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A decadent society documented

Charles Murray dissects Ross Douthat‘s latest tome for the Claremont Review of Books.

“Complaining about decadence is, almost by definition, a luxury good,” Ross Douthat observes in his new book, The Decadent Society. It is also an easy target for derision if returning to an un-decadent society means, for example, giving up antibiotics. The world in the 21st century is a better place than it has ever been on every measure of material well-being. This is most conspicuously true in the nations of the advanced West that are most open to accusations of decadence.

The New York Times columnist recognizes this, but asks us nonetheless to consider ways in which there is much to complain about. He takes his definition of decadence from Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence (2000). “All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off,’” Barzun wrote. …

… Douthat assesses contemporary life in terms of “the four horsemen” of decadence: stagnation, sterility, sclerosis, and repetition.

Economic stagnation is the most widely documented form of contemporary stagnation, characterized by falling GDP growth rates over the past half-century, little or no growth in working-class wages, lower social mobility, lower geographic mobility in search of new jobs, and healthy working-class males dropping out of the labor force. Douthat adds a twist to this familiar story that took me by surprise but ultimately convinced me: we are also in the midst of a prolonged period of technological stagnation. …

… Sterility as Douthat uses the word refers to the below-replacement birth rates that are observed in almost every advanced nation. Low birth rates have a variety of adverse economic consequences, but that’s not the main point. Societies without many young people “are simply less likely to be dynamic, less interested in risk taking, than societies with younger demographic profiles.” The growing number of young adults who say they don’t even want children is linked with solipsism and anomie.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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