Social Rot

Published August 1, 1994

In Ambassador Mahbubani’s considered opinion, it is time for the West to rethink its basic notions of human freedom and social responsibility, its devotion to human rights (especially civil rights and political freedoms) and broadly participatory democracy. And why should the West in general, and the United States in particular, undertake this “critical self-analysis”? Because the United States is, in a word, decadent. And a decadent nation is on its way “off a cliff.”

To Kishore Mahbubani, the evidence of social decay is “clear and palpable”:



Since 1960, the U.S. population has grown by 41 percent. In the same period, there has been a 560 percent increase in violent crimes, a 419 percent increase in illegitimate births, a 400 percent increase in divorce rates, a 300 percent increase in children living in single-parent homes, a more than 200 percent increase in teenage suicide rates, and a drop of almost 80 points in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. A recent report by the United Nations Development Program also ranks the United States number one among industrialized countries in intentional homicides, reported rapes, and percentage of prisoners. The number of prison inmates has gone up from 329,882 in 1980 to 883,593 in 1992. Hunger in the United States has increased by 50 percent since 1985.


But that is not all. There is American profligacy:



Today East Asian savings are needed to finance American deficits. Many East Asians are puzzled by this American belief that the United States can perpetually live beyond its means and yet never come to grief. They wonder how an avowedly self-critical society can become the prisoner of such an irrational belief.


Then there is the dismal state of American education:



More than a quarter of U.S. high school students drop out before completing their studies. A 1987 survey of elementary and secondary schools in six countries, including Russia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, concluded that U.S. students ranked last in “the study of their own language.” In science and mathematics, American students ranked second to last while the Japanese came out on top. A survey by the U.S. Education Department noted that half of American adults studied had such poor literacy levels that they were unable to fill out a bank deposit slip.


And the breakdown of the family:



…each American generation is today living for itself—and beyond its means. The accumulated debt is passed on to successive generations, not wealth. Many Asians would be horrified to do this to their children.

The disintegration of the American family means the disintegration of a fundamental building block of a society. Half of the marriages contracted between 1987 and 1990 ended in divorce. Fifty years ago, 5 percent of American births were to unmarried women. Lee Rainwater, a Harvard sociologist emeritus, testifying to the [Senate] Finance Committee in fall 1993, foresaw that nearly 40 percent of all American births would be out of wedlock by the turn of the century…. An outsider must conclude that the seductive notion that any social obligation is only a diminution of individual freedom has played a key role in undermining the family as an institution. Woody Alien seems to believe that no moral considerations are relevant when he has an affair with his adopted daughter. American society, by permitting all forms of lifestyles to emerge—without any social pressures to conform to certain standards—may have wrecked the moral and social fabric that is needed to keep a society calm and well-ordered.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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