The nonexistent moral decay of the west

Humankind’s struggle with moral is of course nothing new, it rather inherent to our nature to revolt against the meaningless world and the manmade system of reason. Furthermore, moral values vary over a specific period of time swinging from rather high moral standards to very low ones. Regarding morality as an abstract compass guiding our thought, goals and behaviour, Economist, in general, are not known for dealing in depth with the metaphysical reason behind our behaviour yet they explore and explain human actions through our surrounding incentives, which also structure and direct our action. Economist such as Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson or William J. Baumol have explored these changes in human behaviour through changing incentive structures thoroughgoingly.

However, folks mourning the moral decline of today’s west often fail to provide concrete evidence for their argument. They either cherry-pick events or legislatures to infer a macro trend inductively or they lose themselves in difficult language trying to somehow save their argument by making it incomprehensible. I cannot help feeling that mourning the moral decay of the west has somehow become a shibboleth for eloquently expressing the “Things used to be way better back then” narrative. However, I admit that there were probably a couple of sociological papers who have covered this issue very well which I am unaware of. Contrary, the public debate was dominated by a few grumpy intellectuals holding the above-named attitude. I was recently provided with a very concrete set of indicators to measure moral decline while digging through Samuel P. Huntington’s infamous classic “The clash of civilization” from 1996. He states that there are five main criteria which indicate the ongoing decline of moral values in the West. [1]

After being provided with a concrete framework to quantify the moral decline of the west, I was keen to see how the moral decline of the west has developed in the 20 years since the book has first been published in 1996. Although I also take issue with some of these indicators to measure moral decline, I avoid any normative judgement in the first part and just look at their development over time. Furthermore, since Samuelson himself mostly takes data from the USA representing the West, I might as well do so too for the sake of simplicity. So, let’s see what happened to moral values in the West in the last years by checking each of Huntington’s indicator one by one.

1. Increasing antisocial behaviour such as acts of crime, drug use and general violence

Apart from the global long-term trend of declining homicides, we can also observe a recent downward trend in the reported violent crime rate since 1990 in the USA. Scholars agree that the crime rate is in an extreme decline. Expanding the realm towards Europe, you will see similar results (see here).

1Source: Statista

Despite these trends, the public (as well as some intellectuals as well I assume) vastly still holds a distorted perception of the crime rate. The sharp decline in actual crimes strongly contradicts the fact that a majority of the people still uphold the myth of increasing crime rates.

2

Source: Pew Research Center

Regarding drug use in the USA, it is important to mention that the absolute amount of illicit drugs consumed has slightly gone up since 1990. This development is mostly driven by an increasing  consumption of marijuana: Use of most drugs other than marijuana has stabilized over the past decade or has declined., states the National Institute on drug abuse in 2015.

Contrary, the number of deadly injections are increasing. However, the share of the population with drug use disorders has remained on the same level of 5.3% over the last 20 years.

2. Decay of the family resulting in increasing divorce rates, teenage motherhood and single parents

It is hard to measure the “Decay of the family” itself. Luckily, Huntington further concretizes his claim by naming some of the measurable effects. There is nothing much to do to refute these statement except for looking at the following graphs.

a) Firstly, the divorce rate is sharply declining.

3

Source: Statista

b) Second, teenage pregnancy rates are also dropping since 1990.

4Source: National Vita Statistics Report

c) Third, the number of Americans living in single parenthood is not increasing drastically since 1990.

5Source: Statista

I often take issue when (especially conservative) scholars mourn the declining importance of family. Even if there are certain indicators which would back up Huntington’s claims, he does not name them himself. While it is indeed true that “family” as an institution is undergoing changes, there is no evidence (at least named by Huntington) to back up the claim of a decline of its importance.

3. Declining “social capital” and voluntarism leading to less trust.

It is indeed true, that the adult volunteering rate declined from early 2000 to 2016 from 27.4% to 24.9%. Interestingly, it recently bounced back to a new high in 2018, hitting the 30% target. Really the only point where one must agree to Huntington’s claim is the decrease of interpersonal trust as well as trust in public institutions. This trend is indeed very worrisome considering that trust is a major factor for flourishing societies.

