Wednesday, April 29, 2020

imposing morality

I was rather taken aback recently when on a well-known right-wing forum someone seriously suggested that adultery should be made a criminal matter. I was even more taken aback when the person suggested that fornication should be made a crime as well. Punishable by prison!

Of course no-one would take such an idea seriously. But quite a few people on this forum did take it seriously and enthusiastically agreed.

The reasons it’s ludicrous are pretty obvious. For one thing it would be entirely unenforceable. How would you prove such a charge in court, given that it’s almost certain that neither partner would have the slightest intention of co√∂perating with the prosecution? Would you force the woman to undergo a medical examination? Would you subject a woman (who might well be innocent) to such a humiliation? I suppose the police could keep the homes of suspected fornicators under surveillance, but does anyone really want cops peering into people’s bedroom windows to find out if they’re having non government approved sex? Does anyone want a police Chastity Squad kicking in people’s doors? All this quite apart from the fact that it amounts to the kind of social control one associates with 17th century Puritans.

It’s a silly proposal but it is a symptom of something I’ve noticed recently - that the dissident right seems to be moving towards more and more extreme positions. And that the right seems increasingly willing to embrace draconian statist solutions to social problems. Of course what we’re seeing at the moment is actually both the cultural left and the cultural right becoming more extreme. It’s the cultural left that has the monopoly of power at the moment but it’s sobering to think that many on the cultural right would be willing to be just as oppressive if they were given the chance.

It also raises a key problem for social conservatives and those who espouse traditional moral values (and I have a great deal of sympathy for traditional moral values). Is it justifiable to impose such moral values by means of legal sanctions? The person who made the suggestion alluded to above is a Christian who at other times has expressed the view that morality should be enforced by the state. Clearly there are some areas of  sexual morality which should be a matter for the police (rape and offences involving children are obvious examples where a civilised society’s duty to protect children and women overrides all other considerations). You can certainly argue that abortion, given that it involves actual killing, is another such case (and I’d agree).

It does seem to me however that even suggesting the idea of legally enforcing sexual morality beyond such cases would be not only doomed to failure but seriously counter-productive. And I think it would be wrong. Whether we like it or not we live in a world in which there is no possibility of achieving universal agreement on sexual morality. No matter how strongly we might believe in certain moral values it is highly questionable whether we could ever justify imposing those values on those who disagree with us. We can certainly argue the case for our values, we can try to persuade others of the utility of our values and we can strongly resist efforts by the SJWs to impose their values on us. We can resist efforts by SJWs to propagandise schoolchildren with their values.

I don’t think we can go further than that.

Social conservatives are often accused of wanting to turn back the clock, and in some ways it’s true that we’d like to do that. However I don’t really think any sane person wants to use the Puritan societies of the 17th century as a model. But apparently some do indeed want that.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

where have all the babies gone?

I’m more and more convinced that to a surprising extent social and cultural change is downstream of technological change. Demographics provides a startling instance of this.

Everyone agrees that fertility rates have plummeted and everyone has a theory as to why this has happened. Maybe it’s a conspiracy theory by malevolent groups seeking to destroy Western Civilisation, maybe people aren’t having children because they can’t afford them, maybe it’s because of the materialism and emptiness of modern society, maybe it’s the fault of feminism, maybe it’s because of the decline of Christianity, maybe it’s because of modern popular culture.

None of these theories stands up to close examination. The problem with all of them is that the sharp decline in birth rates was already evident in the 1870s. The second quarter of the nineteenth century was a watershed moment in western demographic history. Birth rates fell sharply in western Europe and they have never recovered. None of the popular theories can possibly explain this.

My theory is that birth rates have fallen because women just aren’t that much into having children. And that if they are able to have very few children they will in fact choose to have very few children. If they are able to choose the number of children they will have then the overwhelming majority will choose one or two, most likely one. Many will choose none.

What happened in the 1870s is that suddenly women could choose how many children to have. Modern effective inexpensive methods of contraception were widely available by this time, and equally importantly information on how to use these methods successfully was widely available. Prior to this time birth control existed but it was extremely inconvenient, only moderately effective and drastically reduced sexual pleasure. Such artificial methods as existed (such as condoms) were expensive and not widely available. Information on birth control techniques was for most people unobtainable. All that changed in the 1860s and 1870s. Suddenly the technology for easy birth control was available, and people took advantage of it with enthusiasm.

