It is a characteristic feature of Modernity to separate between private morality and public ethics. The first concerns the ethics of principles by virtue of which each individual governs his own sphere of autonomy. Each individual, while not interfering in the interests of third parties, is a legislator, judge, and part of their own moral issues. The law regulates conflicts of interest between individuals, giving legal protection to a certain range of interests and systematically denying it to others (Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume I, “Norms and Order”, 1973). For example, in almost all modern legal systems the interest to move and, fundamentally, to leave a territory is protected through the freedom of locomotion. In the meantime, a producer may feel prejudiced by the mere existence of competition and nevertheless he may be denied the right to protection of his monopoly (since a “right” is a legally protected interest). In both cases, questions of principle and questions of social utility are combined.
In most modern systems, the interest to circulate freely is solved more by addressing questions of principles than of social utility – the right to freedom of locomotion is enshrined without addressing arguments about the utility of denying legal protection with respect to another interest. While the problems of protectionism and competition are considered mainly in terms of their social utility, the arguments about whether a certain individual or group of individuals have, as a matter of principle, the right to monopolize an economic activity by the mere fact of belonging to a certain ethnic group, estate, or guild today sounds ridiculous, but not in the past.
The widespread distinction practiced by Max Weber between ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility continues in force. Individuals, in their private lives, have the right to make decisions following the ethics of conviction, although their principles may be debatable, obsolete, incongruous, and arbitrary. In any case, the consequences will have to weigh on the agents of the decision themselves. On the other hand, the consequences of the decisions of politicians extend to the whole society. The ethics of responsibility becomes relevant here, which, although it may come into conflict with the ethical principles most widely spread among members of society – that is, the current morality – it must address issues related to social utility. This is to say that a substitution of the current morality for welfare economics would be operated.
However, the Weberian notion of ethics responsibility brings with it all the problems of instrumental reason: the means-that is, the resources to be sacrificed-must be proportional to the ends-in this case, the social utility-but remains open to definition what are the values that will define social utility. This is how the question of principles is reintroduced, the discussions about what is right and what is wrong, i.e. morality, in the political sphere. Correlatively, the critiques around the notion of subjective or instrumental reason once formulated by Max Weber are also applicable to the aforementioned welfare economy, so that they retain special validity.
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. 
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).
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.
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.
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.
b) Second, teenage pregnancy rates are also dropping since 1990.
Source: National Vita Statistics Report
c) Third, the number of Americans living in single parenthood is not increasing drastically since 1990.
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:
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.
 Huntington, Samuel P. (2011): Kampf der Kulturen. Die Neugestaltung der Weltpolitik im 21. Jahrhundert. Vollst. Taschenbuchausg., 8. Aufl. München: Goldmann (Goldmann, 15190). P. 500
Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson acknowledge that the weakest point of their theory consists of recommendations to “break the mold.” How to change the historical matrix that leaves the nations stagnant in extractive political and economic institutions, or that move them back from having inclusive economic institutions with extractive political institutions to being trapped in exclusively extractive institutions with the risk of falling into a failed state. This brings us to Douglass C. North and his theory of institutional change.
Although he published works before and after Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, this book can be taken as the archetypal expression of neo-institutionalism. In the United States, institutionalism, whose main speaker was the Swedish immigrant Thorstein Veblen, was the local expression of what in Europe was known as “historicism”: a romantic current, inspired by Hegelian idealism, which denied the universal validity of institutional rules and claimed the particularism of the historical experience of each nation. American historicism was called institutionalism, because it concentrated the sciences of the spirit in the empirical study of the institutions given in the United States.
On the contrary, North’s school is called “neo-institutionalist” because it does exactly the opposite: it studies the phenomenon of institutions from a behavioral point of view and, therefore, universal. As already noted here, for North institutions are limiting the choice of the rational agent in his context of political, economic and social interaction. These limitations are abstract; that is, they are not physical, like the law of gravity, nor do they depend on a specific and specific order of authority. Examples of these abstract limitations can be found in social customs and uses, in moral rules, in legal norms insofar as they are enunciated in general and abstract terms.
