December 2nd 2000

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: U.S. Elections - And the winner is ... Alan Greenspan!

EDITORIAL: Kyoto Protocol may harm Australian industry

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Country voters won't buy rural road scheme

QUARANTINE: Has Canberra misconstrued WTO rules on quarantine?

COMMENT: Globalisation + monopolies = a less free market


Straws in the Wind


SOCIETY: Is There a Way Out of the West's Cultural Crisis?

TRADE AND THE ECONOMY: How important is trade for Australia?

AGRICULTURE: WTO rules permit assistance to agriculture

INDONESIA: Conflict intensifies in West Papua

EDUCATION: The Great Exam Diversion

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Is There a Way Out of the West's Cultural Crisis?

by Francis Fukuyama

News Weekly, December 2, 2000
Francis Fukuyama, the controversial author of the books, The End of History and The Great Disruption, recently addressed the issue of rebuilding the moral foundations of Western society. This is an extract from his article which recently appeared in the Wilson Quarterly.

All of the industrialised countries out side Asia experienced a massive increase in social disorder between the 1960s and '90s - a phenomenon that I have called the Great Disruption of Western social values. Indeed, by the 1990s Sweden, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand all had higher rates of property crime than the United States. More than half of all Scandinavian children are born to unmarried mothers, compared with one-third of American children. In Sweden, so few people bother to get married that the institution itself probably is in long-term decline.

While conservatives won their case that values had changed for the worse, they were on shakier ground in their interpretation of why this shift had occurred. There were two broad lines of argument.

Family breakdown

The first, advanced by Charles Murray in his landmark book Losing Ground (1984), argued that family breakdown, crime, and other social pathologies were ultimately the result of mistaken government policies. But there were other causes, such as new court-imposed constraints on police departments won by civil libertarians. In this interpretation, any improvement in social indicators today must be the result of the unwinding of earlier social policies through measures such as the 1996 welfare reform bill.

The second conservative line of argument held that moral decline was the result of a broad cultural shift.

While there is more than a germ of truth in each of these interpretations, neither is adequate to explain the shift in values that occurred during the Great Disruption. Detailed econometric studies seeking to link welfare to illegitimacy have shown that although there is some causal connection, the relationship is not terribly strong. More important, illegitimacy is only part of a much broader story of family breakdown that includes divorce, cohabitation in place of marriage, declining fertility, and the separation of cohabiting couples. These ills cut across the socioeconomic spectrum and can hardly be blamed on a federal poverty program.

The second line of argument, which sees moral breakdown as a consequence of a broad cultural shift, is not so much wrong as inadequate. No one who has lived through the last several decades can deny that there has been a huge shift in social values, a shift whose major theme has been the rise of individualism at the expense of communal sources of authority, from the family and neighbourhood to churches, labour unions, companies, and the government.

The problem with this kind of broad cultural explanation is that it cannot explain timing. Secular humanism, for example, has been in the works for the past four or five hundred years. Why all of a sudden in the last quarter of the 20th century has it produced social chaos?

The key to the timing of the Great Disruption, I believe, is to be found elsewhere, in changes that occurred in the economy and in technology. The most important social values that were shaken by the Great Disruption are those having to do with sex, reproduction and the family.

The reason the disruption happened when and where it did can be traced to two broad technological changes that began in the 1960s. One is the advent of birth control. The other is the shift from industrial to information-based economies and from physical to mental labour.

The nuclear family of the 1950s was based on a bargain that traded the husband's income for the wife's fertility: he worked, she stayed home to raise the family. With the economy's shift from manufacturing to services (or from brawn to brains), new opportunities arose for women. Women began entering the paid labour force in greater numbers throughout the West in the 1960s, which undid the old arrangement. Even as it liberated women from complete dependence on their husbands, it freed many men from responsibility for their families. Not surprisingly, women's participation in the labour force correlates strongly with divorce and family breakdown throughout the industrialised world.

What are the chances of a moral renewal? What are its potential sources? Renewal must be possible. While conservatives may be right that moral decline occurred over the past generation, they cannot be right that it occurs in every generation. Unless we posit that all of human history has been a degeneration from some primordial golden age, periods of moral decline must be punctuated by periods of moral improvement.