4. The decline in work ethic

The research here is a little bit tricky and points in both directions. Although there has been wide academic coverage of the millennial work ethic scholars could not find a consensus on this issue. Its is especially difficult to extract the generational influence from other key determinants of work ethic, such as position or age. Academics warn to mistake the ever-ongoing conflict between young vs. old with the Boomer vs. Millenial conflict. I haven’t settled my opinion on this one. These Articles from Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today provide a good overview of both sides of the medal.

5. Less general interest in Education

This indicator is particularly interesting for me because as a member of the 90’ generation, I have experienced quite the opposite in Germany. But let’s have a look at the data.

Despite ranking only in the middle in a global country comparison, the US students still made a huge leap in terms of maths and reading proficiency, which only slowed down in 2015:

6

Source: Pew Research Center

Furthermore, the overall educational level of the USA continues to rise, resulting in the fact that  “the percentage of the American population age 25 and older that completed high school or higher levels of education reached 90% [for the first time ] in 2017.” Contrary, there are still major differences when one looks at features like race or parent household (See here), but the overall trajectory of the educational level is sloping upwards.

What do these criteria measure?

As you can see, there is little to no evidence to empirically back up the claim of western moral decay. Furthermore, while many case studies have shown that lack of interpersonal trust, lack of education or a declining work ethic can pose a great threat to society, I refuse to see a connection (a no known to me study disproves me here) between (recreational) drugs consumption, alternative family models, increasing hedonism and moral decline. Thus I believe that many advocates of the moral decay theory regard it as an opportunity to despise developments they personally do not like. I do not imply that everyone arguing for the moral decline of the west is unaware of the global macro-trends which heavily improved our life, but I highly doubt their assumption, that we are currently in a short-to-medium term “moral recession”. Even when one upholds the very conservative statements such as drug consumption adding to moral decline, is hard to argue that we are currently witnessing a moral decay of the west. Contrary, It may be true that Huntington has observed something different in the period before publishing “The clash of civilization” in 1996. Of course, I myself witness the ongoing battle against norms on the increasing hostility towards the intellectual enemy in the west, but one should always keep in mind the bigger picture. Our world is getting better – in the long- and in the short-run; There is no such thing as a moral decline of the West.


[1] Huntington, Samuel P. (2011): Kampf der Kulturen. Die Neugestaltung der Weltpolitik im 21. Jahrhundert. Vollst. Taschenbuchausg., 8. Aufl. München: Goldmann (Goldmann, 15190). P. 500

Let’s Find Out – or: the Power of Reference

The core message of a number of books I’ve recently had the great pleasure to read has been fairly simple. Have a look. Check it out. Put your numbers in perspective. In a world awash with statistics and cognitive biases imploring us to cheer mindlessly for our own team, having the skill and wherewithal to step back and carefully ask: “can this really be so?” is golden.

One of recently passed celebrity professor and YouTube phenomenon Hans Rosling’s most profound advice for countering misinformation about the state of the world is precisely this: put all numbers in perspective. Never accept unaccompanied numbers – never believe the numerator without checking the denominator. What matters, as Bryan Caplan never ceases to emphasize as the GMU Economics creed, “are statistics, not emotions – and arguments, not stories.”

But, a statistic may never be left alone, Rosling maintains, but always compared to other relevant numbers. What share of its total category does this statistic represent? What was it last year, 5 or 10 or 20 years ago? Is there some self-evident change in associated behavior that is relevant or ought to explain it? A century ago street cars used to kill and injure hundreds of people every year, but since very few American cities make use of street cars today, the casualty is fortunately much lower. If we keep in mind that miles travelled by cars far outnumber miles travelled by street cars, reporting the number of street car deaths – while probably correct – entirely miss the point when discussing traffic safety. In How Not To Be Wrong, Mathematics professor Jordan Ellenberg quipped

Dividing one number by another is mere computation ; knowing what to divide by what is mathematics.

Here’s another example. If I told you about 23 000 individual deaths and spent a brief 10 second on each of them, going through the list would take me almost three days. On a personal level like that, 23 000 deaths is an absurd, insane, catastrophe-style event that few people are emotionally equipped to handle – essentially the size of my hometown, wiped out in a single year. If I told you those 23 000 deaths were due to antibiotic resistant diseases in the U.S. last year, the pandemic scenarios working through your mind quickly escalate. That many! Let’s find the nearest bunker!