Attentive to such diversity, Douglass C. North groups institutions in formal and informal. Within the formal institutions we find, unquestionably, the positive law, in which its rules of formation and transformation of the statements that articulate them can be identified very clearly. In a modern democracy, laws are sanctioned by the legislative body of the State. Meanwhile, the rules of formation and transformation of statements concerning morality are more diffuse – previously, Carlos Alchourrón and Eugenio Buligyn, in Normative Systems, had used this distinction to support the application of deontic logic to law, since deontic statements of law are much more easily identifiable than those of morality.
On the other hand, North distinguishes two types of institutional change: the disruptive and the incremental. An example of disruptive institutional change can be a revolution, but it can also be a legislative reform. The sanction of a new Civil Code, entirely new, can mean a disruptive change, while partial reforms, which incorporate judicial interpretative criteria or praetorian creations, can be examples of incremental changes.
Institutional changes do not necessarily have to come from their source of creation or validity. Scientific discoveries, advances in transport and telecommunications, information technologies, are some of the innovations that can make certain institutions obsolete or generate a new role or interpretation for it, depending on the open texture of the language.
Therefore, following the tradition of Bernard Mandeville and Adam Ferguson, neo-institutionalism admits that there are unintended consequences in the field of institutional change. Not only the incremental change of institutions, be they formal or informal, depends largely on changes in the cultural and physical environment in which institutions are deployed. Also the disruptive and deliberate change of a formal institution can generate unforeseen consequences, since it is articulated on a background of more abstract informal institutions.
Both Acemoglu & Robinson and North acknowledge that there is no universal law of history that determines institutional change -i.e., they deny historicism, as Karl R. Popper had defined it at the time-; what we have, on the other hand, is an “evolutionary drift,” a blind transformation of institutions. In this transformation, political will and environmental conditions interact. The latter not only limit the range of options for the exercise of “institutional engineering,” but also introduce an element of uncertainty in the outcome of such institutional policies, the aforementioned unintended consequences.
Much more complex is to identify which components are included in that black box that is called “environment” (environment). In principle, there could reappear the creatures that both William Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson had banished from their explanations: the geography, culture and education of the ruling elites; more sophisticated elements such as the one referred to in the previous paragraph could also be incorporated: technological change. However, the discoveries of science would have no impact if the institutional framework pursued “creative destruction”, seeking to protect already installed activities from competition, or a lifestyle threatened by technological innovation.
We arrive here at a seemingly paradoxical situation: the institutions’ environment is the institutions. Using the Douglass North classifications system, one could try as a solution to this paradox the assertion that formal institutions operate on the background of informal institutions, which escape political will, and that disruptive institutional changes occur in a context of other institutions that are transformed in an incremental way. From this solution to reintroduce culture as a factor of ultimate explanation of institutional change, only one step remains.
At the other extreme, following the typologies used by Acemoglu & Robinson, the institutions can be political or economic and these in turn can be extractive or inclusive, jointly or alternatively. Inclusive economic institutions within a framework of extractive political institutions can result in a limitation of creative destruction and, consequently, produce a regression to extractive economic institutions. In the institutional dynamics of Acemoglu & Robinson, history can both progress and regress: from economic institutions and extractive policies it can be involuted even to situations of failed state and civil war. To reach the end of history, with inclusive institutions, seems to depend on the conjugation of a series of favorable variables, among which is the political will; while to fall back into chaos and civil war it is enough to let go. Without looking for it, the conceptual background of Why Nations Fail rehabilitates the thesis of Carl Schmitt insofar as it presupposes that in the background of human interaction there is no cooperation but conflict.