The possibility of re-moralisation poses some large questions: Where do moral values come from, and what, in particular, are the sources of moral values in a post-industrial society? This is a subject that, strangely, has not received much attention. People have strong opinions about what moral values ought to be and where they ought to come from.

If you are on the left, you are likely to believe in social equality guaranteed by a welfare state. If you are a cultural conservative, you may favour the authority of tradition and religion. But how values actually are formed in contemporary societies receives little empirical study.

Most people would say that values are either passed along from previous generations through socialisation (which fails to explain how change occurs) or are imposed by a church or other hierarchical authority. With the exception of a few discredited theories, sociologists and cultural anthropologists haven't had much to contribute. They have had much more success in describing value systems than in explaining their genesis.

Moral sense

Human beings have innate capabilities that make them gravitate toward and reward co-operators who play by the community's rules, and to ostracise and isolate opportunists who violate them. When we say that human beings are social creatures by nature, we mean not that they are co-operative angels with unlimited resources for altruism but that they have built-in capabilities for perceiving the moral qualities of their fellow humans.

What James Q. Wilson calls the "moral sense" is put there by nature, and will operate in the absence of either a lawgiver or a prophet. Crime rates are down across the United States today in no small measure because government is embracing better policies, such as community policing, and spending more on law enforcement, prisons, and punishment. But the fact that tougher policies have brought crime rates down would not be regarded by most people as evidence of moral renewal. We want people to behave better not because of a crackdown but because they have internalised certain standards.

Many cultural conservatives believe that religion is the sine qua non of moral values, and they blame the Great Disruption on a loss of religious values. Religion played a powerful role in the Victorian upsurge during the second half of the 19th century, they note, and, therefore, any reversal of the Great Disruption must likewise depend on a religious revival. In this view, the cultural conservatives are supported (in a way) by Friedrich Nietzsche, who once denounced the English "flathead" John Stuart Mill for believing that one could have something approximating Christian values in the absence of a belief in the Christian God.

Nietzsche famously argued that God was on his deathbed and incapable, in Europe at least, of being resuscitated. There could be new religions, but they would be pagan ones that would provoke "immense wars" in the future. Religious conservatives can reply that, as an empirical matter, God is not dead anywhere but in Europe itself. A generation or two ago, social scientists generally believed that secularisation was the inevitable by-product of modernisation, but in the United States and many other advanced societies, religion does not seem to be in danger of dying out.

Some religious conservatives hope, and many liberals fear, that the problem of moral decline will be resolved by a large-scale return to religious orthodoxy - a transformation as sudden as the one Ayatollah Khomeini wrought 20 years ago by returning to Iran on a jetliner. For a variety of reasons, this seems unlikely. Modern societies are so culturally diverse that it is not clear whose version of orthodoxy would prevail. Any true form of orthodoxy is likely to be seen as a threat to important groups and hence would neither get very far nor serve as a basis for widening the radius of trust. Instead of integrating society, a conservative religious revival might only increase social discord and fragmentation.

It is not clear, moreover, that the re-moralisation of society need rely on the hierarchical authority of revealed religion. Against Nietzsche's view that moral behavior inevitably rests on dogmatic belief, we might counterpose Adam Smith, the Enlightenment philosopher with perhaps the most realistic and highly developed theory of moral action. Smith argued that human beings are social and moral creatures by nature, capable of being led to moral behavior both by their natural passions and by their reason.

The Enlightenment has been justly criticised for its overemphasis on human reason. But reason does not have to take the form of a bureaucratic state seeking to engineer social outcomes through the wholesale rearrangement of society. It can also take the form of rational individuals interacting with one another to create workable moral rules, or, in Smith's language, being led from a narrowly selfish view of their interests to the view of an "impartial spectator" exercising reasoned moral judgment.

Religious conservatives, in other words, underestimate the innate ability of human beings to evolve reasonable moral rules for themselves. Western societies underwent an enormous shock during the mid-20th century, and it is not surprising that it has taken a long time to adjust. The process of reaching a rational set of norms is not easy or automatic.

