Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from remarks the author gave at the Heritage Foundation’s symposium “Where Is Liberalism Going?” today in Washington.
From the early 1990s through the first decade of the 21st century, the world saw a dramatic decrease in crime. The most famous example is the Giuliani-era renaissance in New York City, where such dangerous and distasteful sections of the city as the Times Square sex-trade district were entirely reconstituted. From 1990 to 2009, the homicide rate throughout the city was reduced by about 80 percent; in some formerly high-crime areas, such as the neighborhood around Canal Street, homicides were reduced by 95 percent. Citywide, car thefts were reduced by 97 percent.
As with the specific case of New York, a great many theories were offered to explain the decline in criminality worldwide, not one of which is entirely consistent with the evidence. Steven Levitt and John Donohue argued that legalized abortion explained much of the reduction, but their argument does not account for the similarities in outcomes between countries with very different abortion policies or the fact that in places such as the United Kingdom, crime reductions did not track the creation of a very liberal abortion license in the way one would expect. Similarly, demographic changes, specifically the proportional reduction of the crime-prone 18-to-34-year-old male population in aging countries, do not coincide with crime reductions in the expected ways, and the scale of crime reduction in places such as New York far exceeds any plausible age-cohort effect. Conservatives pointed to stiffer prison sentences for repeat offenders and larger prison populations, and argued that their law-and-order policies were at the heart of the success story — but, again, crime dropped in places that were reducing their prison populations, too, and in places where criminal-justice practices remained relatively liberal. The theories grow exotic: At least one scholar argues that the elimination of lead in gasoline was the driving force. Demographics, economics, social policy, education, police practices — none provides a satisfying explanation.
To complicate things, in the United States there were important social trends that should, in theory, have been associated with higher crime, notably the 30-year transition from organized families to relatively disorganized child-rearing that began in earnest in the 1970s. There was a confluence of possible explanatory factors associated with that, too: the judicial invention of the universal abortion license, the greater availability of contraception, nonmarital cohabitation, the growing economic independence of women, the spread of no-fault divorce laws, the entry of pornography into the mainstream culture, etc. But as with the case of crime reduction, the decline of the traditionally organized family is not clearly associated with any policy or set of policies. In fact, it probably is the case that the policy changes were subordinate to cultural changes rather than precedent to them. No-fault divorce laws were not forced on an unwilling populace by a small band of ideologues, and the divorce rate did not double for no reason — the changes in the law were only catching up with changes in the culture. Both sets of changes were destructive, in my own view, but I suspect that it is a minority view: There is no popular campaign for the revocation of no-fault divorce laws and no indication that Americans are very interested in reversing the sexual trends that emerged in the latter half of the 20th century.
Aristotle believed that man is a “political animal,” while some market-oriented thinkers are criticized for reducing man to a profit-seeking animal, homo economicus. Kenneth Burke understood man as the language-using animal. It is perhaps better simply to begin with an understanding of man as animal. Even under the most exalted conceptions of man — as creature made in the image of God, as possessor of free will — man is nonetheless subject to the same animal pressures as is a kangaroo or a honeybee. Our bodies are the product of evolution, and so are our behaviors, including — especially — our social behaviors. Although it is dangerously easy to make too much of any specific body of work in fields such as psychiatric genetics and evolutionary psychology, they do point to a fact that is critical for understanding our public-policy discourse at something more than a white-hats/black-hats level: Culture is not outside of biology. Culture does not stand apart from biology, interacting with our evolved natures like an exasperated master trying to train an unruly pet. Perhaps Glenn Loury’s famous observation should be amended: Conservatives should not believe that human nature has no history — only that it has a very, very long one, one in which changes are not measured in lifetimes or generations but in eons. Human nature may be open to renegotiation, but not on any timeline that a politician or a philosopher could work with. For the purposes of politics, human nature is effectively immutable.
While the biologists are giving us good reason to be extremely modest in our expectations for the project of attempting to manage man, the mathematicians have done what seems to me irreparable damage to the belief that complex human systems can be managed, flown by remote control from Congress or the White House, a belief that is increasingly difficult to distinguish from a superstition. The scientific study of complex adaptive systems such as markets has taken Ludwig von Mises’s philosophical critique of central planning and developed a formidable body of knowledge that suggests a much more general and sweeping understanding of Mises’s underlying principle. Even a relatively simple economic activity — say, the cultivation and sale of wheat — is far too complex to be comprehended, anticipated, or managed by any bureaucracy, agency, or committee, no matter how intelligent and well-meaning its agents, no matter how well-equipped and incentivized they may be.
F. A. Hayek warned us against the “pretense of knowledge.” But the fact is that our public-policy debate is broadly organized around that very pretense, which is practically an article of faith.
Reality is remorselessly wearing away at the planners’ pretense. In 2008, the best and brightest in Washington, who believe themselves to be among the most intelligent and powerful men and women in the world, stood by helplessly as their ambitions were done in by the very houses in which we live, like cells turning against the body as cancer. Washington’s response was to apply to health care the same effective management it had brought to housing policy, executing its program with approximately the ineptitude that one might have expected.