For his part, William Easterly in The Elusive Quest for Growth does not ask these questions, but simply works under a hypothesis that already has it answered: whenever there is human interaction, there will be a framework of incentives and such a framework of incentives will have certain universal characteristics. Douglass C. North’s central concern in Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance, as well as that of Acemoglu & Robinson in Why Nations Fail, was to establish patterns of events and conditions that made some nations be prosperous while others could not emerge from stagnation. That is, they are works that must necessarily be about the differences between one country and another and, therefore, emphasize the different conditions. Notwithstanding that both North and Acemoglu & Robinson expressly shun culturalist explanations, but instead postulate abstract models and typologies of institutions and institutional change to be applied universally, when the moment of exemplification arrives, they must necessarily resort to the differences between countries and regions. While it is true that both books resort to the description of the problems of the southern United States when illustrating how certain institutions generate results similar to those of third world countries, the culturalist explanation is always available.
In contrast, William Easterly in his The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics focuses almost exclusively on countries with low economic performance and only tangentially refers to cases of high performance. Therefore, in his work, the empirical analytical tools used to dissect it are well separated. To do this, Easterly will not only use a utility-maximizing rational agent model, but will also enunciate abstract models of universally valid human interaction.
In the first part of the work, Easterly describes the failed panaceas of growth: direct aid, investment, education, population control, loans to make adjustments and subsequent debt forgiveness. Affirms that such policies invariably failed because they did not take into account the basic principle of the economy that indicates that people respond to incentives (people respond to incentives, a statement that is repeated as a mantra throughout the book). While acknowledging that in some cases of extreme poverty and bad luck it is necessary for governments to take direct action to help people escape from poverty traps, the author proposes as the main means for people to take a path of prosperity: work to establish the right incentives. It clarifies, however, that this should not be a new panacea but a principle to be implemented little by little, displacing the layers of vested interests impregnated with the wrong incentives and allowing the entrance of the right incentives.
These incentives, right or wrong, do not depend on the culture, nor on the education of the elites, nor on geography. On the contrary, they consist of abstract models of human interaction, which can materialize at any time or latitude. Since the main interest of The Elusive Quest for Growth is, precisely, growth, such models concern this matter, but nothing prevents future research from identifying other abstract patterns of behavior that allow us to infer incentives to address other issues, such as crime, equity, violence, etc.
Some incentive structures that Easterly describes in relation to the problem of growth are the following: conditions for increasing returns – instead of decreasing ones – that come from technological innovation, which in turn depend on phenomena identified as “leakage of technological knowledge” (leaks of technological knowledge), “combination of skills” (matches of skills) and traps (traps) of poverty -although there are also wealth traps.
Technological knowledge has the capacity to filter into a population because it is mainly abstract. It can be exemplified in an accounting system, the practice of carrying inventories, literacy, techniques and procedures for the production, distribution and sale of products, etc. If the technological knowledge consisted exclusively of physical machinery, then yes it would be to a point where yields would become decreasing. On the contrary, understanding technological knowledge as consisting of “abstract machines”, it acquires the characteristics of a public good: it is not consumed with its use nor can it be exclusive. This is how technological knowledge can be extended in a society, multiplying the productivity of its members without entering into diminishing returns.
Also, following the ideas of the recent Nobel Prize in Economics Paul Romer, Easterly highlights that technological change can generate increasing returns thanks to the work of an endogenous agent of the economy, the entrepreneur. Being the labor force a fixed factor of production with respect to machinery, it is expected that, at a certain point, capital will generate diminishing returns, thus conditioning the growth rate of an economy (the main concern of The Elusive Quest for Growth). For its part, the entrepreneur is not only that agent of the economy who discovers new business, he also discovers new uses for existing capital goods. Easterly does not mention it, but this is also the main conclusion reached by Ludwig Lachmann in his work Capital and Its Structure. This work of the entrepreneurs, to find a new utility for a set of capital goods that had come to generate diminishing returns, making them continue to generate increasing returns is what frees the rate of growth of the economy from the limits of technological change and, in turn, makes it depend on the endogenous factor of the economy: the incentives for entrepreneurs to develop their activity -which some call creative destruction.
