I’ve previously defend Scott Alexander’s missives on reaction. However, his latest isn’t up to the level of his old stuff.
The crux of his argument is that, “It is a staple of Reactionary thought that everything is getting gradually worse.” He then goes on to show that not everything is getting worse.
In his previous writings on reaction, Mr Alexander has faithfully described the view of most reactionaries. The problem with his latest piece is that he doesn’t. It is not a staple of reactionary thought that everything is getting worse. To the contrary, I’ve never read that argument from any reactionary anywhere.
(As I’ve previously written I think most of us work in fields where advancement is quite obvious. Our frustration is that while we see progress in some areas virtually every day, nothing outside of these limited areas seems to be getting any better. Instead it all seems to be decaying – a process which itself is hardly a historical novelty).
Let’s correct his statement: It is a staple of Reactionary thought that massive improvements in technology have been very effective in masking massive declines in virtually all other aspects of society.
His first example is crime, and it’s a great one to illustrate my point.
Go look at his charts on crime. What you’ll generally see is a massive decline in crime (in civilized countries) that lasts for centuries and then reverses around 1950, increases for 50 years and then resumes decreasing in the 1990s or 2000s.
The non-Reactionary view of this is: “look how much better things have gotten in the last two decades,” or “our murder rate is now lower than it’s been since the 1950s.”
The Reactionary view is: “what the fsck was happening in ’50s,” or “is comparing homicide rates across these time periods really comparing apples to apples?”
Let’s say homicides were at their lowest sometime between 1920 and 1950. Quite a few things happened between now and then that should make homicides much lower. These factors include advances in medicine, advances in surveillance equipment, more people behind bars, advances in personal safety products, etc.
To compare the ’20s and the ’90s as if everything else was equal is a bit like comparing architecture pre and post the invention of concrete or steel and conclude by marveling at how superior the post era buildings are to the pre era buildings. The only thing you’ve revealed is your own bias.
The real thing to marvel at is not that we’ve somehow equalled the crime rate of the ’30s, but that with huge advances in technology and medicine we still can’t improve on the homicide rates that our grandparents achieved.
Other examples abound. What would previous generations of statesmen have done with the internet, modern communication technology, etc.? What have we done? Is there any reasonable argument that the governing process has improved at all in the last century? Is there any reasonable argument that the “statesmen” of today are superior to those of previous generations?
Certain technological advances make debts much easier to collect, track, and extend. Can that really be the only source of growth in economies? For how long?
The key insight is that things have improved in a lot of areas. These improvements are so massive that it’s really quite shocking that they haven’t spilled over into other areas (again, it’s just shocking that advances in medical technology haven’t by themselves massively lowered the homicide rate, or – as I suspect – if they have, it’s really shocking that today’s rate isn’t much lower than the rate from any previous era). In other words, given the technological advancements of the last 50 or 60 years, a lot of things should be a lot better. Why aren’t they? The only answer seems to be that a lot of other things have gotten much worse?
Far from arguing that everything is getting worse, the real question is how much longer advances in technology can mask declines in virtually all other areas of life?