One of the major innovations that form the basis of Western civilization is what might be termed the collectivization of retributive justice. Every society wants to see retributive justice done — people who do Bad Things should have Bad Things done to them. In tribal and tribal-descended societies, this is done by the victim and/or the victim’s relatives, friends, and neighbors. However, there is no guarantee that the victim has any relatives, friends, or neighbors willing to go to the necessary effort, so many offenders suffer no consequences, and there is the ever-present danger of escalation, resulting in retribution all out of proportion to the original offense. Combined, those disadvantages and others make it difficult to create a large, cohesive society which can build wealth by cooperation.
Europeans were once as tribal as any people on the planet. For good or ill, Europeans also were (and remain) some of the most murderous b*ds to be found anywhere. The result of that was millenia of wars, beginning with intertribal conflicts that weakened the tribes, causing them to coalesce into larger groups composed of the remnants of tribes; those larger groups then fought, weakening them to the point that they coalesced into even larger groups, which fought one another… rinse and repeat. The reason Europeans were such formidable conquistadores is that they’d had thousands of years of practice on one another. In the end, except for some remnants like the Scots, the tribes of Europe had been for all practical purposes wiped out. The people survived, but their groupings were no longer tribal except at the very top level (“nations”).
Lacking a tribal structure to implement the revenge system, Europeans assigned retributive justice to the nascent States. This turned out to be very useful. A Government is (at least in theory) relative, friend, and neighbor to all its subjects, so no person need suffer the lack of retributive justice because no-one was available to provide it. A Government also (again, at least in theory) puts together an impartial structure under which retributive justice can be performed without running into re-re-revenge: the Rule of Law. The theory actually worked well enough to enable widespread cooperation, without the danger of either friendlessness or rampant escalation.
Western Governments of the “liberal” or Progressive inclination have been reducing their role in providing retributive justice for a long time. Prisoners have rights! The accused deserves a fair trial! All of the rationales provided are individually plausible, but the net result is that the average citizen can no longer expect his Government to provide retributive justice. Violent offenders get slaps on the wrist or no punishment whatever; people attempting to defend themselves are sanctioned instead. The United Kingdom has been in the forefront of that development. There is no doubt that the anecdotes we hear in Westpondia are selected and/or exaggerated, but when a society that once announced “An Englishman’s home is his castle” prosecutes even one householder for unkind treatment of burglars the notion of the State as an instrument of retributive justice goes out the window.
At the same time that development was in progress the notion of social justice began to be accepted. Social justice demands that the Haves give to the Have-Nots, and must be implemented by force because the Haves are rarely ready to give up their possessions. However, it is accepted to some degree in every society that taking things away from people by force is a Bad Thing. Fortunately there is a loophole: One of the ways of punishing people who do Bad Things is by taking things away from them. Social justice practitioners therefore uniformly declare that having things is a Bad Thing done by Bad People, who can therefore be justly punished by having their things taken away. Because retributive justice is a function of the State, punishing the Bad People by taking their things away from them is something the Government should do.
The rioters in England have all been steeped in the concepts of social justice since infancy, and take its tenets for granted. People who have things are Bad People, who must be punished by taking their things away. They have also been taught that the Government will do that on their behalf, so they needn’t bestir themselves — but they have also learned that the Government cannot be trusted to provide retributive justice. The Government has promised to act as an intermediary, taking things away from the Bad People and giving them to the Good, but it is no longer a trusted intermediary. It will neither punish housebreakers, muggers, rapists, and the like, nor tax the Bad Rich People enough that they no longer have things. Its members are also quite clearly opportunists who rake off a substantial percentage of the take from the Bad People without passing it on to the Good Ones.
When an intermediary is no longer trusted it will be bypassed whenever possible, and if you read their Tweets and proclamations that’s exactly what the rioters are doing. The proprietor of the electronics shop has plasma televisions, and the Government isn’t punishing this evil being as he deserves, so the People ignore the intermediary and do it themselves. Her Majesty’s Government, having discarded the principle of State provision of retributive justice, finds itself no longer trusted to provide retributive justice in the service of social justice, obliging the People to act on their own behalf.
People attempting to defend their homes, shops, and possessions have been accused of “taking the Law into their own hands”, but in fact it’s the rioters who are doing that. The Government isn’t punishing the Bad Rich People sufficiently, so the Good People must do it themselves. As Vonnegut said in a different connection, the prospects for peace are awful.