieves; (3) righteous indignation, where people act against an insult against their community; and (4) demonstrations, which are neither spontaneous nor violent but instead designed for a specific political purpose.

Banfield argued that the poor mainly engaged in the first two types of riots. Righteous indignation riots were a feature of the working class, because the “lower-class individual is too alienated to be capable of much indignation.” Demonstrations were largely the focus of the middle and upper classes, as they ran organizations and were able to make coherent claims on the state.

At this point Banfield’s text reads like a list of cranky, armchair reactionary observations about riots. It received considerable blowback at the time. What was innovative, for a neoconservative agenda, was where he put the blame. Young men will be young men, the text seems to suggest. The problem is what enables them to riot.

The initial perpetrators included the media, whose neutral (or even sensationalistic) coverage “recruited rampagers, pillagers, and others to the scene.” They also made the rioting more dangerous by expanding the knowledge base of the rioters. The larger academic community was also at fault since, to Banfield’s ear, “explaining the riots tended to justify them.” Upper-class demonstrators were also responsible for raising expectations of what the poor could demand from the state and from society writ large.

But according to Banfield, the core problem was modern liberalism, and in an interesting way. The big issue was the “professionalism” and bureaucratization of city services. The rioters had nothing to fear from the police, who were blocked from exercising their own judgement on the ground by an administrative layer of police administrators. In the logic that would form the basis of Broken Windows policing, the poor learning “through experience that an infraction can be done leads, by an illogic characteristic of childish thought, to the conclusion that it may be done.” And potential rioters were learning this because “the patrolman’s discretion in the use of force declined rapidly” with the growth of the modern liberal state.

Returning, therefore, to a “pre-professional” model of policing is one of the stated goals of Broken Windows. As James Q. Wilson explained in the 1982 Atlantic Monthly article that popularized the topic, “the police in this earlier period assisted in that reassertion of authority by acting, sometimes violently, on behalf of the community.”

Before the modern liberal state of accountability and due process, the police force wasn’t judged by “its compliance with appropriate procedures” but instead by its success in maintaining order. Since the 1960s, “the shift of police from order maintenance to law enforcement has brought them increasingly under the influence of legal restrictions… The order maintenance functions of the police are now governed by rules developed to control police relations with suspected criminals,” writes Wilson. According to this theory, order is preserved by the police out there, acting in the moment against minor infractions with a strong display of force, not by liberal notions of accountability and fairness.

This neoconservative vision that started in the 1960s and continues into today doesn’t just inform local arguments about policing, but rather the entire policy debate. So much of the debate over the (neo)conservative movement emphasizes suburban warriors, or evangelicals, or the Sun Belt, or the South. But as Alice O’Connor demonstrates in her paper “The Privatized City: The Manhattan Institute, the Urban Crisis, and the Conservative Counterrevolution in New York,” there was a distinct urban character to this thinking as well. Rather than a crisis of race relations, police violence, poverty, or anything else, rioting and the broader urban crisis were framed by the neoconservative movement as a crisis of values and culture precipitated by liberalism.

The broader urban crisis, in this story, hinges not on structural issues but on personal morality and behavior that can be restored by the extension of the market. Crime and urban “disorder” fit right next to social engineering and failing state institutions as a corrupt legacy of the liberal project and its bureaucratic, administrative governing state. Only the conservative agenda, as O’Connor puts it, of “zero-tolerance law enforcement, school ‘choice,’ hard-nosed implementation of welfare reform, and the large-scale privatization of municipal and social services” is capable of dismantling it. Only through the market, individual responsibility, and freedom from government “interference” can order result from the restoration of “political and cultural authority to a resolutely anti-liberal elite.” This legacy harnesses police excess to the triumph of the market. And as we see, it will be hard to dislodge one while the other reigns supreme.

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Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.