- A Book Review of The Decadent Society (How We Became the Victims of our Own Success), by Ross Douthat.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat brings us a breathless and demoralizing story of the decline of Western civilization. The book raises a few meaty points about the Zeitgeist, but it overextends its reach, attempting to provide a theory of everything and succumbing to historical myopia. It offers an easy read at the cost of being fluffed well beyond the 3,000-word essay it could have been (why must we know that Douthat visited the White House “in the not-yet-humid DC air”?).
Decadence, Kindly Despotism, and the Barbarians Who Just Won’t Sack Rome
Douthat opens by lamenting the end of space-era excitement and the ensuing decadence of the modern liberal order. “Since Apollo, we have entered into decadence”—which he defines as a combination of economic stagnation, population decline, institutional decay and political deadlock, and cultural-intellectual exhaustion.
Douthat laments the lack of technological innovation (with the exception of the internet) that followed the headiness of the 1960s space program. After the life-changing innovations of the 20th century (electricity, cars, the telephone, antibiotics, … ), progress has fizzled out. No human travel to Mars, no space colonization, no general artificial intelligence, no cure for cancer.
Technological exhaustion has been accompanied by a decline in population and economic stagnation; with the exception of upper echelons, there has been widespread disappointment, as wages are flat and inequality increases.
This stagnation has been matched by institutional sclerosis. A broken American political system has been worsened further by gridlock, polarization and populism. In the European Union, member states lost the ability to respond to the post-2008 crisis and the EU bureaucracy has become simultaneously overreaching and ineffective—culminating in Brexit and the rise of populist authoritarianism.
The roots of decadence run deep. The West is producing little new, culturally or intellectually. Most of the current passions (from postmodernism to environmentalism and from political correctness to the decline of religion) are merely rehashes of earlier movements. While the internet is the one exception to technological decay, it has mostly brought about the evanescent pleasures of pornography and political dithyramb in 120 characters. This is partially good news, as it dampens extremism. This era resembles the 1930s, but “with fewer street fights and more memes,” as would-be revolutionaries can play-act extremism on the internet. President Trump, the culmination of populism and cultural anomie, is polarizing and loud, but largely weak and harmless, as his incompetence is dampened by institutional constraints and a lack of willingness to do the hard work of exercising power. The situation is exacerbated by a numbing culture of videogames over real violence, legal drugs (anti-depressants, anti-ADHD, and opioids) over dealing with reality, and pornography instead of sexual promiscuity or fecund marriage. Mass incarceration and abortion-on-demand once replaced churches and social mores; they have now been supplanted by pharmaceuticals, virtual sex, and virtual violence.
Where does this leave the decadent West? The barbarians that overthrew the decadent empires of yesteryear aren’t coming, leaving the West to an exhausted coasting. Even potential threats are decadent: Islam has big internal problems (from civil war to poverty) and does not offer a seductive alternative; China’s bureaucratic efficiency and national cohesion do inspire some admiration… but China faces its own problems, from economic and technological stagnation to an aging society. If the barbarians won’t do the job, what happens next? Douthat sees two options: catastrophe or renaissance.
Catastrophe could take one of several broad paths: an exogenous shock, whether economic or ecological, or economic instability from unsustainable deficits, compounded by an aging population (something like the economic crisis and political extremism of the Great Financial Crisis, but worse).
More optimistically, decadence could result in a renaissance, stemming from many sources, or a combination thereof: some sort of universalism (whether traditionalist or the New International Socialism), a paradigm-shifting technological breakthrough, or a religious revival.
In the end, Douthat closes with the spirit: a musing on UFOs and alien cultures (against human technological stagnation), and a speculation on divine intervention. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone if decadence ends with people looking heavenward: toward God, toward the stars, or both.”
Sipping Bourbon and Belly-Aching
Douthat’s case is ultimately overstated and simplistic. But I get it. I really do. I too am horrified by much of the contemporary turn, and I think I would greatly enjoy sitting with Douthat in leather wingback chairs, sipping bourbon, and belly-aching over the decline of Western civilization.
I too am constantly appalled. Educated (or, I should say, credentialed) people who can barely line up a grammatically correct sentence. Rampant misuse of transitive verbs. The acceptability of wearing underwear in public (even when not commuting to a gym). Political philosophy that is reduced to superficial Facebook or Twitter comments. “Reading” that amounts to a few daily news links from social media—yet serves as a foundation for great expertise, as we see from the vast number of newly minted PhDs in epidemiology and economics over the weeks of COVID-19 confinement. People who spend social outings glued to their phones, ignoring interlocutors to post pictures of food, or favoring virtual friends who didn’t make the effort to come out over real friends who did. And the list goes on.
