22 April 2007

Tough on the causes of violence?

News of the shooting at Virginia Tech drowned out the booming death toll from Iraq this week. The common thread is not hard to find: US society seems doomed to generate ever-widening circles of violence. Michael Moore's arguments about the link between the production of death through the sale of arms and military vehicles for profit and the violent psyche were well made but ignored.

US citizens are easy pickings and the horrific nature of life on the other side of the Atlantic can console us when we consider our own tawdry stories of violent beahaviour. Particularly distressing this week were the women who forced their children to engage in a staged dog-fight for their sordid amusement. More considered commentators noted that the children's father is a soldier who has recently been fighting in Iraq. The grandmother suffered in a string of violent relationships. The circles of violence in evidence again.

We are left wondering where this violence comes from. In many societies the beating of children is legal, with parents of both sides of the Atlantic using biblical justifications such as 'spare the rod and spoil the child'. Children are raised to learn that violence solves problems and that using superior physical strength is an acceptable means of winning an argument.

So what does all this have to do with economics? The first and obvious point is to call for an end to the trade in arms. We have recently celebrated the ending of the trade in slaves, which now seems so clearly immoral. One day the sale of arms will be similarly unacceptable and it should be a priority to hasten that day. Like human flesh, weapons of death should not be bought and sold in a market.

We should also acknowledge that inequality and expropriation inevitably generate social violence. Cho Seung-hui's vindictive hatred of the rich kids on campus has been dismissed as the ravings of a madman, which conveniently removes the need to raise questions about the corrosive effect of the growing inequality in US society.

In the UK context the rage of young black men, whose creativity is generating the dominant styles in speech, music and fashion and yet whose economic prospects remain bleak is equally palpable and comprehensible. It is no surprise that when their creativity is expropriated, branded and then priced beyond their reach they react with violent anger. Without economic justice we will never have social justice, and while we have inequality of power and resources we will always be generating more cycles of violence.

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