Monday, May 5, 2014

The added value of pleasant vices

Almost a decade ago, economist Steven Levitt pronounced he had solved the biggest mystery in American criminology. Why had levels of violent steadily clime declined since their peak in the early 1990’s? Because abortion was legalized – so fewer unwanted babies, who would be more likely to become criminals, were born. It’s an elegant theory, but there is a slight problem with it. It can’t be proven – or refuted – through statistical analysis. Abortion is entangled countless other social “variables,” so its “causal” impact on crime rates can be established only within a crude abstract model – but this will tell us little about its significance in the non-abstract world of living, breathing, and killing or dying human beings. In fact, I am tempted to offer a different theory which may seem fanciful –and wouldn’t be amenable to empirical validation, either – but may well be more credible. Though someone with Levitt’s unrelenting empirico-analytic bent, however, would typically be impervious to dissuasion or self-doubt.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, at one point World State Controller Mustapha Mond gives the following recipe for creating a peaceful society: “You can't have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices.”  In the book, these include casual sex, drugs, hyperstimulating entertainment and vicarious thrills, consumerism, etc. The idea is to provide multiple outlets for satisfying trivial desires since thwarted cravings can become pent up frustrations. As the famous “frustration-aggression” hypothesis states, frustration breeds aggression – so the lack of frustration smothers aggression in the crib. This is combined with a narrowing down of the existential horizon even for the Alpha executives and middle managers – achieved through the abolition of the family and strong emotional attachments, introversion, art, history, true religion and science, etc. Combined with the division of society into castes engineered to have different intellectual aptitudes (so the members of each fit precisely their social roles and are satisfied with these), the constant effortless gratification of simple desires and the absence of deep attachments and resentments guarantee historically unprecedented social placidity.

Does this picture look vaguely familiar? Perhaps it does – not just the cultural shift toward self-indulgence and self-expression-cum-empowerment, but also the increasing stratification of society into a “cognitive elite” and a less cognitively fit mass – apparently caught somewhere between “Tea Party” delusion and hopeless “Idiocracy.” Add to this mix the much more pervasive virtual overstimulation facilitated by Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a million app-peddling start-ups, and perhaps the decline in violent crime will not look so startling. Of course, no modern society has gone all the way toward the universal peace and happiness projected by Huxley. But the advance so far has been remarkable.