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

Some quick thoughts from Athens

I spent the last week and a half in Greece (mainly Athens and other historical sites in the Peloponnese) thanks to the Reason, Individualism and Freedom Institute, and explored ancient political philosophy in a modernly turbulent state. I’m writing this in Naples. Here are a few thoughts I had from the first couple days in Athens.

There is a strong antifa presence (at least judging from graffiti, small talk with some locals and the bios of Grecian Tinder girls). I can’t help but imagine the American antifa pales in comparison. Our black bloc — thrust into the spotlight in mostly superficial college campus debates — tends to be enthusiastic, whereas the antifa in Hellas, culturally sensitive to millennia of dictatorships, entrenched aristocracies, Ottoman annexation, great power puppeteering and a century of neighbouring fascist regimes, must be somber and steadfast. Our antifa crowd has so little targets to find Ben Shapiro a worthy protest, whereas Golden Dawn, the ultranationalist, Third Reich-aesthetics Metaxist party gets 7% in the Hellenic Parliament. Nothing here is spectacle. (Moreover, the extreme-right in Greece, according to our tour guide, has been known to worship and deify mainstream Christian figures as well as the ancient gods spawned of Uranus and Gaia. Umberto Eco’s immortal essay Ur-Fascism explained phenomena like this as the ‘syncretic’ element of fascist traditionalism.)

Moving past the fascists and antifa, in general Greece is left. The Communist Party of Greece, KKE, gets about 5% of the votes and displays a sickle and hammer. More telling still, plenty of the leftist graffiti is actually representing the KKE. Political parties tend to de-radicalize, or are supposed to in theory, and the fringe ideologues disavow the party for centrism or weakness (it’s funny to think of American socialists spray-painting the initials of the CPUSA). The graffiti stretches all the way to Lesvos, of Aristotle’s biology and Sappho’s poetry, and to Corinth of the cult of Aphrodite, but is most prominent in downtown Athens.

Athens has an anarcho-friendly district with a rich history called Εξάρχεια, Exarcheia. Antifascist tagging is complimented by antipolice, antistate, antiborders and LGBT designs, the Macedonian question is totally absent, and posters about political prisoners stack on each other like hotels on ruins. Our friends at KEFiM warned us about Exarcheia — it has a history of political/national xenophobia, and one member had been violently assaulted — but I had already visited on the first day. Aside from a recently blown-up car, it wasn’t too different from Berkeley — nice apartments and restaurants juxtaposed with street art and a punk crowd, drug dealing, metal bars on windows. Granted, this was in daylight and I saw only what was discoverable with Google maps. Still, I had the fading remains of a black eye and my usual clothing is streetwear, so maybe I wasn’t too out of place — even as an American and thus most hated representative of that target of so much antifascist graffiti, NATO.

Much of the larger politics of Greece were not easy to discover from our various tour guides. Just like the ancient myths of the country, they constantly contradict each other.

The Athens underground metro was incredibly clean and modern — infinitely more than in Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. — while their roads are constipated and chaotic. Duh, the city itself is one of our most ancient settled, and so roads have proceeded in a particularly unorganized fashion. But it did cause me to consider the beauty that on a planet where our civilizations literally build on each other generation after generation — and, in an uncommon historical epoch where conquering is out of fashion — sometimes the only place to go is down. Humans have expanded our surface area in dimensions completely unfathomable to the diasporic colonizers from ancient Crete.

The syncretic chaos of the streets, though nauseating to the newcomer, lends itself to almost divine levels of flânerie, such that one can walk hours without reaching any particular destination and feel accomplished. Nothing much looks the same when Times Square melts into an ancient agora melts into a Byzantine church melts into the beach. Attica is wildly heterogeneous and beautiful; modernist adherents to classical Greek conceptions of precision-as-beauty should be humbled.

I should add also that my first impressions of Athens (and Catania) was how much it looked like something out of a videogame. The condition of 21st century man is that, upon visiting foreign cities for the first time, he will invariably compare them to Call of Duty maps.

On a few occasions, enough for me to notice but not enough for me to declare it a custom, my server (who sits me, takes my order and waits on me) gave me extra food on the side. This only happened at small restaurants that aren’t overly European and might be an orange juice, fruit bowl or something small and similar. Every time, of course, I left a larger tip. These actions put us in a sort of gamble. For the waiter to bring me something periphery, he might expect a grander gratuity. Then, when I notice the extra item, I have to assume that it’s not just a mistake — that he didn’t think I ordered something extra which will appear on my tab. He and I are both sort of gambling our luck. Of course, it’s not a real gamble — in every instance we were at least partially sociable prior and lose nothing substantial if it doesn’t work out. What is interesting is that we’ve removed ourselves just a little from the law — I am only legally obligated to pay for what I ordered; he is only legally obliged to bring me what I paid for. Still, without the legal backdrop, everyone leaves happy. Left-libertarians would like it.