Really. I get it. I grieve for the demise of manners, good taste, and critical thinking. Some of the problems identified by Douthat are real. But most are exaggerations. There is nothing new in bemoaning decadence and decline. God flooded a decadent humanity, dumped sulphur on depraved Sodom and Gomorrah, and called on the prophet Isaiah when society was going to the dogs (to name but a few examples). In the late Victorian era, an Irish observer from the Mountains of Mourne bemoaned English decadence:
- I believe that in writing a wish you expressed as to how the fine ladies in London are dressed/Now if you’ll believe me, when asked to a ball, they don’t wear no tops to their dresses at all/Oh I’ve seen them meself, and I could not in truth say if they were bound for a ball or a bath. Don’t go starting those fashions, now Mary McCree, where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.
Oswald Spengler started the modern décliniste industry, with the 1918 publication of The Decline of the West. The portmanteau “affluenza” was coined in the early 1950s (during the heyday of a vibrant America for which Douthat longs)—a decade after Joseph Schumpeter warned that capitalism might contain the seeds of its own destruction. Right about the time Elvis—tame by today’s standards—was filmed from the waist up to preserve the virtue of young audiences, the mothers of River City were warned against the corrupting influence of a pool hall in the community.
- Mothers of River City!
Heed the warning before it’s too late!
Watch for the tell-tale sign of corruption!
The moment your son leaves the house,
Does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knee?
Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger?…
Well, if so my friends,
Ya got trouble,
Right here in River city!
Of course, the pool hall is merely a gateway:
- One fine night, they leave the pool hall,
Headin’ for the dance at the Arm’ry!
Libertine men and Scarlet women!
And Ragtime, shameless music
That’ll grab your son and your daughter…
Thirty years later, country singer Merle Haggard sang longingly for a lost America:
- I wish a buck was still silver
It was back when the country was strong
Back before Elvis, before the Vietnam war came along
Before the Beatles and yesterday
When a man could still work and still would
Is the best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?
He concludes the song with an impassioned plea to America: “Stop rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell/Stand up for the flag and let’s all ring the liberty bell.”
“The point is, times change, and every generation thinks this is it. Everything is going to pot. Start with sloppy fashion, and before you know it the barbarians are at the gate. But then, somehow, things go on.”
The point is, times change, and every generation thinks this is it. Everything is going to pot. Start with sloppy fashion, and before you know it the barbarians are at the gate. But then, somehow, things go on. I am certainly not making a naïve claim that history progresses whiggishly towards the good. There have been good developments and bad developments since the late 1960s, when decadence supposedly started. Mostly, though, the balance sheet is positive.
Douthat’s claims of technological stagnation are overblown. To be sure, progress—after the great gains of the 19th and 20th century—may have slowed down a bit. But it is easy to fall into historical myopia from within the midst of developments. An inefficient government space program (effective, perhaps, but not efficient) is slowly being replaced by the private sector. The potential for disruptive technology is just emerging. To name just two examples, Uber has already led to a drop in drunk driving and fatal accidents, and online banking is a lifeline to the estimated 25% of American adults who are unbanked or underbanked. Quantum computing and driverless cars aren’t quite there yet—but nor are they dead.
Take a development that could not have been foreseen by Douthat (but one that shows how technology is growing faster than we might think). Technology has allowed a significant chunk of the population to continue working and eating through the pandemic; we can only imagine the unemployment rates if the pandemic and its social isolation had hit just ten years ago. Zoom may be imperfect, and online restaurant and grocery orders are not a panacea—but we can give two cheers, at least, for such quiet bourgeois victories, which allowed a fast but dramatic transition. They have helped our lives immeasurably, with a whimper, if not the bang of earlier inventions.
It is also not clear that we have seen cultural-intellectual stagnation. For example, from 1982 to 2012, the percentage of adults who attended a classical music concert in the past 12 months fell from 13% to 9%. But this modest drop is surely balanced by the rise of the internet. Instead of driving to Memphis or Washington, D.C., I have been able to enrich my pandemic isolation with free live performances of classical music. Music services like Spotify allow unprecedented exposure to the depth and breadth of the world’s musical heritage. At the click of a button, and with no cost above a small monthly subscription, I can listen to the entire discography of Dwight Yoakam, and watch his evolution over three decades, compare Herbert von Karajan’s treatment of Beethoven’s symphonies with that of Claudio Abbado, or listen carefully to the different tenors who play Don Ottavio, as a sincere paladin or as a wimpy fiancé, in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Such cultural forays were once the work of a lifetime and thousands of dollars.
The wage stagnation that Douthat decries is largely offset by the stunning drop in prices for consumer goods—which has increased the absolute lot of the poorest Americans. Of course, that is not the full picture: prices for almost all consumer goods have fallen, with the important exception of education, housing, and healthcare—but these are the three most subsidized and most regulated sectors of the economy, so we should not be surprised that those prices have increased. This leads us to the next section.