It is not as though radical social change is impossible. It is, as documented in the first part of this essay: The reduction in crime in the United States and across the world over the course of a few decades constituted a transformative improvement in the real standard of living for billions of people. Nobody knows how or why it happened. Conversely, the collapse of the traditional family constitutes a severe social deformation with consequences that will far outlive any of us, and our grandchildren. Nobody quite knows how or why that happened, either. Politics might have gnawed around the edges of those movements, but there is a strong odor of rationalization upon the conventional political explanations of them, appending post hoc policy rationales to mysterious social developments and then reversing the vectors of causality to create the illusion that somebody is in charge.
This is a particularly acute problem for the Left, because central planning, variously mutated, is at the center of the Left’s political program. With the collapse of Marxism as a bedrock intellectual model, the Anglo-American Left, and to a lesser extent its European and Asian branches, has been reduced to very little more than performing public-relations work on behalf of a collection of parochial economic interests and sundry tribal enthusiasms. The Democratic party is in effect an advertising agency for central planning, tasked with selling its worst failures as its most notable successes (public schools, Medicaid, financial regulation), and, being fortunate in the nature of its main antagonist, its salesmen have done a better job than one might have expected convincing the American public that it really does like New Coke after all.
The shallowness of this project is readily apparent when one considers specific cases — e.g., efforts to ban so-called conversion therapy for homosexuals. Some men and women with same-sex attractions are troubled by them and wish to be rid of them, and various techniques and programs have been developed to assist them in that effort. Critics point out that these programs are frequently pseudoscientific, often pure hokum, and show little evidence of leaving patients better off than they were before. This is broadly true. But of course that is not what the fight is about. Alcoholics Anonymous is based on hokum and shows very little evidence of successfully treating people for addiction, but we remand people to its care, sometimes as a matter of law, with very little concern for any of that. Any number of objectively pseudoscientific therapies — acupuncture, chiropractic, herbalism — are eligible for federal subsidies under the so-called Affordable Care Act; despite my best efforts to bring attention to that issue, no one is much interested in that. There is no evidence supporting the efficacy of Head Start, yoga, or the USDA’s dietary recommendations, either. But all three are federally blessed and federally subsidized. Yes, that includes the yoga.
But it is a crime in California to offer gay-conversion counseling to people who want it. Apparently, what goes on between consenting adults is the government’s business after all.
We should expect to hear a great deal more about crimes of that sort, the crime of criticizing the wrong people at the wrong time, and related offenses.
The dispute is not about applying a standard of scientific rigor to efforts to change deep-seated human behaviors; it is about making the belief that homosexuality might be in some circumstances and in some ways undesirable an unthinkable thought related to a punishable offense. Never mind if it is literally undesirable — i.e., the tormented people in question do not desire to be homosexually inclined — homosexuality is a special tribal affiliation that must be affirmed. The American Psychiatric Association maintains that “ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation” but at the same time countenances much more invasive measures to attempt to change individuals’ sex. Genital amputation is therapeutic, counseling is a crime against nature.
Gay-conversion therapy gets the planners’ attention because it irritates a particularly sensitive nerve belonging to an important constituent of the coalition. But many of our planners’ ambitious programs involve radically invasive measures on a far greater scale. Like homosexuality, obesity is a phenomenon in which the social and the biological are inextricably entangled. Like homosexuality, obesity has proved itself largely immune from efforts at management, and as in the case of gay-conversion therapy, those efforts often have damaging, even deadly consequences. But we merrily consider various federal crusades, with the first lady acting as mascot, organized around the worst sort of pseudoscience and supported by evidence amounting to effectively zero. The same stubborn, enduring, unchanging human facts that make trying to change someone’s sexual orientation such a dicey business also stand between the planners and their utopian plans for public health, education, multiculturalism, and more.
Culture is not outside biology.
The responsibility of conservatives is to draw ever nearer to reality. And one unpleasant aspect of our current reality is that the pain the Left is feeling as its planning ambitions run up against reality will be redirected, notably into tribalism and authoritarianism.
We are experiencing a terrifying moment of authoritarianism among mainstream Democratic politicians: Harry Reid’s highly personal campaign of vicious demagoguery against Charles and David Koch is a national disgrace, but his party’s attempt to repeal the First Amendment is a national crisis. While Harry Reid wages war on free speech, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. calls for the literal imprisonment of people with the wrong ideas on climate change. These aren’t Occupy terrorists trying to blow up a bridge in Cleveland; this is the United States Senate and a man bearing one of the most famous names in American politics.
The Left no longer has a credible intellectual case for its core program of control and planning. But, as Hayek predicted, the failure of central-planning aspirations is not going to be met with a renewed sense of humility on the part of our would-be rulers, but with denunciations of enemies of the people and demands for ever-more-extraordinary powers to deal with the emergency, which is now, it goes without saying, permanent. The world is moving on from command and control; the campus of Google might as well be on a different planet from the Rayburn House Office Building, its inhabitants practically alien. Power is shifting decisively in the direction of technology, capital, and innovation, and the planners are on the verge of losing, and spectacularly.
That is what is going to make them so dangerous.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.