We have, it seems, memories that cast a rosy glow over our pasts. Times were always simpler, pursuits more pure. Or were they?
You know, the times when men where men and the women damn glad of it! The great times when you all went to school, everyone was constantly respectful and well-behaved and cared only about learning. Yeah, right! The great times somewhere in the past when politicians really listened and worked for us. The time when there weren’t all the problems with drugs and crime. Could we all stop eating from our bowls of Dreamos and focus on exactly when was this Golden Age?
Was it in the early 1900’s when capitalism was not at all controlled, child labor was common, six percent of the society graduated from high school, kids used to picket to have the right to attend school, railroad workers would lose an arm on the job and receive five dollars and their walking papers, monopolies controlled most of the economy and life expectancy was in the mid-fifties? No, it couldn’t have been then.
The fact is there was no perfect time to which we should aspire to return. Some things get better over time. Some get worse. Progressive and regressive forces battle it out on an ongoing basis.
Of course, that doesn’t politicians from using our faulty memories for their own interests. In particular, Republican candidates for president have invoked the myth of moral decay, telling us that world must be going to Hell because we are being less godly. As The Economist‘s Democracy in America blog noted this week, this is every bit as much a myth.
When considering America’s moral decline, my first instinct was to look at the crime rate. If Satan is at work in America, he’s probably nicking wallets and assaulting old ladies. But over the past several decades the crime rate has fallen dramatically, despite what you may think. The homicide rate has been cut in half since 1991; violent crime and property crime are also way down. Even those pesky kids are committing less crime. There are some caveats to these statistics, as my colleague points out, but I think we can conclude that crime is not the cause of America’s moral decline.
So let’s look elsewhere. Abortion has returned as a hot-button issue, perhaps it is eating away at our moral fiber. Hmm, the abortion rate declined by 8% between 2000 and 2008. Increases in divorce and infidelity could be considered indicators of our moral decay. There’s just one problem: according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the divorce rate is the lowest it has been since the early 1970s. This is in part due to the recession, but infidelity is down too.
Other areas that might indicate declining virtue are also going against the perceived trend. For example, charitable giving is up after a decline during the recession. The teenage pregnancy rate is at its lowest level in 40 years. And according to Education Week, “the nation’s graduation rate stands at 72 percent, the highest level of high school completion in more than two decades.” So where is the evidence of this moral decline?
As they point out, increasing secularism is one of the “problems” pointed to, as are out-of-wedlock birthrates. They point out that the second begs the question of whether the issue is a moral one at all. With good social support, the children of unmarried parents don’t have to do any worse than the children of married parents. So what’s immoral about it?
The same goes for higher rates of secularism. It’s considered a problem why?
If the answer is that increasing secularism leads to…any other moral problem or any other problem that is measurable in this lifetime, it’s really time to stop making that argument.