Another major technological change happened in the early 1960s. The contraceptive pill was even simpler, even more convenient, even more effective and it had zero effect on sexual pleasure. Perhaps even more crucially, the contraceptive pill was something over which a woman had complete control. Earlier methods were either impossible or difficult to practise without the knowledge of the male partner. But a woman could, if she chose, use the contraceptive pill without needing to let her partner know anything about it.

Suddenly it became even easier for women to choose to have even fewer children, and they readily took advantage of the new technology.

What all this means is that there is one overwhelmingly dominant reason for low birth rates - women in general want very few children. Most women still like kids and they still want the joys of motherhood but one child or at most two is sufficient to satisfy those longings.

What this also means is that any efforts to reverse the decline in birth rates are certainly doomed to failure. Economic incentives may have a very small but insignificant effect. Making family formation more affordable by making housing more affordable may have a very small but insignificant effect. Propaganda campaigns to encourage child-bearing may have a very small but insignificant effect. But all these efforts will come up against the intractable problem that women are having very few children because they want very few children.

Does this mean that we really are doomed? Maybe, maybe not. In the very long term other factors may balance out the low birth rates. Factors such as radical life extension. Assuming such a thing is possible - at the moment it’s pure science fiction but in a century or so who knows? Perhaps artificial wombs will provide an answer. Maybe Huxley’s Central London Hatchery will become a reality.

Incidentally my arguments about the momentous demographic revolution of the second quarter of the 19th century are based on Michael Mason’s superb and magisterial 1994 book The Making of Victorian Sexuality, which I highly recommend.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

the counter-culture and the technocrats

I’ve often made the point that consumerism is one of the most destructive of all the forces that have undermined western society. Consumerism can be seen as the end-point of materialism - if you accept the materialist worldview then it is difficult to argue against consumerism. If materialism is all there is then we might as well devote our life to consumerism.

While materialism has come to dominate the West it has always had its critics. Christians and mystics have of course opposed it. Another interesting example of an anti-materialist, or at least anti-consumerist, revolt was the counter-culture (this post is an expansion of a comment I left on a recent post at Oz Conservative).

It is crucial to remember that the counter-culture had nothing to do with the Baby Boomers. The counter-culture was created by a sector of the previous generation, and especially the 1935-45 birth cohort. While we usually think of the counter-culture as a phenomenon of the 60s its roots were very much in the late 50s. The counter-culture began with the beatniks, not the hippies.

The generation that actively participated in the Second World War (roughly those born from around 1910 up to the late 1920s) eagerly embraced a materialistic lifestyle after the war. To them suburbia and stores full of consumer goods seemed like Heaven on Earth after the sufferings and deprivations of the war.

But to a significant sector of the transitional generation who were just too young to participate in the war or to have vivid memories of it (roughly those born from about 1930 up to 1945) the postwar world was something to be regarded with a touch of cynicism. Idealism seemed to have vanished from the world. There was prosperity but there was something missing. The more intellectually inclined among this transitional generation saw the society of the 1950s as shallow, conformist and empty. They formed the initial audience for the Beat writers. They saw Jack Kerouac as a prophet. This marked the beginning of the counter-culture.

And it was definitely in part a reaction against the cult of consumerism which had become a replacement for meaning in life. The early exponents of the counter-culture, in the late 50s and early 60s (when the Baby Boomers were still playing with dolls and toy fire engines) were repelled by the consumerism which blossomed after the war. The consumerism was very much a side-effect of the technocratic worldview that came to dominate government and bureaucracy in the 40s, with its obsession with economic growth to the exclusion of everything else.

The counter-culture of the late 50s was not so much a political revolt as an aesthetic revolt and a moral revolt (the main difference between the photo-counter culture of the 50s and the counter-culture of the 60s was that the latter took on a more explicitly political outlook). It was a revolt against suburbia. The world of suburbia was comfortable and pleasant and even civilised in its own way but it was conformist, it could be stifling, it was complacent and it was prudish. The counter-culture was a misguided revolt but an understandable one.

To an extent even the counter-culture's revolt against marriage and traditional sexual morality was understandable (if also misguided). They felt that marriage in the 50s was mostly about filling a house with consumer goods - married bliss meant having new wall-to-wall carpets and a new lounge suite and a radiogram and a TV set. This was partly accurate and partly unfair.

It was all largely a reaction against the idea that economic growth could give people a reason to live.

Why did the counter-culture become so destructive, fail so completely and leave behind such a sorry legacy? I think the answer is that mostly it was the drugs. As a movement it became more and more incoherent and more and more chaotic, and most disastrously of all it become supremely self-indulgent. Perhaps it was doomed to failure anyway, being mostly a negative rather than a piscine movement, but drugs made its failure a certainty.