Good news indeed!
Good news indeed!

Good news indeed!

January 4 th 2008

I was asked if I would like to respond to the December 12 Comment symposium "Good news?", based on the Commentary magazine essay, "Crime, Drugs, and Welfare—and Other Good News," written by my colleague Yuval Levin and me. I'm delighted to do so, and will respond in order to some of the comments by the contributors.

Abortion and the drop in crime

1. John Stackhouse asks why we did not mention the "provocative thesis" popularized by economist Stephen Levitt's Freakonomics. The Levitt thesis traces the downturn in violent crime in particular, and other social problems more generally, to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, arguing that legal abortion means a "lot fewer nasty young men born to desperate or deficient mothers."

Levitt's thesis went unmentioned because, first, I have not read his book. Others, such as Ramesh Ponnuru, have. Ponnuru, in his book The Party of Death, writes:

If Levitt's theory were correct, one would expect murder rates to have dropped among younger teens before it dropped among older teens. The fourteen-year-olds of 1993 should have been more law-abiding than the fourteen-year-olds of 1983, since legalized abortion would have, supposedly, snuffed out many criminals in the later group. There should have been a much smaller drop in crime among the twenty-five-year-olds, all of whom in both years had been born before Roe. As [Steve] Sailer notes, this is the reverse of what happened. Between 1983 and 1993, murder rates went down among people older than twenty-five and went up among those younger. "[T]he first cohort to survive legalized abortion went on the worst youth murder spree in American history." & [economist Ted] Joyce notes that Levitt's theory also implies that crime should have fallen more among blacks than whites—since blacks would have reaped more of the supposed crime-fighting benefits of abortion. Didn't happen.

Ponnuru also points out that the effect of legalized abortion was to increase the rate of careless conceptions, meaning that many of the unborn children who have been aborted since Roe would never have been conceived in the first place without it.

No one can be sure how much of a factor, if at all, abortion has played in the drop in crime—but it is not preponderant, and most crime experts (as opposed to economists) I am aware of don't consider abortion a major factor in the drop in crime. And even if abortions do have a positive impact on crime rates, eugenics (as Stackhouse indicates) remains what it has always been: a hideous practice.

Public policy teaches morality

2. Joe Loconte writes that what is lacking in our essay is a "sufficient attention to the real object of Madison's political passion: a republic sustained by citizens who could, in freedom, order their common lives together." It strikes me that our essay covered a great deal of empirical and analytical ground as it is. Joe, it appears, wanted us to write a different one. He, of course, is free to do so—and he'd do it very well. I think Joe can attest to the fact that I'm all for republican virtue and, in fact, I have written on this matter in my various capacities over the years.

Joe also writes that the "deepest answers to the nation's worst social pathologies," including its culture of violence and lingering racism, are found in places other than government programs. Of course the "deepest answers" to these things lie elsewhere—but often the more immediate answers lie in intelligent, well-executed, tough-minded public policies. These things are not mutually exclusive, and often they are mutually reinforcing. The law, after all, is a teacher, including a moral teacher, and can help shape public attitudes.

Joe, invoking Dostoevsky, writes, "If people have been saved from the ravages of American culture, it is probably not because of a good memory given to them by government." But consider that many New Yorkers who in 1990 would have been murdered are alive today (in 1990 there were more than 2,200 homicides in New York City; last year the number of homicides was projected to be less than 500). Dostoevsky's line about "good memory, especially a memory of childhood," while beautiful, might not do much good when facing three armed hoodlums in Central Park. First rate policing, on the other hand, might do a lot of good.

Martin Luther King, Jr. made a similar point this way: "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important."

Joe also writes, "Yes, fewer families are on welfare, but what about the churches that enlisted thousands of volunteers to help them recover their dignity?"

