Op-Ed

The New Politics of Character

Richard V. Reeves

In August 2011, there was panic on the streets of London. Riots broke out in Tottenham, fueled in part by community anger about a police shooting. Other neighborhoods and then other English cities followed suit. The transfixing images of urban hordes looting storefronts and setting cars and buses ablaze played over and over again on television screens worldwide. When the police were finally able to tame the riots, the property damage was in the hundreds of millions of pounds, 3,000 Britons were in handcuffs, and five men were dead.

Political reactions to the saga followed predictable party lines. The left blamed the government’s austerity program and cuts in youth services, although very few cuts had in fact been made. The right viewed the disorder as evidence of simple immorality. Prime Minister David Cameron, reprising his pre-election theme of “broken Britain,” lamented the “slow-motion moral collapse” of society.

My old boss, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, was more measured. Condemning the violence and crime, he insisted we should seek evidence about what had sparked and sustained the riots, rather than leaping to “knee-jerk” (and self-satisfying) conclusions. Of course he was attacked by much of the tabloid press and opposed within the administration. As one senior Conservative aide fumed to me, “We know what happened. Bad kids with bad parents did bad things. We don’t need any f—ing research.”

Nonetheless, at Clegg’s insistence a Riots Communities and Victims Panel was established. The members gathered evidence, visited affected neighborhoods, and then offered advice to the government. The panel’s conclusion was that the decisive factor behind the riots was not lack of money or even morality, but lack of character.

The panel spoke not only to young people who had taken part in the disturbances, but also, crucially, to hundreds who could have but did not. “In asking what it was that made young people make the right choice in the heat of the moment, the Panel heard of the importance of character,” the nonpartisan group concluded. “A number of attributes together form character, including self-discipline, application, the ability to defer gratification and resilience in recovering from setbacks. Young people who develop character will be best placed to make the most of their lives.” And, of course, will be less likely to riot, loot, and burn. Character, like oxygen, is most noticeable when it is missing.

The conclusion about character is obviously very different from the Labour partisans’ instinct that rioters lacked money in austerity-age Britain. But it also differs from the Conservatives’ broad-brush focus on morality. Character, as we will see, is not synonymous with morality. Character combines qualities like drive and prudence that could — but might not — serve moral ends. It’s much more prosaic, but it may be more important.

The development of character is perhaps the central task of any civilized society and every individual within it. Its absence is felt not only when communities collapse into a brief, riotous war of all against all, but in many long-standing areas that are vital for human flourishing and constitute many of the abiding concerns of policymakers and the everyday issues of American politics. This is perhaps most true of the current debates about inequality and social mobility. Gaps in character development closely correlate to gaps in income, family functioning, education, and employment. The character gap fuels the opportunity gap, and vice versa.

If we want a better, freer, fairer society, we will have to complement the 20th-century focus on strong institutions with a new (if also ancient) concern for strong individuals. The quality of our policies is a vital concern. But so is the quality of our people.

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