If I then told you that cancer and heart diseases (each!) claim the lives of about 20x that, the fear of lethal apocalyptic germs consuming the world ought to quickly recede. Oh.

Here’s another example. It is entirely correct to point out that the number of people killed in worldwide airplane accidents in 2018 (556 people) was much higher than the year before (44 people) and the year before that (325 people). Would one be excused for believing that air travel is getting more risky and dangerous? Forbes, for instance, ran a roughly accurate story claiming that airline fatalities increased by 900%.

Not in the slightest. The number of fatalities from air travel has been falling for decades, all while the number of flights and miles travelled have increased exponentially, meaning that the per-flight, per-mile or per-passenger risk of death has kept dropping. Not to mention that alternative modes of travelling like driving is magnitudes more dangerous.

While Rosling teaches us to figure out what the base rate is, i.e. putting our statistic into appropriate perspective, one of Philip Tetlock’s tricks for becoming a ‘Superforecaster’ is to use Bayesian updating of one’s beliefs. This picks up precisely where Rosling’s idea left off. Once we know where to start, we have to amass more information, numbers and observations from other points of view – Bayesian updating is a popular method to incorporate and synthesize new information with the old.

In short “Calculation, like logic, is your friend” (Landsburg 2018: 44). Statistics matter and numbers can deceive. In order to better understand our realities and see through mistakes that others make – either intentionally to deceive or persuade, or unintentionally through ignorance – we must embrace the core message of people like Ellenberg, Tetlock, Duffy, Rosling or Pinker.

Always Be Comparing Thy Numbers. Never accept an unaccompanied statistic. Never trust numerators without denominators.

Old Property

Property is the basis for every right and ounce of autonomy we have. James Madison called property “that dominion which one claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.” Madison went on to argue that basically every right we enjoy is reducible to a property right. We have property in our opinions, in the free use of our faculties, in the safety and liberty of our body, and so on. He believed that “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort” and a government can only be just if it “impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.”

But government has not remained impartial in this endeavor. It has become a massive property owner in its own right.  It has also become a gatekeeper, setting the terms for individuals’ uses of their own property. It has also become a broker and redistributor of property. And finally, it has =become a creator of property in the form of entitlements–what Charles Reich famously called “new property.” It’s this last role that I’d like to discuss here.

Government’s role as a creator of property has muddled and watered down the strength of property rights. The problem began when U.S. courts started grappling with claims that individuals had been deprived of a constitutional right when government stripped them of a government-created entitlement, such as social security.

Courts confronted with this problem basically held that while constitutional rights do attach to entitlements, the government has an increased authority to limit the rights to those entitlements. Essentially, since the government created the entitlement, the government can define the scope and terms of that entitlement.

This “new property” doctrine then became entangled with a different idea altogether. The United States Constitution protects against deprivations of life, liberty, and property without due process of law. The Constitution, however, does not define property. Courts have held instead that state law defines property , and the Constitution then protects rights to that property.

That does not mean, however, that all property can be whisked away at a whim as if it is all “new property.” Rather, even though state law may establish what property is, states do not have the power to mutate and redefine all property rights on a whim. In essence, there is “new property” and then there is “old property.”

“Old property” is a bundle of long-recognized property rights rooted in common law. But just because those rights have arisen from common law courts over the centuries does not mean that these are property rights created by government in the same sense as less-protected “new property.” There is a fundamental difference, for constitutional purposes, between government recognizing a boundary line and creating a food stamp program. In some sense, this difference strikes a deeper philosophical chord, one that distinguishes between positive law and natural law–or fundamental rights that are acknowledged and respected by government, and entitlements that are created and controlled by government.

What are these fundamental property rights? Most are intuitive and understood by babies as soon as their hands are capable of grasping. They include the right to exclude others (the first property right understood by all children everywhere), the right to quiet enjoyment, the right dispose of the property by sale or lease, the right to develop and improve the property, etc. That right extends to chattel and land–things the government does not create but simply exist and are brought under human ownership through a first-in-time rule or a transfer.