Along with ‘Inequality’ and ‘Democratic socialism’, ‘Sustainability‘ is one of the words that captures the essence of my generation. A sustainable project, event or business is met with “wow”s and “oooh!”s, an indicator of its owner’s moral righteousness and altogether praiseworthy character.
But its meaning is far from clear from all but its most fervent supporters. Dealing with the extraction of resources, the use of ecological reserves or harvesting of crops, a process is allegedly ‘sustainable’ if the naturally occurring regeneration exceeds the current levels of extraction. Simply put, don’t use more than what is (annually?) renewed. Moreover, a process branded as sustainable usually involve a mix of some other virtue signalling activities of our time: carbon emission neutrality or offsetting; at least a superficial concern for one’s environmental impact; energy produced in ‘renewable’ ways (read: nothing but solar, wind or hydro); or the use of recycled materials.
If this sounds unobjectionable and self-evident to you, this piece is for you. Despite the fancy branding, the SDGs, the fervor of self-proclaimed do-gooders, is the ‘sustainability’ of an activity really what we care about?
There are at least two major confusions with the assessment of activities as sustainable or its despised opposite: unsustainable. First, and most frequently occurring, is the belief that we aim to pursue our current endeavor in the same way for all eternity. If you think about it, the indignant objection of unsustainability is often quite meaningless, worthy of nothing but a ‘so what?’ response; everything we do at any given moment is in a sense “unsustainable”:
- if I keep typing on my computer I will eventually starve;
- if I keep lifting weights or endlessly running on that treadmill, I will collapse;
- if I keep eating this chocolate cake of mine, I will be sick.
So? Everyone who has ever engaged in those activities understand that there are ends to them, that we’re only doing them for a particular purpose for a certain period of time, and that extrapolating snapshots of reality is quite silly; I do not intend to continue this activity until the brink of whatever physical boundary there might – or might not – be. Until I approach some “safe” distance to that brink, I’ll happily indulge in my chocolate cake, lift my weights or type away at my keyboard. In economic speak we are trading off one resource for another, until saturation or the fulfillment of some other aim becomes more important (prime example is Environmental Kuznets Curves).
The other confusion is to believe that economic systems cannot change and that humans cannot adapt. It is emphatically irrelevant that there is a physically limited amount of oil in the ground, since price systems and their incentives effectively ration oil use according to urgently-induced needs and encourage substitutes when those are needed. More importantly, the price system for raw materials incorporate and incentivize technological improvements that 1) through discovering new deposits literally expands “the” amount of resources, 2) shape cost-effective processes to hard-to-access deposits we couldn’t profitably exploit before, 3) improve the bang for our buck, i.e. how much output we can squeeze out of a given quantity of material. Thus, there might ultimately be a physical limit, but not an economic limit.
Let me give an iconic example: chopping down trees quicker than the forest grows. Such an activity seem pretty ‘unsustainable’ since the declining size of the forest implies that one day there will no longer be a forest. So what? There might be urgent present reasons for doing that (say, for instance, no other source of heat/fuel for cooking or no other source of income) that are very likely to change in a fairly short time frame (ie, before complete deforestation has occurred); the current prices of pulp or firewood may be meaningfully higher than their anticipated future prices (‘selling’ off some capital assets would therefore be fairly prudent); there might be future technological innovations that a) (re-)grows forests quicker, b) offers a better substitute to the current use of wood, c) allows us to cheaply make use of more from what we chop down.
Almost any practice taken as a snap-shot in time is literally ‘unsustainable’. Naively believing that they will mindlessly continue linearly into the future is quite silly; hailing processes that don’t as righteous and ‘sustainable’ is similarly silly. Human societies and their economic process are dynamic systems capable of (read: constantly) change.
By saying that something is unsustainable, my generation wants to convey the idea that these activities are immoral and that they shouldn’t continue. It’s a naive and erroneously nonsensical conviction.