(As everyone knows, the Greeks are very hospitable and friendly, and this is a testament to that. A counter-example: I went to a gay club for the first time in the rainbow district of Athens. I can’t speak enough of the tongue to talk to women anyway, and there is at least a chance that some guy will buy us drinks. Nobody buys us drinks. The only conclusions are that we’re not handsome enough or the Greeks are not as friendly. It has to be the latter.)

I should quickly add something about coffee. Where it not for the drought of drip coffee, I could easily stay in the Mediterranean forever. Alas, to literally order an “iced coffee” — kafe frappe — you are ordering a foamy concoction with Nescafé. To order a Greek coffee (known as a “Turkish coffee” before tensions in the 1960’s) means an espresso-type shot with grounds/mud at the bottom. But, the coffee culture is fantastic — the shops are all populated with middle-aged dudes playing cards, smoking rollies, and shooting the shit. I don’t think I need to describe the abominable state of American coffee culture. Entrenched in their mud, the Greeks resisted American caffeine imperialism. Starbucks tried and failed to conquer the coffee market: there were already too many formulas, and the Greeks insisted on smoking inside.

Ideology and the Alliance for Progress: Charting the Boundaries of the Welfare State

This Fall I took a course on the history of the Welfare State at Penn. I also used to work “in the system,” teaching English and job skills to Spanish-speaking TANF recipients at an NPO in North Philadelphia, so it was a nice complement to that experience. Overall the course was great given the volatility of the subject and the difficulty of understanding an abstraction like “welfare.”  I thought the course fell short in contextualizing the welfare state within the broader scope of government, so I wrote a paper about how the welfare state and foreign aid interacted in Kennedy’s policy and rhetoric.

The perils of globalization and modernization have largely been attributed to “neoliberalism” and neoliberal American global hegemony, which I think has some merit. The American welfare state has historically been such a strange beast that it’s really difficult to point fingers–few nations have seen a clash between principles of general welfare/security and personal liberty on the scale of the USA. Yet today it seems that “foreign development” (generally taking place under neoconservative, globalist institutions) and “domestic” or “community development” (generally taking place from the American “left”) are at odds with one another. The consensus on foreign aid at best rests on our duty to help the global have-nots and at worst is a less-risky way to build global security in the post-911 world. But both of these reflect a Bismarckian idea of State building to me… So is there a historical link?

My paper looks for answers in JFK and his Alliance for Progress. This project was a foreign analogue of the New Frontier that got Kennedy elected and seemed to be the future of the American Welfare State until his untimely assassination. Due to resistance at home, the Alliance for Progress was much further along than any New Frontier domestic reforms, despite complementary rhetoric and Kennedy’s constant comparison of the two. The Alliance provided millions in aid to Latin America in the name of developing economy and–as many historians neglect to mention–society. It died out by the mid-70s (largely due to neoliberal push-back and underfunding, or so the story goes) but what was the ideological basis of the reform? What did Kennedy want out of the millions he was lobbying to send abroad?

Overall, the Alliance was multifaceted: It sought to strengthen perceptions of America, grow international political ties, and generally create a buffer against the Cold War Communist threat. But these aspects were presented as international extensions of domestic policy by both outward rhetoric and by internal Congressional and diplomatic correspondence. Agrarian reform (ie, away from communal landholding, especially in Mexico), income redistribution, and a more just hemispherical society were also included as benchmarks.

The program eventually aimed to directly map Tennessee Valley Authority river basin development on top of Colombian valleys, hoping to make a Tupelo or Knoxville out of Cali or Buenaventura. The founder of the TVA, David Lilienthal, won a contract to develop Colombia under the Alliance for Progress after abortive plans to similarly shape the Mekong Delta and the Nile. And while big business was the engine running the machine, rubber met road with promises of social reform, workforce development, and increased social equality for the poor, uncivilized masses susceptible to Communist dogma.

While globalization’s detractors cry capitalist overreach, authoritarian power grab, or something in between, proponents of foreign aid still need to explain why hunger, malaria, and TB are so prevalent given global wealth–and be honest about the beginnings of these international institutions. I can’t make prescriptive calls to action, but I can say that the foundation of the current international aid regime was laid by the example of domestic welfare state-building, by ideals of a strong state guiding a “free” market to achieve affirmative social outcomes

If you want to read the paper: Here’s a full (18 pp. with references) and 10-page version.

Around the Web

1. Stanford’s online encyclopedia of philosophy has a new entry on ‘markets’.

2. Why the Swedes are moving to Norway.

3. John Stossel explains why Washington DC is the richest area in the US:

Lobbyists and taxpayer-funded special privilege won’t go away unless big government does.

4. BRICS planning to build their own development bank. Does this signal the end of the West’s 400-year period of dominance? No. If anything, this is a triumph of the ideal of the West and especially its thinkers’ critiques of central economic planning.

5. The Sectarian Social Democratic Ideal. A very, very good critique of social democracy.