The idea that “new property” deserves lesser protection because government dictates its bounds has bled over into the “old property” rights. This stems from confusion between government recognizing the existence of a fundamental right and government creating an entitlement. Extensive permitting regimes have only exacerbated this confusion. When local governments demand a permit before a property owner can do something with their land, the government looks upon that permit as an entitlement–a privilege and not a right. Thus, “new property” ideas come to overlay and suffocate “old property.” As permitting regimes expand, the world of “old property” retracts. But that permit is not a “new property” entitlement–it’s a condition placed upon a fundamental background right–an intruder upon natural law. When a permitting authority tries to strip away or deny a permit, that denial should be subjected to the full rigor of constitutional scrutiny offered to “old property,” not the weak sauce protections for entitlements.

If a government is only just if it limits itself to protecting what is ours, as Madison believed, then we don’t have many just governments left to us. Courts could help by establishing a clearer distinction between the old and the new forms of property so that governments can’t get away with redefining or stripping away fundamental property rights.

Free Immigration is not a Classical Liberal Right

My eye caught this article, which stands in a long tradition among libertarians.

It is the kind of fairy tale theory that gives liberal thought a bad name in general, and classical liberal thought in particular, as it is often confused with libertarianism in the US.

My problem with arguments like these is that they make logical sense, but are practically non-sensical at the same time. I am more than willing to admit that in the ideal libertarian world free immigration indeed is a right. Yet I do not think arguments like these help us to get that libertarian ideal one inch closer. On the contrary, I am afraid it only fosters disdain and outright disbelief, even among potential supporters.

The main problem of course is that there is no ideal libertarian world. Yet libertarians all too often do not seem to care about that. They rather continue to argue about what fairy tales makes the most logical sense, rather than using their sometimes brilliant minds to come up with ideas and theories to actually foster a more liberal world. Let alone a classical liberal or a libertarian world.

To make a case for free immigration on the basis of rights is to deny the property rights of current populations. Roughly, that argument goes like this: in this world most immigrants will make some claim to these existing property rights once they arrive in their host country. Higher taxation to pay for the immigration system is one thing, but also think of housing, claims to health and medical systems, social welfare programs, schools, roads, et cetera. The majority of the current population has put money into (these) public goods, certainly in Europe, and thus property rights were created. These  should be protected and can only consensually be changed.

Also, there are more intangible effects, think for example of the change in culture and social cohesion, certainly before the new arrivals are fully integrated. Hayek warned against precisely these destabilizing effects of large groups of immigrants entering a relatively homogenous territory, drawing on his own Viennese experience in the interwar years. He openly supported Margaret Thatcher to this end in a letter to The Times on February 11, 1978, which were followed by further explanations in the same newspaper in the weeks thereafter.

This is not to say we should all build (or rather attempt to build) walls, or close off borders completely. Some form of immigration is indeed called for, if only out of humanitarian perspective. That is something completely different than free immigration though.

Bad Religion

The Heidelberg Catechism is one of my all-time favorite Christian documents. Written in 1563, mostly by Zacharias Ursinus, the Heidelberg (as it is sometimes called) is composed by 129 questions and answers (the classical format of a catechism), supposed to be studied in 52 Sundays (that is, one year). I believe it is very telling that, being a catechism, the Heidelberg was written thinking mostly about younger people, even children. Ursinus himself was only about 29 years old when he wrote it. Maybe it is a sign of the times we live in that the Heidelberg sounds extremely deep for most readers today.

Throughout its questions and answers, the Heidelberg covers mostly three Christian documents: The Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father who art in Heaven…”) and the Apostle’s Creed. The catechism is also divided into three main parts: Our sin and misery (questions 3-11), our redemption and freedom (questions 12-85), our gratitude and obedience (86-129). Probably an easier way to remember this is to say that the Heidelberg is divided into Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. That is also, according to many interpreters, the basic division of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, historically one of the most important books in the Bible.

