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M A Y  1 9 9 9

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.)

What Happened

BEGINNING in about 1965 a large number of indicators that can serve as negative measures of social capital all started moving upward rapidly at the same time. These could be put under three broad headings: crime, family, and trust.

the social order Americans are aware that crime rates began sometime in the 1960s to climb very rapidly -- a dramatic change from the early post-Second World War period, when U.S. murder and robbery rates actually declined. After declining slightly in the mid-1980s, crime rates spurted upward again in the late 1980s and peaked around 1991-1992. The rates for both violent and property crimes have dropped substantially since then. Indeed, they have fallen most dramatically in the areas where they had risen most rapidly -- that is, in big cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles.

Although the United States is exceptional among developed countries for its high crime rates, crime rose significantly in virtually all other non-Asian developed countries in approximately the same time period. Violent crime rose rapidly in Canada, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. With regard to crimes against property, a broader measure of disorder, the United States is no longer exceptional: Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Sweden have ended up with theft rates higher than those in the United States over the past generation.

Of the shifts in social norms that constitute the Great Disruption, some of the most dramatic concern those related to reproduction, the family, and relations between the sexes. Divorce rates moved up sharply across the developed world (except in Italy, where divorce was illegal until 1970, and other Catholic countries); by the 1980s half of all American marriages could be expected to end in divorce, and the ratio of divorced to married people had increased fourfold in just thirty years. Births to unmarried women as a proportion of U.S. live births climbed from under five percent to 32 percent from 1940 to 1995. The figure was close to 60 percent in many Scandinavian countries; the United Kingdom, Canada, and France reached levels comparable to that in the United States. The combined probabilities of single-parent births, divorce, and the dissolution of cohabiting relationships between parents (a situation common in Europe) meant that in most developed countries ever smaller minorities of children would reach the age of eighteen with both parents remaining in the household. The core reproductive function of the family was threatened as well: fertility has dropped so dramatically in Italy, Spain, and Germany that they stand to lose up to 30 percent of their populations each generation, absent new net immigration.
Related link:

The Civility Project
A program at the Center for Communication and Social Policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which "seeks to encourage the understanding and practice of civility in public discourse and social life, and promote learning about the techniques and value of dialogue and nonviolent conflict resolution."

Finally, anyone who has lived through the 1950s to the 1990s in the United States or another Western country can scarcely fail to recognize the widespread changes in values that have taken place over this period in the direction of increasing individualism. Survey data, along with commonsense observation, indicate that people are much less likely to defer to the authority of an ever-broader range of social institutions. Trust in institutions has consequently decreased markedly. In 1958, 73 percent of Americans surveyed said they trusted the federal government to do what is right either "most of the time" or "just about always"; by 1994 the figure had fallen as low as 15 percent. Europeans, although less anti-statist than Americans, have nonetheless seen similar declines in confidence in such traditional institutions as the Church, the police, and government. Americans trust one another less as well: although 10 percent more Americans evinced more trust than distrust in surveys done in the early 1960s, by the 1990s the distrusters had an almost 30 percent margin over those expressing trust. It is not clear that either the number of groups or group memberships in civil society declined overall in this period, as the political scientist Robert Putnam has suggested. What is clear, however, is that what Icall the radius of trust has declined, and social ties have become less binding and long-lasting. (Readers can obtain more detailed statistical information on the Great Disruption at

Some Proposed Causes of the Disruption

CHANGES as great as these will defy attempts to provide simple explanations. However, the fact that many different social indicators moved across a wide group of industrialized countries at roughly the same time simplifies the analytical task somewhat by pointing us toward a more general level of explanation. When the same phenomena occur in a broad range of countries, we can rule out explanations specific to a single country, such as the effects of the Vietnam War or of Watergate.

Several arguments have been put forward to explain why the phenomena we associate with the Great Disruption occurred. Here are three: They were brought on by increasing poverty and income inequality. They were products of the modern welfare state. They were the result of a broad cultural shift that included the decline of religion and the promotion of individualistic self-gratification over community obligation.

