THE FRAGILE veneer of civilization disintegrated in parts of Los Angeles just hours after the verdict in the Rodney King trial. On the night of April 29, self-restraint on individual behavior -- once so taken for granted as the glue that holds our society together -- temporarily evaporated.
We have heard many explanations for the violence. Some say that it was an immediate reaction to the verdict. Others say that it was pent-up rage over years of injustices. And there is no denying the frustration and economic destitution in parts of Los Angeles and other of America's inner cities. But these theories do not entirely explain the spectacle of whole families looting together or the deliberate torching of minority-owned businesses the attacks on innocent passers-by.
Instead, this breakdown in order is largely a product of a philosophy -- a set of attitudes -- hammered into the nation's consciousness over 30 years. Partly derived from Marxism's economic determinism, it ignores -- indeed belittles -- the role of individual responsibility, preaching that one's economic and social environment determines behavior. The actor is transformed into a mere victim of circumstance.
Taken to its logical conclusion, this philosophy transforms a Robert Alton Harris from a murderer into a victim of fetal-alcohol syndrome. In the streets of Los Angeles, rioters who assaulted bystanders and looters who set fire to grocery stores became simply victims of economic or social injustice.
Unfortunately, this philosophy's constant airing -- by academics
and public figures alike -- gives it credibility. And by excusing individual responsibility, it acts to relax self-restraint on one's conduct. Indeed, looters echoed this philosophy to rationalize their acts of violence. One looter argued that she was "entitled"; others justified looting a neighborhood merchant, arguing "No justice, no peace"; one of those who assaulted truck driver Reginald Denny reportedly said, "It had to happen." In essence, under this philosophy, the criminals become the victims, and the victims (many of them struggling minority entrepreneurs) become merely statistics. It is society gone mad. But society will not deserve better until it teaches better.
Indeed, this erosion of a sense of individual responsibility lies at the root of much of the destitution in our inner cities -- conditions responsible for the desperation blamed for the violence. Our principal social institutions and programs -- designed to ease inner-city blight -- actually discourage individual responsibility and weaken the family unit.
We need to reform the system so that government assistance operates within a structure that encourages individual responsibility and other qualities that promote a healthy society. Government can play a positive role by providing incentives for more education and job training.
Similarly, tenant ownership programs that give residents a chance to purchase their housing can help bring stability to inner-city areas by enabling them to have a greater stake in (and responsibility for) their own neighborhoods.
Individual responsibility also is ignored in education. Responsible bureaucracies rather than parents, our public schools have become unresponsive institutions that survive amid violence and drugs. A school-choice system that allow parents to choose, and through public funds pay for, their children's education -- whether private or public -- would transfer responsibility from the bureaucrats to the parents to select campuses that meet their needs.
Besides the reconstruction of bricks and mortar, Los Angeles and the rest of country have work to do on strengthening America's moral and philosophical foundation. Otherwise, we will merely have rebuilt the very edifice that collapsed on April 29.
Daniel M. Kolkey is a partner in a Los Angeles law firm.