Is the world getting worse?

2013 August 21

Given the bad odor attached to optimists from Dr. Pangloss to Rhonda Byrne, the evidence (somewhat contested) that pessimists are more likely to see the world as it really is,  and the overwhelming evidence of species destruction and climate change, we decided to investigate an old chestnut: Do we live in the worst of times?

Hesiod and Ovid offer the Greek version in their Ages of Man mythologies. Roughly translated: “In the Golden Age, we were as gods, but in today’s Iron Age, we must work for a living, and our teenagers say ‘Whatever’ to our very faces.” The desert religions have their myth of the Garden of Eden and the Fall. The WWII generation looks longingly to the 50s. The Boomers, to the 60s. The post-boomers, the 80s. (No one misses the 70s.) And so a wave of nostalgia rolls forward across the decades, always lagging the present. (Though less and less — I heard people recalling Windows 95 with nostalgia  in the early 2000s.) But is it really true that the past was better than the present?

There’s a lot of data out there, so let’s keep it simple. Women and children are typically a society’s most vulnerable members, so let’s ask whether the world is getting better or worse for them. At the time King John signed the Magna Carta establishing the basis for the rights of Englishmen, women and children were both understood as property. Because rape was prosecuted as a property tort (the victim being a husband or father rather than the woman), marital rape wasn’t even a legal concept — a man can’t steal his own property — and wasn’t criminalized in the  U.S. until the 1970s. Here’s what’s happened since then (graphs courtesy of Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature):

At least with respect to violence against women and children in the U.S. since the 1990s, we can say, “The world is getting better.”

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