The Great Disruption was caused by poverty and inequality. The idea that such large changes in social norms could be brought on by economic deprivation in countries that are wealthier than any others in human history might give one pause. Poor people in the United States have higher absolute standards of living than many Americans of past generations, and more per capita wealth than many people in contemporary Third World countries with more-intact family structures. Poverty rates, after coming down dramatically through the 1960s and rebounding slightly thereafter, have not increased in a way that would explain a huge increase in social disorder.

Those favoring the economic hypothesis argue, of course, that it is not absolute levels of poverty that are the source of the problem: modern societies, despite being richer overall, have become more unequal, or else have experienced economic turbulence and job loss that have led to social dysfunction. A casual glance at the comparative data on divorce and illegitimacy rates shows that this correlation cannot possibly be true in the case of family breakdown. If one looks across the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, there is no positive correlation between the level of welfare benefits aimed at increasing economic equality and stable families. Indeed, there is a weak positive correlation between high levels of welfare benefits and illegitimacy, tending to support the argument advanced by American conservatives that the welfare state is the cause of and not the cure for family breakdown. The highest rates of illegitimacy are found in Sweden and Denmark, egalitarian countries that cycle upwards of 50 percent of their gross domestic product through the state. The United States cycles less than 30 percent of GDP through the government and has higher levels of inequality, yet it has lower rates of illegitimacy. Japan and Korea, which have minimal welfare-state protections for poor people, also have two of the lowest rates of divorce and illegitimacy in the OECD.

The notion that poverty and inequality beget crime is a commonplace among politicians and voters in democratic societies who seek reasons for justifying welfare and poverty programs. But although there is plenty of evidence of a broad correlation between income inequality and crime, this hardly constitutes a plausible explanation for rapidly rising crime rates in the West. There was no depression in the period from the 1960s to the 1990s to explain the sudden rise in crime; in fact, the great American postwar crime wave began in a period of full employment and general prosperity. (Indeed, the Great Depression of the 1930s saw decreasing levels of violent crime in the United States.) Income inequality rose in the United States during the Great Disruption, but crime has also risen in Western developed countries that have remained more egalitarian than the United States. America's greater economic inequality may to some degree explain why its crime rates are higher than, say, Sweden's in any given year, but it does not explain why Swedish rates began to rise in the same period that America's did. Income inequality, moreover, has continued to increase in the United States in the 1990s, while crime rates have fallen; hence the correlation between inequality and crime becomes negative for this period.

The Great Disruption was caused by mistaken government policies. The second general explanation for the increase in social disorder is one made by conservatives; it has been primarily associated with Charles Murray's book Losing Ground, and before that with the economist Gary Becker. The argument is the mirror image of the left's: it maintains that the perverse incentives created by the welfare state itself explain the rise in family breakdown and crime. The primary American welfare program targeted at poor women, the Depression-era Aid to Families with Dependent Children, provided welfare payments only to single mothers, and thereby penalized women who married the fathers of their children. The United States abolished AFDC in the welfare-reform act of 1996, in part because of arguments concerning its perverse incentives.

There is little doubt that welfare benefits discourage work and create what economists call "moral hazard." What is less clear is their impact on family structure. Welfare benefits in real terms stabilized and then began to decline in the 1980s, whereas the rate of family breakdown continued unabated through the mid-1990s. One analyst suggests that no more than perhaps 15 percent of family breakdown in the United States can be attributed to AFDC and other welfare programs.

The more fundamental weakness of the conservative argument is that illegitimacy is only part of a much larger story of weakening family ties -- a story that includes declining fertility, divorce, cohabitation in place of marriage, the separation of cohabiting couples, and the like. Illegitimacy is primarily though not exclusively associated with poverty in the United States and most other countries. Divorce and cohabitation, however, are much more prevalent among the middle and upper classes throughout the West. It is very difficult to lay soaring divorce rates and declining marriage rates at the government's doorstep, except to the extent that the state made divorce legally easier to obtain.

