August 7, 2005


The Virtues of Virtue (DAVID BROOKS, 8/07/05, NY Times)

The decline in family violence is part of a whole web of positive, mutually reinforcing social trends. To put it in old-fashioned terms, America is becoming more virtuous. Americans today hurt each other less than they did 13 years ago. They are more likely to resist selfish and shortsighted impulses. They are leading more responsible, more organized lives. A result is an improvement in social order across a range of behaviors.

The decline in domestic violence is of a piece with the decline in violent crime over all. Violent crime over all is down by 55 percent since 1993 and violence by teenagers has dropped an astonishing 71 percent, according to the Department of Justice.

The number of drunken driving fatalities has declined by 38 percent since 1982, according to the Department of Transportation, even though the number of vehicle miles traveled is up 81 percent. The total consumption of hard liquor by Americans over that time has declined by over 30 percent.

Teenage pregnancy has declined by 28 percent since its peak in 1990. Teenage births are down significantly and, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortions performed in the country has also been declining since the early 1990's.

Fewer children are living in poverty, even allowing for an uptick during the last recession. There's even evidence that divorce rates are declining, albeit at a much more gradual pace. People with college degrees are seeing a sharp decline in divorce, especially if they were born after 1955.

I could go on. Teenage suicide is down. Elementary school test scores are rising (a sign than more kids are living in homes conducive to learning). Teenagers are losing their virginity later in life and having fewer sex partners. In short, many of the indicators of social breakdown, which shot upward in the late 1960's and 1970's, and which plateaued at high levels in the 1980's, have been declining since the early 1990's.

I always thought it would be dramatic to live through a moral revival. Great leaders would emerge. There would be important books, speeches, marches and crusades. We're in the middle of a moral revival now, and there has been very little of that. This revival has been a bottom-up, prosaic, un-self-conscious one, led by normal parents, normal neighbors and normal community activists.

As H.W. Brands has suggested, we might have avoided that whole panoply of social pathologies had we had sense enough to avoid the Cold War, one way or another:
[T]he liberalism that characterized the period from 1945 until the early 1970s was anomalous by the standards of American history. Moreover, this anomaly was chiefly the consequence of the predominant feature of the global politics at the time--the Cold War. It states the matter only a bit too strongly to say that modern American liberalism was an artifact of the Cold War. It is not too much to say that without the Cold War, liberals would never have achieved the success they did. Nor is it too much to say that the collapse of the Cold War consensus in America was what doomed liberalism.

And the rapid improvement of American society has predictably followed from the end of the Cold War and the long overdue death of liberalism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 7, 2005 12:01 AM

We tail-enders have our heads screwed on more straight than the 60s hippies. Plus, their spawn don't want to make the same mistakes.

Posted by: Sandy P at August 7, 2005 1:48 AM

And wouldn't it be an awful thought that all this was brought about by abortion? Of course, it also depends on a revival of bigger families with concerned parents (expressed in things like home-schooling). But still...

(I am not advocating murder of babies, just pointing out how we must never get caught in the cycle of depression that things ever get worse forever. Somehow, God has designed a self-correcting mechanism that defies all odds.)

Posted by: Randall Voth at August 7, 2005 3:39 AM

It would be interesting to know how much of Brook's moral renewal is occuring in the inner cities.

Posted by: Peter B at August 7, 2005 7:17 AM

Randall: Abortion has its place, but not because liberals are aborting more often, leading to fewer liberals. Instead, it is the Roe was a wake-up call, bringing people into politics who were never involved before, and bringing people to the right who were never on the right before.

In part, it's that people who oppose abortion have other conservative views. In part, it's that abortion, like few other issues, makes for single-issue voters. In part, it's that once people come to oppose abortion, they realize that the logic of their position is driving them to take the conservative view on other issues.

The conservative tide would have come eventually, but not as soon nor as high without Roe.

Posted by: David Cohen at August 7, 2005 9:52 AM

Per Randall, read Freakonomics.

Posted by: at August 7, 2005 10:39 AM

Call it Pendulum Mechanics. It is the self-correcting nature of social trends that overshoot themselves. Several aspects of the 60s social revolution won't be reversing themselves: The aboliton of overt racial discrimination, sexual segregation in the workplace, artificial birth control. The conservative counter-swing is not going to reverse these, because these new values have been absorbed by the larger society.

Another dymanic at play here is that the generation coming of age now has grown up with 60s vaues as the norm, and are intimately aware of the deficiencies. The early baby boomers who kick-started the liberal social revolution grew up in an era where Victorian prudery were more or less the norm. Noone they know had lived in a sexually permissive society, so besides giving the pat warnings of doom, noone could describe to them through past experience what dangers lay ahead.

Social trends become stale and brittle one or two generations after their inception, because the newer generations are merely conforming to their parents values, and do not have the experiental capital to transmit to their children when they arrive at the point when rebellion against those values appears to be desirable.

William Strauss and Neil Howe have written several excellent books describing the repeating cycles of generational change, including Millennials Rising : The Next Great Generation.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 7, 2005 12:46 PM

Morally, it's all been downhill since society stopped expecting girls who were seduced and abandoned to throw themselves in the river.

What a cart of steaming nightsoil.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 7, 2005 2:12 PM

Brands' thesis has many holes in it, one of which is the fact that 60s radicalism was in largely driven by opposition to the American Cold War project. In that sense the antiwar radicals were actually acting in the conservative tradition of opposition to government power as described by Brands.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 7, 2005 2:21 PM


You've gotta draw the line somewhere.

Posted by: oj at August 7, 2005 2:24 PM


No they weren't. They were driven by selfish objections to its effects on themselves.

Posted by: oj at August 7, 2005 2:25 PM


They've already reversed. Schools are resegregated. Women are leaving the workplace to raise families. Abstinence is back in fashion. All are trends that will accelerate as the demographic balkance shgifts drastically towards the Red.

Posted by: oj at August 7, 2005 3:26 PM

Women are leaving the workforce by choice, not because they must, or because the good jobs are closed to them.

If anyone is waiting for women to end using birth control, please stop holding your breath.

Abstinence is much admired, and little practiced.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 8, 2005 5:26 AM


Yes, the values are swinging back to normal.

Posted by: oj at August 8, 2005 7:53 AM

Women have overtaken men in college admissions, and will probably dominate the medical profession in the near future. They are becoming an increasing force in politics, and are increasingly penetrating the corporate penthouse and the boardrooms, as well as becoming an increasing source of entrepreneurial startups. What planet are you living on, OJ? When is Missus OJ planning on returning to the kitchen?

Except for a small minority of serious Catholics, artificial birth control has been accepted by the wider culture.

Self-segregation by race is voluntary, not mandatory, which was the whole point of Jim Crow. Your ability to miss a point is mind-boggling.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 8, 2005 10:21 AM

The proportion of employed women has been rising and the proportion of employed men has been falling.

Last I looked, which has been a while, the two graphs were just about to cross.

I agree with Orrin about drawing lines. We just disagree about where to draw them. Christian sexual teaching, whether in theory or practice, has always been indecent and disgusting, often murderous.

We want to draw the line on the humane side of that.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 9, 2005 3:40 AM

The humane side puts mothers in the home with their children not in the workplace with their kids watched by strangers. You'll still get to have sex with your wife when you come back to the Church.

Posted by: oj at August 9, 2005 8:41 AM