I have nothing but praise for churches that help families recover their dignity—but the huge, rapid drop in the welfare caseload, and the improvement in overall poverty, child poverty, black child poverty, and child hunger, as well as higher employment figures for single mothers, was not the result of an explosion in church volunteers. Instead, it was primarily the result of the 1996 welfare reform bill. I would add, too, that effective government policies provide churches and other institutions with more opportunities to do their good work, as people who were once dependent on government attempt to start more constructive lives.

Finally, I would remind Joe and the other contributors that one of his models, William Wilberforce, was committed to two great causes: the reformation of manners and the abolition of the slave trade. Wilberforce didn't obsess on one at the expense of the other—and arguably Wilberforce's greatest moral achievement lay in the realm of government policy.

Hardly cosmetic improvements

3. Ken Myers refers to the progress we've seen as "only cosmetic improvements." But when the welfare caseload drops by more than 60 percent, crime rates reach their lowest levels in at least 35 years, and teen births drop for 14 consecutive years, the progress qualifies as more than "cosmetic." Myers also worries that noting the progress we have made might "distract those who care about social well-being from attending to the weightier matters of culture."

Myers, whom I respect and have learned from over the years, should consider the role statecraft can play in soulcraft (to use George Will's formulation). Has Myers considered that success in cutting crime, drug use, welfare caseloads, abortion, divorce, teen smoking and drinking, and teen sexual activity might actually help us as we deal with the weighty matters of culture, giving us something on which to build?

Our success in combating drug use is illustrative. In the 1970s, illegal drugs were viewed by much of the culture as glamorous and liberating. But the concentrated effort by the federal government, when combined with a compelling advertising campaign, tough school policies (including drug testing), and the involvement of parents and teachers, not only helped decrease drug use; it also altered people's attitudes about drugs. So progress in a particular social indicator tracked with progress on cultural attitudes. Bear in mind, too, that when people overcome their addiction, progress follows in family life and the community. When government does its job well, it makes the work of our mediating institutions easier and more effective.

Ken responds to the progress we have seen by providing what he considers convincing counter-evidence. For example, he concedes illegal drug use has declined, "but the use of Ritalin, Prozac, Viagra , and other lifestyle drugs has increased, perhaps exponentially." This should be seen as "evidence of the deepening of a cultural crisis." But here Myers, ever eager to counter the good news, trips up badly.

To put Ritalin in the same category as LSD and cocaine is foolish. Ritalin is used to help children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD is not, as some believe, a figment of the imagination of parents and teachers who don't know how to discipline difficult-to-control children. It is, in fact, a neurobiological disorder. Crucial parts of the brains of children with ADHD develop more slowly than do other youngsters' brains, causing inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. New brain imaging has helped us to detect and better understand the developmental lag and shows the biological facets of ADHD. To refer to Ritalin as a "lifestyle drug" is therefore wildly off the mark. It is a very useful and responsible tool, especially when combined with behavioral therapy, to help children with ADHD flourish and lead better, more successful, and more fulfilled lives. The notion that Ritalin is evidence of a "deepening cultural crisis" is silly—and if his view was widely held, it would be positively harmful.

The same holds true for Prozac and other anti-depressant drugs. Depression is a serious disorder which often has genetic and biological roots—and anti-depressant drugs have helped countless people live better and more hopeful lives. You can't say the same for crack. As for Viagra: Ken may believe that having many more randy 60-year-old men constitutes a cultural crisis, but I don't think it is analogous to the proliferation of, say, drug gangs.

Policies can change attitudes

4. John Seel writes that our "glowing assurances" that the sky isn't falling and that the government has things under control "only leaves me feeling more despairing and cynical." He doesn't dispute the evidence we amass; he simply says it "doesn't connect with my reality beyond the Beltway" (as if life in Cohasset, Massachusetts is more "real" than life in McLean, Virginia). He even throws out the charge that our article "smacks of spin" at a time when the ratings of the President and Congress are low.

