All Commentary
Monday, November 1, 1965

The Causes of Violence

The Reverend Mr. Mahaffy has served since ¹945 as a missionary of the Orthodox Pres­byterian Church in Eritrea, East Africa.

Violence in the streets of some of our large urban centers has stimu­lated an investigation of the under­lying causes of these riots, blood­shed, hatred, disrespect for life, property, and the laws of society. Until we learn the causes, it will be hard to come by the cure for the disorder.

To some, the obvious cause is poverty. But poverty does not of itself produce violence. While the mobs were rioting in the United States, I was visiting in an African home. The four children and their parents, as well as the chickens, shared one small room in the hut.

Their beds consisted of mats on the hard earth with a piece of cloth or a block of wood for a pillow. But as I sat on the floor with them, eating a coarse bread with hot pepper sauce from a common dish, there was a pleasant exchange of banter followed by more serious discus­sion and study. The deep poverty of this African family did not lead to violence; rather, they all mani­fested the most gracious hospital­ity and sincere friendship. In Africa, violence frequently charac­terizes the activity of the newly educated and more economically advanced young people; the poor people more often retain their tra­dition of gracious hospitality and friendliness. There is no direct relationship between poverty and violence in Africa—or America.

It is my conviction that the causes of violence often lie in the philosophy of the welfare state so­ciety, promoted by politicians and widely accepted by many people.

Recently, a religious periodical reported that a Christian college received a large grant of Federal funds toward building a library. A student of that college wrote of Federal grants to provide on-cam­pus jobs for the students. This col­lege would be classed as a conserva­tive school in its political and religious outlook. Not one of the professors would think of support­ing open violence but would roundly condemn it. All would agree that the Moral Law of God summarized in the Ten Command­ments provides the absolute norm for conduct. Yet the supporters of such Federal subsidies to educa­tion, like all supporters of the wel­fare state, are unwittingly endors­ing violence as a way of life.¹

Perhaps the shooting of police­men and civilians, the plundering of stores and burning of buildings seem remote from the promotion of the welfare state society via Federal subsidies. The one mani­fests open and naked force against the lives and property of others; the other seemingly advocates Fed­eral funds for worthy, peaceful ends. But both alike are manifesta­tions of violence and are the fruits, in differing degrees of maturity, of the same basic philosophy.

Redistribution by Force

The measures of the welfare state are means for redistributing the wealth. The recipients may be the aged who receive Medicare, for­eign nations who are given tractors and money in foreign aid, urban dwellers for whom new houses are built, farmers who sell their grain to the government at a subsidized price, private or government school beneficiaries of state and Federal grants, children who receive free or subsidized lunches, or those businesses whose projects are gov­ernment financed. Whatever the means of redistribution may be, the recipient receives what has been seized by violence in taxes col­lected from others. He receives the fruit of legal plunder.

This legal plunder of property by the state is rooted in disrespect for life; for to seize property is to violate the life sustained by that property. Carried to its logical con­clusions, the recipient of legal plunder assumes a right to the property and thus to the life of his better-situated neighbor. When legal plunder becomes the accepted norm of everyday life, it is little wonder that more naked violence occasionally breaks out in our cities. The perpetrators of the vio­lence have been taught through effective propaganda that they have a right to the fruits of the labor of others. When they feel that the agents of the redistribution have stinted in the distribution of these fruits to them, they take into their own hands the logistics of the division, speeding up the process by open violence and plunder. They are only carrying out to its logical conclusion the principle of violence involved in Federal subsidies to some at the expense of others. They are engaging in illegal plunder and violence to accomplish what the welfare state does by means of legal plunder.

Dr. Ludwig von Mises has clearly pointed out the fact that socialism leads naturally to vio­lence, bloodshed, and war.2 Whether this socialism be that of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Rus­sia, China, or the compulsory col­lectivism of our welfare state so­ciety, the final result is disruption into open violence. Such violence is only the fruit of the more subtle (and hence in many respects more dangerous) violence of redistribu­tion.

The causes of violence often lie in the philosophy of compulsion that characterizes all types of so­cialism. And because socialism in­volves violence, it flouts the moral law which restricts the use of force against others to the restraint of evil.

Restoring Moral Law and Order

The solution to the problem of violence does not lie in attributing it to poverty and promoting fur­ther violence by way of urban re­newal and Federal subsidies. The solution is to abandon violence as a way of life. Required is a renewed respect for law rooted in respect for God, the Law-Giver, not only by individual citizens subject to the law, but especially by those citizens who have been delegated the power of the sword for the suppression of violence among us.

It is still true that “righteous­ness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.”3 True righteousness will evidence itself not only in refraining from vio­lence on the streets of our cities but in abandoning the philosophy of violence which characterizes the redistributionist activities of the welfare state.

Foot Notes

1 Leonard E. Read, “Violence as a Way of life,” Essays on Liberty, (Irv­ington, N. Y.: Foundation for Econom­ic Education, 1962), Vol. IX, p. 303.

2 Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949), pp. 449, 680-84, 820.

3 Proverbs 14:34

  • A graduate of Wheaton College in 1941 and Westminster Theological Seminary in 1944, Mr. Mahaffy served as a missionary to Eritrea for twenty-three years. In 1968, he was appointed Evangelist for the Presbytery of the Midwest and served faithfully in that role, helping to establish Hope OPC, Libertyville, Illinois, Christ OPC, Janesville, Wisconsin, and Trinity OPC, Chicago.