The Arc of the Universe Bends Towards Meh

Progress and decline are just stories, but so is volatility. We like linearity, but we also like for things to have a shape, even if an awkward bendy one.

If you enter into the moral history of Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era trilogy, or the people at HumanProgress.org, it seems obvious that we have made progress.  Even with the fluctuations of the last 15 years, food prices have plummeted over the past 100 years! We’ve cured so many diseases! For crying out loud, I am writing the post in an interface of a program running on a computer in a location I don’t even know, to be put out in public where a significant fraction of the global population can access it from any part of the world!

Yet for a certain set of people, it’s equally as obvious that we’re in decline. Some agree that we’ve made progress, but think it is a false progress—it rests on the back of exploitation of third world countries. Or maybe the Green Revolution helped us feed more people with fewer crop failures, but it uses practices that are not as time-tested, and probably aren’t sustainable. So we’re feeding more people now while setting ourselves up for a massive failure, and therefore mass starvation, at some stage in the uncertain future.

I think that McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity does a good job demolishing the notion that our prosperity rests on the continued poverty of others, and it is not alone in that. But if there’s one solid thing I took away from The Great Stagnation, and especially the debates that it sparked, it is that it is incredibly hard to think about progress, decline, and well-being, period.

Cultural conservatives often claim we’re in decline from the point of view of deteriorating values. Roy Baumeister’s book covering his work on willpower makes the claim that the Victorians took self-control much more seriously than we do, and we are the worse for it. More extreme claims of moral decline, are, of course, quite common. MacIntyre’s After Virtue tells you where he stands on the matter in his title. Mencius Moldbug, the pseudonymous prophet of the Internet neoreactionaries, resurrects Carlyle among others to make the claim that we have fallen into complete lawlessness and immorality. He thinks the Victorians eradicated violent crime, but liberal ideology led us to abandon the very values that made such eradication possible.

Consider Baltimore. For those looking through the lens of decline, the writing is on the wall—the barbarians have stormed the gates, they are on the inside, they’re just waiting for the right moment to deliver the final blow to our crumbling civilization. For those looking through the lens of progress, the riots in Baltimore are unfortunate but the peaceful protests, and increased media scrutiny of cop violence there, in New York, and in Ferguson, Missouri all hint at a possibility of important reform. A chance to take a next step in the journey that began with the abolition of slavery, continued through the civil rights movement, and continues to this day, if we who inherited it make ourselves good caretakers.

Can this be resolved by grandma’s conciliatory comment that “everyone is right,” is some sense? Well, I’m in a pessimistic mood, so I’m going to say that everyone is wrong, in the big view.

Progress and decline can be useful lenses, but that’s what they are. They can shed light on certain aspects of the world we live in, but they can never encompass it. The optimist feeling the march of progress will point out how precipitously crime has dropped in this country since the early 90s. The liberal is quick to point out that this is mirrored by an explosion in incarceration. The conservative chuckles, and replies “don’t you see how the one caused the other?” Progress in policing, through Broken Window theories and such like—we are told.

As someone who has defended the wisdom of the ages in the form of our traditions, I have repeatedly been asked how traditionalism could have fostered abolitionism when legal slavery existed in this country. Lately, I ask myself the same question: how would I, personally, have lived with the reality of being in a country with the living institution of slavery? How would I have lived with coming from a middle class family, getting a good education, and generally prospering in such a country?

The best way to answer that question is, of course, to read what people said back then. About the subject, and in general. I have not done this, not really. And shame on me for that. In school, I read some of the debates on the matter that happened in the decade or two prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. The Civil War is, of course, another one of those great divergent points for various narratives. For most, the Civil War is the war against slavery. For some, it is the patriotic war against the rebel army. For others, it is the War Between the States; one victory among what would be many for centralized power over local communities.

But I digress—the reason I pose the question about being a person on the right side of the slavery question while living in that era is that, for some, that is our present. Oh, it isn’t slavery specifically, of course. But there’s a narrative in which there’s a moral equivalency. To return to incarceration, a frequently repeated statistic in certain corners is that there are more black men in prison today than there were enslaved in 1850. The liberal and libertarian point out to their chuckling conservative friend that nearly all of this has to do with the so-called war on drugs, the very thing (some would argue) which created circumstances for the late twentieth century spike in crime. Unlike his liberal friend, the libertarian emphasizes the role that public housing has played in creating completely toxic cultural environments. Conservatives like Theodore Dalrymple, in fact, fixate on such cultures and make a career out of writing about them. For Dalrymple, they serve as banner examples of moral decline.

Moreover, the liberal and libertarian will point out that having a controlled, structured engagement with law enforcement, with the credible threat of lawsuits or in any case some consequences for mistreatment, requires resources. The poorer you are, the fewer resources you have to bring to bear. There’s also a cultural element—educated people who have grown up well off tend to have a sense of entitlement, in a bad sense of course but also in the good sense of feeling entitled to having their dignity as a human being respected. They are more likely to be outraged if this expectation is violated, and to have the resources, and the friends and family with resources, to act on that outrage. As such, groups that do not have resources, and who mostly take it for granted that they are going to be mistreated and the abusers will get away with it, are much more vulnerable. Who knows how many of those black men in prison were just an easy target for a cop looking to improve his arrest statistics?

And let’s talk about statistics for a moment. I’m optimistic by disposition, and I am in awe of the dramatic decline in crime rates in my lifetime. But as I mentioned, I’m in a pessimistic mood. Statistics are judgments given the air of objectivity by the fact that they are numbers. “Data”, with its root meaning being “things given,” is highly misleading. To channel Deirdre McCloskey channeling R. D. Laing for a minute, I’d much rather we call it “capta”, or “things seized.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics did not see the givens about rape and sexual assault on college campuses hanging around in the air, much less in their spreadsheets. They used their judgments, informed by best practices among people who study such things, and came at the question as outsiders looking in. They judged that 80% of campus rapes and sexual assaults go unreported, an estimate arrived at through the use of surveys.

