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Golden age thinking

One thing that turns off young conservatives is older ones writing wistfully about golden days gone by. Example: Columnist Fred Reed, comparing his Virginia childhood in the 1950s and ’60s to modern America, writes about walking to school at age 8: “Why not? There was nothing to be afraid of. … My family never locked the doors of the house. Why should we? There weren’t any burglars.”

Reed argues the crime increase stems from a breakdown in American culture—the rise of a relativistic mindset unwilling to proclaim moral absolutes. Reed posits that this culture breeds crime because it tolerates immoral behavior. Hence increasing numbers of police officers, barred windows, and locked doors.

It’s true that American culture has changed since Reed graduated from high school in 1964—and a quick check of Virginia crime records shows the number of violent crimes committed in the state roughly doubling since 1960, and property crime roughly tripling. So far, so bad: Reed is right that the culture has degenerated since 1960, and crime has increased.

Except that … the population of Virginia has doubled over the past 50 years, and if we examine the crime rate per capita, the story is different: Property crime has significantly increased, but violent crime per capita in Virginia was only slightly higher in 2011 than it was in 1961. The murder rate is sharply lower. It turns out that Virginia per capita crime of all kinds peaked two decades ago and has declined since then.

If cultural depravity makes for more crime, was Virginia at its worst in 1991, and has it had a revival since then? Doesn’t seem that way. Thirty years of increasing crime, 20 years of declining. That’s true for Virginia and largely true for the nation as a whole. Theories abound as to the rise and fall of criminal activity, but one thing is clear: It’s not as simple as Fred Reed and a host of others contend.

The FBI keeps online records of crime by state, dating from 1960 to 2011, so you can see for yourself. Or, you can read Ecclesiastes 7:10, which cautions, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Ecclesiastes may be 3,000 years old, so it seems that even then people looked back on the past as the “golden days,” overlooking past faults while bemoaning present vices. Might our alarmist views of the present be as distorted as our idyllic visions of the past?

Derringer Dick Derringer is a WORLD intern and a student at Patrick Henry College.


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