I mention all these characteristics about the Heidelberg Catechism because I think they are worth commenting on. As I learned from a friend, that is the Gospel: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. As C.S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, Christians are divided on how exactly this works, but all agree that our relationship with God is strained. That is the guilt. However, in Jesus Christ, we can restart a peaceful relationship with God. That is the grace. This should be followed by a life of gratitude. That is the way the Gospel is good news. If you don’t emphasize these three points you are not really presenting the Biblical gospel. To talk about grace without talking about guilt is nonsense. To talk about guilt and not grace is not good news at all. To talk about guilt and grace but not of gratitude is antinomianism. To talk about gratitude (or obedience) without talking about guilt and especially grace is legalism. But also, notice how unbalanced the three main parts are: Ursinus dedicated way more space for grace and gratitude that he did for guilt.

That’s not accidental. Also, it is very interesting that he talks about the Ten Commandments when he is dealing with gratitude. It didn’t have to be this way. Ursinus could have included the Law when talking about guilt. He could use the law to show how miserable we are for not fulfilling it. But instead, he wanted to show that obeying God is a sign of gratitude. You are free already. Obeying will not make you any more saved. But it is certainly the behavior of a truly restored person.

If you read so far, I should first thank you for your attention, but also say that I am completely unapologetic for speaking so openly on Christian themes. At some point in history, Christians decided to adapt to the modern culture. That was the birth of Christian Liberalism. Modern man, some of them assumed, could no longer believe in stories of gods and miracles. Modern science was able to explain things that societies in the past thought to be supernatural occurrences. The Bible was at worst pure nonsense or at beast a praiseful reflection of the piety of people in the past, but certainly not a supernatural revelation from God. But if you take away the supernatural elements of the Bible, what do you have left? Good morals, some thought. I believe they were wrong.

The social gospel is one consequence of Christian liberalism. The central miracle in the Bible is that Jesus, a mortal man, was dead for three days and resurrected. That is indeed a miracle. Make no mistake: people in the first century knew as well as we do that people don’t come back to life after three days. Maybe they knew it better than we do, for in the 21st century, for many of us, death is not a part of everyday life. For them, it certainly was. Christians have believed through almost two thousand years that Jesus’ death and resurrection have something to do with us being reconciled to God. But if Jesus didn’t resurrect, and no one really heard from God that he is angry, what do we have left? The answer, according to Christian liberals, is social justice. Reform society. I believe that for this, they own society at large an apology, and I will explain why.

I heard from too many people that the reason they don’t go to church is that Christians are hypocrites. “Do as I say, but not as I do”. Maybe they are right. The balance between guilt, grace, and gratitude if fundamental for Christianism to work. Salvation (reestablishing a rightful relationship with God) is by grace, not by works. Say that salvation is by works and you set the board in a way that you are sure to lose. As I already mentioned, I think it is just wonderful that the Heidelberg Catechism talks about the Law of God (The Ten Commandments) when it is discussing gratitude, not guilt, and I believe this is a great lesson for us today.

I say all this today because I believe that political correctness is (at least to a great degree) the bastard son (or daughter) of the social gospel. See the recent Gillette commercial that caused so much controversy, for example. Are they really saying anything wrong? Don’t men behave sometimes in ways that are less than commendable? I believe we do. Especially coming from a Latino culture as I do, I am more than willing to say that men all too often are disrespectful towards women and also towards other men. However, how the people at Gillette know this? If there is no God, or if he didn’t speak, how can you tell what is ethically commendable behavior and what is not?

I am no specialist, but as far as I know, more than enough atheist philosophers are willing to admit that in a sole materialist worldview there are no universal grounds for morality. As the poet said, “if there is no God, then all things are permissible”. It is always important in a conversation like this to explain that I am not saying that atheists cannot be ethical people. That is absolutely not what I am saying. Some of the best people I ever met were atheists. Some of the worst were Christians who were at church every single Sunday. With that explained, what I am saying is that there is no universal guide for human behavior if there is no God and everything just happened by chance. There are particular guides, but not a universal one, and to adhere to them is really a matter of choice.

The way that I see it, people at Gillette want men to feel bad and to change their behavior. They want men to feel guilty and to have gratitude. But where is the grace? I believe that is why this commercial irritated so many people. It makes people at Gillette look self-righteous or legalistic. Or both! But it definitely doesn’t help men to change their ways, supposing that there is something to change. I believe there is. There is a lot to change! But political correctness is not the way to do it.

