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Permissiveness and Virtuousness

From a column by David Brooks in the New York Times:

To put it in old-fashioned terms, America is becoming more virtuous. Americans today hurt each other less than they did 13 years ago. They are more likely to resist selfish and shortsighted impulses. They are leading more responsible, more organized lives. A result is an improvement in social order across a range of behaviors.

The decline in domestic violence is of a piece with the decline in violent crime over all. Violent crime over all is down by 55 percent since 1993 and violence by teenagers has dropped an astonishing 71 percent, according to the Department of Justice.

The number of drunken driving fatalities has declined by 38 percent since 1982, according to the Department of Transportation, even though the number of vehicle miles traveled is up 81 percent. The total consumption of hard liquor by Americans over that time has declined by over 30 percent.

Teenage pregnancy has declined by 28 percent since its peak in 1990. Teenage births are down significantly and, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortions performed in the country has also been declining since the early 1990's.

Fewer children are living in poverty, even allowing for an uptick during the last recession. There's even evidence that divorce rates are declining, albeit at a much more gradual pace. People with college degrees are seeing a sharp decline in divorce, especially if they were born after 1955.

I could go on. Teenage suicide is down. Elementary school test scores are rising (a sign than more kids are living in homes conducive to learning). Teenagers are losing their virginity later in life and having fewer sex partners. In short, many of the indicators of social breakdown, which shot upward in the late 1960's and 1970's, and which plateaued at high levels in the 1980's, have been declining since the early 1990's.

What I find so interesting about this is that all these improvements have taken place during a time when right-wing religious leaders have been warning us that our wicked ways as a nation will soon lead to our downfall. Depictions of sex, violence, and drug use are pervasive in video games, television, and feature films. And the Internet? I challenge anyone to imagine anything that isn't available for immediate free viewing on the Internet. The Supreme Court has ruled that the states can't prohibit homosexual acts in the privacy of one's own home. Over 6,000 same-sex couples have married in Massachusetts. Surely the Apocalypse must be nigh.

Let me be clear here: I'm not drawing a causal link between increasing levels of permissiveness and decreasing levels of violence, divorce, teen pregnancies, and other behaviors deemed undesirable by society. But the people on the religious right have foretold a causal link between permissiveness and increasing levels of such behaviors. So it's up to them to explain how, exactly, we find ourselves in our current situation, and why anyone should listen to anything they have to say about the negative effects of permissiveness.

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