Real Problems, Misdiagnosed Causes
The last 40 years have seen an amelioration in the living conditions of the poorest, even if the overall gains have not been spread equally. But Douthat does not mention that in that time, total government spending as a percentage of GDP has increased from about 30% to 40%. To this, we can add growing federal regulations, which now cost about 10% of GDP in compliance, and have a demonstrated regressive effect. It is a small wonder that the politically-connected wealthy are seeing their income grow faster than the bottom four fifths of income earners, as the American constitutional system increasingly favors political over economic activity.
Douthat is correct that demographic stagnation is problematic—but, really, only in terms of servicing unsustainable pay-as-you-go welfare programs and a soaring national debt.
Douthat is correct that the European Monetary Union has hampered the responses of EU member states—but those problems were caused by their profligacy and inefficiency. Independent monetary policy would simply have complicated a debt problem with an inflation problem. Likewise, we should not forget that the housing boom and the Great Financial Crisis were caused by expansionary monetary policy and ill-conceived regulations that encouraged poor housing choices. Finally, environmental problems are primarily caused by government’s failure to enforce property rights and contracts, as it plays favorites through political capture of environmental bureaucracies.
Declining church attendance does not represent a drop in religiosity, so much as a shift to the religions of state and environment.
For all its weaknesses, modern technology is really not all bad. Many Americans have stopped any form of serious reading, but many others now have access to millions of books in a convenient and accessible electronic format. As Douthat rightly points out, the easy fantasy pleasures of the internet have led to a significant drop in violence. This may be a pyrrhic victory, but we cannot blame the machines for all our woes. Today’s students who are distracted by their cell phones were once distracted by comic books. Irresponsible drivers would have been smoking at the wheel instead of texting 30 years ago. C.S. Lewis reminds us that “there are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work.” ADHD overdiagnosis is likely due to excessive school time rather than excessive screen time.
Douthat rightly imagines a number of catastrophic scenarios that could mark the end of his supposed decadence, but this is nothing new. Throughout history, a Napoleon, a Spanish flu, or a bad harvest always lurked just around the corner.
Finally, Douthat is right to decry the political sclerosis that has overcome the US and Western Europe. His diagnosis of a failed graft of a 20th century administrative state onto an 18th century constitutional system is rich and insightful, but it also misses two basic points. First, the growth of government is exacerbating the divide between the elites who live off the toil of the rest, and those who are tired of being milked dry. It is no wonder that eight of the 20 richest counties in the United States are in the Washington, D.C. area, a region with precious little industry or true production, beyond legislation and the ancillary snouts in the political trough. Second, the utter failure of government involvement in education has left us with an estimated 20% of high school graduates who are functionally illiterate. Where do we even begin with critical thinking and citizenship?
In sum, the main problem is simple: Douthat’s arguments for decadence are exaggerated, but they are not entirely off the mark… but the catastrophes and renaissances he outlines are not reactions to the liberal order. That order died at the hands of the Progressives, who placed legislative whim and the tyranny of experts over constitutions and markets, and the New Deal, which irrevocably intertwined the market and the state.
The real threat to the West is internal: the continuing rise of collectivism and the growth of the state. This is a very vibrant, very strong, and very non-decadent movement; it is also not desirable. If it continues unchecked, the United States will certainly implode under the weight of its own debt and ignorance, as the state continues to undermine economics, education, and civil society.
In closing, the two wisest murmurs within Douthat’s groans merit pause.
He does spend one chapter on “giving decadence its due.” Things are indeed quite good, regardless of whether they are part of an overall decadence. In fact, things have never been this good, and I would like to have that conversation over bourbon with Douthat in 20 years. If the country has rolled back socialism, I think he will be surprised at the economic growth and technological wonders he fears are waning.
Finally, I am reminded of my Jesuit mentor, who used Star Wars as an analogy for crisis. The superficial lesson of the trilogy is that there is a technology fix for everything—and yet, in the end, the solution is spiritual. Use the Force. Douthat closes his book with a similar techno-religious enjoiner: “So down on your knees—and start working on that warp drive.” His claim of technological stagnation may be overblown, but he does identify the heart of the matter: a soul-sickness.
The real cure for decadence—if indeed we be decadent—is a return to the very liberal order that is supposedly being eroded (from within) or shunned (by the populists) but was abandoned a long time ago. The answer lies in stemming the tide of socialism and returning to liberty, with its breathing room for markets, civil society, human creativity, and opportunity for the least fortunate.
*Nikolai Wenzel is Distinguished Professor of Economics at Fayetteville State University (Fayetteville, NC), where he holds the L.V. Hackley Chair for the Study of Capitalism and Free Enterprise. His research interests are constitutional political economy and institutional economics, cronyism, Austrian economics, and history of economic thought.