During the Great Disruption, for example, large numbers of men and women began to behave in ways that ended up hurting the interests of children. Men abandoned families, women conceived children out of wedlock, and couples divorced for what were often superficial and self-indulgent reasons. But parents also have a strong interest in the well-being of their children. If it can be demonstrated to them that their behavior is seriously injuring the life chances of their offspring, they are likely to react rationally and want to alter that behavior in ways that help their children.

Changing perceptions

During the Great Disruption, there were many intellectual and cultural currents at work obscuring from people the consequences of their personal behavior for people close to them. They were told by social scientists that growing up in a single-parent family was no worse than growing up in an intact one, reassured by family therapists that children were better off if the parents divorced, and bombarded by images from the popular culture that glamorised sex.

Changing these perceptions requires discussion, argument, even "culture wars". And we have had them. Today, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's controversial 1993 assertion that "Dan Quayle was right" about the importance of families no longer seems radical.

What would the re-moralisation of society look like? In some of its manifestations, it would represent a continuation of trends that have already occurred in the 1990s, such as the return of middle-class people from their gated suburban communities to downtown areas, where a renewed sense of order and civility once again makes them feel secure enough to live and work. It would show up in increasing levels of participation in civil associations and political engagement.

The kinds of changes we can expect in norms concerning sex, reproduction, and family life are likely to be more modest. Conservatives need to be realistic in understanding how thoroughly the moral and social landscapes have been altered by powerful technological and economic forces. Strict Victorian rules concerning sex are very unlikely to return.

Unless someone can figure out a way to un-invent birth control, or move women out of the labour force, the nuclear family of the 1950s is not likely to be reconstituted in anything like its original form. Yet the social role of fathers has proved very plastic from society to society and over time, and it is not unreasonable to think that the commitment of men to their families can be substantially strengthened.

There is also evidence that we are moving into a "post-feminist" age that will be friendlier to families and children. Feminism denigrated the work of raising children in favor of women's paid labor - an attitude epitomised by Hillary Clinton's dismissive response to questions about her Arkansas legal career that she could have just "stayed home and baked cookies."

Many women are indeed now working - not as lawyers or policymakers but as waitresses and checkers at Wal-Mart, away from the children they are struggling to raise on their own after being abandoned by husbands or boyfriends. Many women like these might choose to stay at home with their children during their early years if the culture told them it was okay, and if they had the financial means to do so.

I see anecdotal evidence all around me that the well-to-do are already making this choice. This does not represent a return of the housewife ideal of the 1950s, just a more sensible balancing of work and family.

Women might find it more palatable to make work and career sacrifices for the sake of children if men made similar sacrifices. The post-industrial economy, by undermining the notion of lifetime employment and steady movement up a career ladder for men, may be abetting just such a social change. In the industrial era, technology encouraged the separation of a male-dominated workplace from a female-dominated home; the information age may reintegrate the two.

Religion may serve a purpose in re-establishing norms, even without a sudden return to religious orthodoxy. Religion is frequently not so much the product of dogmatic belief as it is the provider of a convenient language that allows communities to express moral beliefs that they would hold on entirely secular grounds.

In countless ways, modern, educated, sceptical people are drawn to religion because it offers them community, ritual, and support for values they otherwise hold. Religion in this sense is a form of a-rational, spontaneous order rather than a hierarchical alternative to it.

The reconstruction of values that has started in the 1990s, and any renorming of society that may happen in the future, has and will be the product of political, religious, self-organised, and natural norm building.

The state is neither the source of all our troubles nor the instrument by which we can solve them. But its actions can both deplete and restore social capital in ways large and small.

We have not become so modern and secularised that we can do without religion. But we are also not so bereft of innate moral resources that we need to wait for a messiah to save us. And nature, which we are constantly trying to evict with a pitchfork, always keeps running back.

Reprinted with permission from The Wilson Quarterly. Francis Fukuyama's book, The Great Disruption, is on sale now from News Weekly Books, $30.95 (plus p&h).

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