Such surveys are not truly random. They can’t be. Randomness is not a thing available to us in this world, when we are dealing with fellow free human beings. If nonresponse is systematic, and not itself random, then the results will be biased. All polling companies deal with this. In the case of elections, they can test their methods against the outcomes to an extent. It must be remembered that only polls very close to the election can be said to be directly tested; the long period before the election where polls purport to show the ups and down of public opinion cannot truly be tested in a similar way.

The conclusions drawn by polling agencies, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and anyone, are not really conclusions, but arguments. The BJS is arguing that rape and sexual assault happen at a lower rate on campuses than among the general population, but have a higher nonreport rate than what is already a very high general nonreport rate. The question is—should we believe them?

The reported rate is one thing. Certainly clerical errors happen in recording such things, but I don’t think it’s a great leap to say that our records for reported sexual assaults are a decent approximation.

As for total sexual assaults; well, that’s a harder judgment to make. I recall in the debates after The Great Stagnation came out that libertarians came out in droves to point out all the flaws and biases in median income and other statistics that Tyler Cowen trotted out as part of his argument. Cowen astutely observed that all of those biases and flaws were still present back when the median income data looked good, too.

So too for sexual assaults. 80% is a big number, but it has the virtue of being a number. For the general population they estimate 67%. To be frank, I don’t put much stock in either number. Maybe they are an exaggeration—certainly there are plenty of narratives saying that the question is overblown these days. Maybe they’re a vast underestimate—a lot of studies outside of BJS make that argument, as do activists in this area. Activists who are caretakers of another liberation, another march of progress.

What if the numbers are completely wrong? What if the bounds of all the surveys and judgment brought to bear on the matter are just bunk? Maybe sexual assaults were at an all time low when reported ones were at an all time high, and we are now seeing an all time high when reported ones are much lower. Maybe it peaked somewhere in the middle. Maybe the highest point was some random year in the 1930s.

I’m not saying that’s the case. I’m inviting you to consider how confident you are in the narrative that you are most attached to.

Because when I’m in a pessimistic mood, the only thing that gives me joy is raining on other people’s parades. Or their rallies.

I do believe the arguments that the Great Enrichment happened, but it gave us progress from a material point of view. I don’t think that the life of a peasant was necessarily morally inferior to ours. Nor do I think that the life of a stockbroker is necessarily morally inferior to a pious medieval peasant.

I’m not sure that I believe there is progress, or decline. But there is life, and living.

Of course, if I was a city dweller during the fall of Rome, I might feel differently. And if I were a poor immigrant who moved to this country and made a living, and saw my children make a better one, I would probably feel differently, too.

They are useful lenses. When applied carefully.

5 thoughts on “The Arc of the Universe Bends Towards Meh

  1. So let me rain a little on your parade. The fact that you think progress and decline are stories tells you everything you need to know about your condition. It’s a magnificently protected condition, one that would elicit wonder and envy from an ancient Greek.

    I recently stayed across the bay from the site of Naxos, the original Greek toehold in Sicily. Naxos endured for 250 years, practically the entire lifespan of the United States. Then it was destroyed by the tyrant Dionysus of Syracuse. The walls were razed, the men were killed, the women were sold into slavery.

    In The Seven Against Thebes, Aeschylus has the city women lament what will happen if the enemy breaks through. They wail about young unmarried girls who will become the playthings of foreign thugs.

    The Greeks understood the terms of the great human struggle against entropy. Progress is when the walls hold. Decline is when your wives and daughters get dragged off to your enemy’s harem.

    From that perspective, I repeat, yours is an exceptionally good situation. You can afford to wonder whether progress and decline are real. That means the walls are holding, bigtime.

    Of course, you might be deluded about this (in a big-picture, Deirdre-McCloskey sense, I would doubt that you are). But that’s another story…

    1. Let me put it this way: if I stick to looking at my own life, progress is an obvious thing, of course there’s been progress—there is almost nothing about my life that would even be possible without progress.

      But the claims of big-P Progress are telescopic, they extend well beyond my sphere. Even something like crime rates, which you would think (living as I do in New York City) would be within that sphere, is not so straightforward. For one thing, its decline or rise was not linear; there was a decline followed by a gigantic burst, followed by a shorter, even more intense burst, and now it’s a lot better.

      For another thing, there are areas, as I said, where I’m very skeptical of our ability to estimate progress or decline.

      We can talk about things getting better or worse, of course. But that doesn’t pack quite the punch of “progress” or “decline”, which always has a teleological character to it no matter how un-teleological its proponents imagine themselves to be.

      I certainly think the great tide that’s lifted us all up over the last 200 years or so is hard to call anything but progress. I also think we know very little about why it happened, and so it’s not clear to me that we can be confident about how long it will last.

      But yes, the walls are holding. Thank goodness. May that continue indefinitely.

      1. Paul Crider

        I think it’s okay to talk about Progress (the capital P stands for Telos) with caveats. Just because things are good and getting better and we may even be beginning to understand how that’s happening doesn’t mean that we must believe it will last forever. In Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker persuasively showed that violence has declined on multiple timescales and in multiple dimensions, but he also littered the book with “to be sure”s.

        I think this is important especially when thinking about the props and scaffolds we’ve constructed (consciously and unconsciously) that enable progress (moral, economic, etc). Maybe those structures will be blown up and we will become savages. That wouldn’t mean that we had never really been civilized.

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