Government shutdown – private vs. public responses

The recent shutdown of the government in America has caused a midsize crisis for state employees leaving them unpaid for 35 days straight. Although the shutdown ended on the 25th of January, one can still draw a conclusion about the crisis handling from a public and a private perspective.

A failure of government

When you take a closer look at the history of governmental crisis management, you mostly look at a huge collection of mismanagement. In the last few years there has been a tremendous amount of intriguing works dealing with the failures of public crisis responses, especially the case of hurricane Katrina (Wikipedia here lists more than 100 references), which has been one the of most investigated disasters in recent history.

Crisis can provoke the good as well as the bad inside humans. One might think of the countless volunteers after nature catastrophes doing their very best to help. On the other hand, there have also been stories of grieving and plundering mobs on the streets, after hurricane Katrina for example. So, what we can say for sure is that crises push human behaviour to the extremes. Keeping this in mind it sounds reasonable to leave it to the government to set up an agenda of rules to coordinate humanitarian efforts. However, the government fails most of the time to deliver effective responses to crises, whether they are man-made or exogenous.

Not being able to find an agreement over the federal budget indicates that the government also has very limited options to offer to their employees. And indeed, Lara Trump gave some very handy advice to unpaid workers: “Listen, it’s not fair to you, and we all get that, but this is so much bigger than any one person. It is a little bit of pain but it’s going to be for the future of our country. […] Their children and their grandchildren will thank them for their sacrifice right now.” Yes, please explain to your children how you nearly starved to death because of a dispute over a wall. Sounds reasonable.

Whereas Donald Trump’s kind of clumsy attempt to clarify Ross Wilbur’s statement that government workers should take out loans (Maybe a small loan of a million dollars, huh?) was not too stupid at all. He emphasizes that worker should “work along” with local grocery shop owners they know. He was very clear that employees could not expect help from the government, but instead, they should look out for support on a local level. I do not think that this is a good method of communicating this issue, but it is for sure a very honest one.

Mac & Cheese

A 35-day shutdown, so to speak nearly a missed monthly wage, might not sound unbearable for a central European. But keeping in mind the saving habits of many Americans, a huge amount of government workers are facing existential problems. A recent FED survey found out that about 40% of the American population is not able to cover a 400$ emergency expense without selling or borrowing something.

Witnessing the inability of the government to provide payments for their workers, private enterprises reacted in a remarkable way. The huge food company Kraft rented space for pop-up stores in Washington in which they gave away food entirely for free. One of the most demanded products was Mac & Cheese. The celebrity Chef José Andrés provided free groceries for affected government worker through his NGO “World Central Kitchen.” When the government stopped caring, people started to do so.

Learnings

The overwhelming care for the unpaid government workers by the private sector further strengthened the role and importance of individual responsibility. In situations of crises, people tend to be less submissive to authority and focus on voluntary cooperation of human beings. I feel like it is important to mention here that I do not want to praise crises as a suitable method of bringing people together. But when we take a closer look at the history of humanity it becomes evident that instead of governmental decisions, voluntary human cooperation made our modern life possible. And in times of crises, people become clear about the relevance of these values and processes, which normally guide human progress subconsciously and unnoticed. Private responses to crises are a sign to me that humans are capable to display kindness, cooperation, and humanity beyond the borders of government.

John Rawls had good reason to be a reticent socialist and political liberal

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John Rawls: Reticent Socialist by William A. Edmundson has provoked a renewed attempt, written up in Jacobin and Catalyst, to link the totemic American liberal political philosopher with an explicitly socialist program to fix the problems of 21st century capitalism, and especially the domination of the political process by the super-rich. I found the book a powerful and enlightening read. But I think it ultimately shows that Rawls was right not to weigh his philosophy down with an explicit political program, and that socialists have yet to respond effectively to James Buchanan’s exploration of the challenges of non-market decision-making – challenges that bite more when states take on more explicit economic tasks. The large-scale public ownership of industry at the core of Edmundson’s democratic socialism is plausibly compatible with a stable, liberal political community in some circumstances but it is unclear how such a regime is supposed to reduce the scope of social domination compared with a private-property market economy in similar circumstances once we look at public institutions with the same skeptical attention normally reserved for private enterprise. A draft review is below.

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