Are mountains out of molehills proof the world’s getting better?

A recurring theme of recent human history is that the less of something bad we see in the world around us, the more outrage we generate about the remaining bits.

For example, in the 19th century, outrage about child labor grew as the frequency of child labor was shrinking. Economic forces, not legislation, had raised adult wages to a level at which more and more families did not need additional income from children to survive, and children gradually withdrew from the labor force. As more families enjoyed having their children at home or in school longer, they became less tolerant of those families whose situations did not allow them that luxury, and the result was the various moral crusades, and then laws, against child labor.

We have seen the same process at work with cigarette smoking in the United States. As smoking has declined over the last generation or two, we have become ever less tolerant of those who continue to smoke. Today, that outrage continues in the form of new laws against vaping and e-cigarettes.

The ongoing debate over "rape culture" is another manifestation of this phenomenon. During the time that reasonably reliable statistics on rape in the United States have been collected, rape has never been less frequent than it is now, and it is certainly not as institutionalized as a practice in the Western world as it was in the past. Yet despite this decline -- or in fact because of it -- our outrage at the rape that remains has never been higher.

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