The assertion that we are engaging in "spin" is false. The tone of our essay, combined with its empirical basis, clearly shows this. And the idea that Yuval and I would write a long essay analyzing trends in social indicators in order to increase the approval ratings for the Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid-led Congress is simply not serious. We wrote the essay because the data over the last 15 years was fascinating and important, and we believed it was worth analyzing.

It is revealing of a particular cast of mind when news that ought to be encouraging to Americans leaves John despairing and cynical, though he never adequately explains why that is the case. It's true enough that we have "not turned the tide toward a traditional understanding of authority, an embrace of self-denial, or an acceptance of objective truth"; that is why Yuval and I wrote that, "The 'soft nihilism' and cultural relativism about which Allan Bloom wrote so powerfully in the late 1980s are still with us." We also point out that our popular culture remains, in many respects, "a cesspool of violence and vulgarity." And we stress that the progress we have made can be lost. But what is fascinating, and worth dilating on, is how we have made such strides on so many social indicators in the absence of a massive shift toward accepting objective truth and greater self-denial.

John, like some of the other contributors, argues that "public policy supports cultural change, but cannot change its fundamental direction." He adds that "Cultural ends cannot be changed by political means. Beliefs dictate behavior. Force a change in behavior without a change in belief and it's a pyrrhic victory at best." But that isn't quite right. Often laws dictate behavior—and, over time, beliefs conform to laws.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, John (like Ken Myers and to some degree Joe Loconte) doesn't seem to grasp the fact that, to take just one example, a "re-moralization" of welfare policy can have radiating, positive, and important effects on our culture.

Similarly, I suspect that the contributors to this symposium would agree that Roe v. Wade affected culture in a negative way, undermining our commitment to early human life and the rights and dignity of all human beings. The same was true of the Dred Scott decision. If pernicious Court decisions can subvert our cultural and moral life, then the right decisions can strengthen them.

Public policies can change the direction of culture by changing public attitudes; we have seen this happen on everything from slavery and segregation to smoking and drug use. I wouldn't for a moment argue that public policies always, or even easily, shift the current of culture—but there is an odd reluctance among some to give even two cheers for wise public policies.

Finally, John writes, "I'm inclined to blame my skepticism of Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin's findings on age and temperament." Here I agree with John—and I, too, am happy to blame his skepticism on age and temperament.

Let's praise both Keller and Giuliani

I will conclude with two final points. The first is that those who dismiss the statistics Yuval and I cite as mere statistics ought to remember that behind them are human beings and human stories and human dramas. So when we read that crime and drug use is going down, it means that pathologies that can ravage a life and a family and a future are being confronted and in some instances reversed. And when we read that the welfare caseload is dropping and employment for single mothers in increasing, it might well mean that a life once based on dependency is now being reconstituted. It would be refreshing to see, now and then, a little more joy expressed at the human good that is being achieved, even as we recognize that there is much more that needs to be done. Some cultural commentators appear to be unhappy if order and safety and human flourishing are not achieved by their preferred method of social renewal. But if New York City is transformed by the policies of Mayor Rudy Giuliani as well as the ministry efforts of Pastor Tim Keller, both should still be praised and supported.

Finally, we all need to be wary of ignoring or explaining away evidence that may challenge certain philosophical commitments and a particular temperament. "You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson," we read in Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson. "I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in."

Others, less cheerful, may be drawn to the dark warnings of the decomposition and dissolution of the West—and go out in search of evidence to support that view. We can all marshal evidence that paints vastly different portraits of American life. The key is whether we are being intellectually detached and honest and arriving at judgments that are judicious, balanced and true to reality, which is often complicated.

At some point, of course, we will see the dissolution of the West and America—but there's no need to try to usher them in prematurely. Those who thought the United States was incorrigibly corrupt and adrift were wrong. America, it turns out, is a remarkable and resilient nation, and the social re-norming we are seeing should be sources of encouragement. We ought to accept these things for what they are—and then we can all return to reading Richard Weaver.

Topics: Culture
Peter Wehner
Peter Wehner

Peter Wehner, former Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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