Saturday, May 08, 2004


A fairly popular style of book laments the decline of something or other. The author looks at some social trend, and sees a decline over the past few decades. It could be any number of issues: a decline in healthy families (i.e., from a conservative direction), or a decline in community (a la Robert Putnam and various communitarians), or a decline in presidential debates, or whatever.

Now, there are several responses to declinism. There's the empirical response that the supposed decline hasn't really happened at all. For example, someone might say, "The divorce rate may have risen, but in times past, people used to simply abandon their families. When you take that into account, the so-called decline doesn't really exist." Or there's the philosophical response, which admits the existence of a trend in a certain direction, but says that it's positive rather than a decline. For example, "The rise in the divorce rate is actually a good thing, because it means that more people are choosing to move out of bad relationships."

I don't want to discuss either of those types of responses. Instead, I want to discuss two other responses.

One response says that people have been complaining about declines for decades or hundreds of years, and yet here we are. If society were on a permanent downhill slide, we'd have bottomed out by now. The implication is that anyone who complains about a decline has overestimated how good things were in the past.

For example, in an article on free speech doctrine, Alex Kozinski and Stuart Banner write:
To be fair, Collins and Skover are among the most intelligent members of an entire curmudgeonly school of criticism of popular culture, all of which gains force only by romanticizing the past. See, e.g., NEIL POSTMAN, AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH (1985); ALLAN BLOOM, THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND (1987). This school can trace its pedigree at least as far as Cicero's "O tempora, o mores!," 10 CICERO, The Speeches Against Lucius Sergius Catilina: In Catilinam I, in CICERO IN TWENTY-EIGHT VOLUMES 1, 32 (G.P. Goold ed. & C. MacDonald trans., Harvard Univ. Press 1977) (63 A.D), but we're sure it goes back many millennia before that.
And over at Crescat Sententia, Amy Lamboley writes:
Normally, I prefer to ignore pieces purporting to demonstrate that our youth/country/culture/morals/world is going to hell in a handbasket, for the simple reason that while people have been writing such pieces for the past two thousand years (Cicero's O tempora! O mores! predates Christ), human society has demonstrated a remarkable ability to survive, even flourish.
Many more examples could be added, perhaps referring to the history of declinism ever since Ovid's paeans to the lost "Golden Age" of mankind.

I'm not sure that this is really responsive, though. Yes, it's unlikely that society could be on a permanent downward trend in everything that characterizes a society. But there are thousands of variables that go into making a good society. Clean streets. Clean air. Stable families. People who don't murder each other. Job security. Friendly communities. Peaceful neighboring countries. Plentiful leisure. Parents who spend enough time with their children. The list could go on and on.

The point is, at any given point in time, any society is probably getting better on some of those variables, and getting worse on others. If no society gets worse in every way all the time, neither does any society get better in every way all the time. (No society fulfills Emile Coue's maxim, in other words.)

So, the rest is straightforward. If society is getting worse on at least one variable at any point in time, you could write a declinist book every decade from now until the end of time. Declinist books can all be true, if (admittedly a big if) the authors correctly perceive the thing that's getting worse at the time of writing. It's not enough to say that people have always been complaining about some sort of decline. So what? They might have been mostly right as to their own society at a given point in time.

Or they might not. The only thing that will refute a specific example of declinism is one of the first two responses I discussed: An empirical showing that the decline hasn't happened, or a philosophical argument that the decline is actually a good thing.

A fourth response that you occasionally see goes something like this: "So you think our society has too much divorce compared to the 1950s? Well, the 50s were racist and oppressive. So quit complaining."

The problem with this argument is patently obvious: It assumes that all characteristics of a society necessarily go together. Put another way, it assumes that if you point out the good things about a society, you must secretly want the bad things as well. But that's false. The counter-reply is therefore something like this: "I may say that the 1950s were better in terms of the divorce rate. But that doesn't mean I like everything about the 1950s. There's nothing wrong with wishing that we could keep the good things about our society, yet try to emulate an earlier decade on the one thing that people back then got right."


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