All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1995

The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators: Facts and Figures on the State of American Society

Government Has Failed Miserably at Its Primary Function

William J. Bennett, best-selling author of The Book of Virtues, has produced another dandy little volume, this one geared towards fast, easy consumption and future reference. The Book of Virtues is an implicit companion, if only to indicate what’s been missing in our society. Leading Cultural Indicators, however, stands alone. Its strength lies in the explicit message of chilling statistics.

Bennett’s new book is a compendium of charts and graphs extracted from various government and private research sources and is divided into five chapters: Crime; Family and Children; Youth Pathologies and Behavior; Education; and Popular Culture and Religion. There are also appendices on social spending and related economic indicators. The twelve-page introduction is perhaps the best and certainly the most succinct critique yet written on the destructive legacy of the Counterculture.

One of the salient points, easily drawn from data in the book, is that government solutions compound social problems. For instance, the growth of social ills literally parallels the growth in government social spending. While welfare gets 630 percent more money today than in 1960, long-term static dependency has actually increased. Of course, escalating welfare and social spending costs have translated into real tax burdens on working families with children.

The hardest hit are the working poor and the dependent poor themselves. The data indicate that, by co-opting or undercutting individual responsibility, government paternalism not only breeds dependency but depresses the economy and precludes the kind of long-term economic growth that would provide permanent solutions. Indeed, it is clear that the staggering tax burden increases all kinds of stress on families, and many households have simply been unable to survive.

The divorce rate has more than doubled since 1960 and is the highest in the world, although down slightly from its peak in the early 1980s. There is a smaller percentage of households with married couples in the United States today than there has been for two centuries. Nearly one in two U.S. households is headed by single parents or involves some other non-traditional living arrangement. Abortions have skyrocketed since 1972, while one-third of all births in the United States today are out of wedlock. Fully seventy percent of African-American births in the United States are illegitimate. Moreover, the linkage between the breakdown of the American family, poverty, and the incidence of social pathologies is well-established in the data.

Government has failed miserably its primary function of protecting law-abiding citizens from criminals. There has been a more than 500 percent increase in violent crime over the past thirty years. Yet the data show crime increasing and punishments declining both qualitatively and quantitatively. Public toleration, however, must also share the blame. The sad fact of the matter is that many in society doubt they even know basic right from wrong, or if they do, their own self-esteem is so low as to mute public demand for retribution.

Leading Cultural Indicators includes some legislative proposals in the introduction, and while they strive to be “mainstream,” rather than representative of a partisan political agenda or particular philosophy, they belie Bennett’s own compromise with big government solutions. In each case his solutions may represent improvement in policy over the status quo, but the people only get a more benevolent master. The apparatus of the State is the problem, and it is hard to imagine the imposition of federal sentencing guidelines, national educational standards and a national core curriculum, federal tax incentives (conservative social engineering), IRS-directed garnishment of pay for dead-beat dads, and government identification of fathers by Social Security number are the kinds of things that are needed. They offer no long-term solace from Leviathan; worse they are likely to be the wellspring of present and future bureaucratic abuses and myriad government intrusions.

The book does, however, successfully issue a clarion call to concerned citizens. The data are highly useful and indicate that we are a society in crisis. The trends chart a decline of our civilization over some thirty years. Bennett acknowledges that government alone cannot arrest the negative social trends he identifies; indeed, only individual responsibility and appropriate voluntary collective action can do so. We should add that it would be most prudent to do so.

Mr. Riddle is a faculty member at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, where he teaches American History.