The Good News on Cultural Decay — You Read It Here First

In Friday’s Washington Post, Michael Gerson hails “a groundbreaking essay by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin in Commentary magazine, which notes that most “social indicators” have improved:

“Over the past fifteen years, on balance, the American family has indeed grown weaker,” the authors argue, “but almost every other social indicator has improved.” Crime rates have plunged, teen drug use and pregnancy have declined, educational scores are improving, welfare caseloads have fallen 60 percent, and the number of abortions has dropped.

That is indeed important news, often lost in conservative jeremiads about the state of the culture. But I’m not sure it’s actually “groundbreaking,” considering that you could have read it more than a year ago in Cato Policy Report or indeed right here at Cato@Liberty. As Radley Balko wrote in the September/October issue of Cato Policy Report,

Nearly every social indicator is trending in a direction most of us would consider positive.

Here are just a few examples, culled from government agencies and advocacy groups: Teen pregnancy is at its lowest point since government researchers have been keeping statistics. Juvenile crime has been falling for 20 years (though there was, admittedly, a slight uptick last year). Crimes against children are down. The number of reported rapes has dropped dramatically over the last two decades, even as social stigma against rape victims has subsided. Despite a negligible increase last year, overall crime in the United States has also been in decline for 15 years.

There’s more: Divorce is down. Teens are waiting longer to have sex. High school dropout rates are down. Unemployment remains low. And over the past decade, the overall abortion rate has dropped significantly.

If Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” Internet porn, and violent video games are indeed inducing a nationwide slouch toward Gomorrah, as conservative icon Robert Bork once put it, it’s difficult to discern from those statistics.

Or indeed you could have learned it earlier from former Cato fellow Stephen Moore, who noted in the Los Angeles Times in 1999 that:

  • Teen sexual activity in the U.S. fell by 11% from 1991 to 1997.
  • Cocaine and marijuana use have fallen by almost half since 1980.
  • Welfare caseloads have dropped by nearly 40% since 1993.
  • The crime rate has fallen by one-third since the mid-1980s and burglaries are down by half in many inner cities.
  • The abortion rate is down nearly 20% since 1990.
  • The divorce rate dropped 19% from 1981 to 1996.

Conservatives know that there is nothing new under the sun and that most great ideas are old ideas. So as long as the information celebrated by Wehner, Levin, and Gerson is true, it’s of little moment that it isn’t actually groundbreaking.