There's less of this than you might think.

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An Epidemic of Americans Behaving Well

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks Americans have behavioral problems. In a recent column on the struggles of working-class families, he recounts horror stories of domestic violence and drug use. According to Brooks, the problem isn't just economics, but a result of moral relativism:

The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically... 

These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another.

Essentially, he believes that liberal culture has told working-class Americans that there’s no such thing as right and wrong, and that working-class people have taken this to heart, resulting in an epidemic of bad behavior. In the rest of the article, he recommends sweeping changes to the country’s moral norms and culture. 

There’s just one problem with Brooks’ proposal -- they’re a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Brooks’ anecdotes conflict with statistical reality -- Americans are behaving better, not worse. Indeed, in most ways, American behavior is better than it has been in living memory. 

For example, take domestic violence, which figures prominently in Brooks’ horror stories. Non-fatal domestic violence rates fell by 64 percent from 1994 to 2012. That’s an incredible decrease! The number of homicides by intimate partners fell dramatically as well. Of course many people still beat their spouses or children, but a two-thirds drop in less than 20 years is nothing to scoff at. 

Or consider drugs. Total illicit drug use, as measured by the National Institutes of Health, has risen in the U.S. during the last decade or so -- but it’s all due to increasing use of marijuana, a relatively harmless drug. Cocaine use has declined, while other drug usage has been little changed. The number of Americans being treated for alcoholism has fallen as well, as has the frequency of drunk driving. Tobacco consumption, of course, has plummeted.  

And among teens, these trends are even more pronounced. In just the past decade, the rate of illicit drug use among teens has fallen from more than 15 percent to less than 10 percent. Every category of drug use has fallen, though marijuana hasn't fallen by much.

Now here is an even more encouraging statistic: Child molestation rates are way down and continue to fall. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, substantiated cases of child sex abuse fell by an eye-popping 62 percent. Abuse by both family members and acquaintances have fallen equally.

So the kind of bad behaviors Brooks documents are on the wane. And of course, this comes against a backdrop of rapidly falling crime and plummeting teen pregnancy.

Brooks talks about the plight of the working class. But the reductions in crime, domestic violence, child abuse, drug use and teen pregnancy disproportionately help the working class, since the working class suffered more of these problems to begin with. The modern working-class American is much less likely to endure the ill effects of these antisocial behaviors than he or she would have just two decades ago.

If that’s the fruit of moral relativism, give me a double helping.

There’s another way in which Brooks’ argument conflicts with the evidence. Brooks says that moral relativism and nonjudgmentalism have sapped the values of the working class. But as Charles Murray reports in his 2012 book "Coming Apart," working-class Americans are actually more likely than others to espouse traditional values. Even if liberals have been peddling moral relativism, the working class hasn’t bought it.

Now, there is one way that the American working class is behaving in a less healthy way than in the past -- family stability. Working-class marriage rates are down, and divorce rates are up. This isn't something to celebrate, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate an erosion of national morality. It seems to me that it’s part of a different problem -- social isolation.

The U.S. is becoming a more socially isolating place. Since the 1980s, the percentage of Americans with close friends outside their families has fallen dramatically, and the size of Americans’ social networks has decreased. These changes have been especially acute among the less educated -- in other words, the working class.

Of course, economics is one big factor in the health of relationships. Lack of job stability makes it harder to form stable marriages. I wouldn’t be surprised if it impairs other relationships as well.

It seems to me that the U.S. is failing its working class not with bad morals, but with bad communities. Family breakdown seems like just one more way that Americans are becoming disconnected from each other. Instead of blaming and shaming working-class people -- who are better behaved than ever -- we should be trying to help them rebuild human relationships and communities. Loneliness is a far bigger threat than moral relativism.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net