Similarly, rising crime is seen by many conservatives as a result of the weakening of criminal sanctions, which occurred in the same period. Gary Becker has argued that crime can be seen as another form of rational choice: when payoffs from crime go up or costs (in terms of punishment) go down, more crimes will be committed, and vice versa. Many conservatives have argued that crime began to rise in the 1960s because society had grown permissive and the legal system was "coddling criminals." By this reasoning, the tougher enforcement undertaken by communities across the United States in the 1980s -- stiffer penalties, more jails, and in some cases more police officers on the streets -- was one important reason for falling crime rates in the 1990s.

Although improved policing methods and stronger penalties may well have had a lot to do with declining crime rates in the 1990s, it is hard to argue that the great upsurge in crime in the 1960s was simply the product of police permissiveness. It is true that the United States constrained its police forces and prosecutors in the interests of the rights of criminal defendants through a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s, most notably Miranda v. Arizona. But police departments quickly learned how to accommodate what were perfectly legitimate concerns over police procedure. A great deal of recent criminological theory ascribes crime to poor socialization and impulse control relatively early in life. It is not that potential criminals do not respond rationally to punishment; rather, the propensity to commit crimes or to respond to given levels of punishment is heavily influenced by upbringing. What may be more relevant to understanding a sudden upsurge in crime is changes in mediating social institutions such as families, neighborhoods, and schools that were taking place in the same period, and changes in the signals that the broader culture was sending to young people.

The Great Disruption was caused by a broad cultural shift. This brings us to cultural explanations, which are the most plausible of the three presented here. Increasing individualism and the loosening of communal controls clearly had a huge impact on family life, sexual behavior, and the willingness of people to obey the law. The problem with this line of explanation is not that culture was not a factor but rather that it gives no adequate account of timing: why did culture, which usually evolves extremely slowly, suddenly mutate with extraordinary rapidity after the mid-1960s?

In Britain and the United States the high point of communal social control was the last third of the nineteenth century, when the Victorian ideal of the patriarchal conjugal family was broadly accepted and adolescent sexuality was kept under tight control. The cultural shift that undermined Victorian morality may be thought of as layered: At the top was a realm of abstract ideas promulgated by philosophers, scientists, artists, academics, and the occasional huckster and fraud, who laid the intellectual groundwork for broad-based changes. The second level was one of popular culture, as simpler versions of complex abstract ideas were promulgated through books, newspapers, and other mass media. Finally, there was the layer of actual behavior, as the new norms implicit in the abstract or popularized ideas were embedded in the actions of large populations.

distrust The decline in Victorian morality can be traced to a number of intellectual developments at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and to a second wave that began in the 1940s. At the highest level of thought, Western rationalism began to undermine itself by concluding that no rational grounds supported universal norms of behavior. This was nowhere more evident than in the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, the father of modern relativism. Nietzsche in effect argued that man, the "beast with red cheeks," was a value-creating animal, and that the manifold "languages of good and evil" spoken by different human cultures were products of the will, rooted nowhere in truth or reason. The Enlightenment had not led to self-evident truths about right or morality; rather, it had exposed the infinite variability of moral arrangements. Attempts to ground values in nature, or in God, were doomed to be exposed as willful acts on the part of the creators of those values. Nietzsche's aphorism "There are no facts, only interpretations" became the watchword for later generations of relativists under the banners of deconstructionism and postmodernism.

In the social sciences the undermining of Victorian values was first the work of psychologists. John Dewey, William James, and John Watson, the founder of the behavioralist school of psychology, for differing reasons all contested the Victorian and Christian notion that human nature was innately sinful, and argued that tight social controls over behavior were not necessary for social order. The behavioralists argued that the human mind was a Lockean tabula rasa waiting to be filled with cultural content; the implication was that human beings were far more malleable through social pressure and policy than people had heretofore believed. Sigmund Freud was, of course, enormously influential in promulgating the idea that neurosis originated in the excessive social repression of sexual behavior. Indeed, the spread of psychoanalysis accustomed an entire generation to talking about sex and seeing everyday psychological problems in terms of the libido and its repression.

The cultural historian James Lincoln Collier points to the years on either side of 1912 as critical to the breakdown of Victorian sexual norms in the United States. It was in this period that a series of new dances spread across the nation, along with the opinion that decent women could be seen in dance clubs; the rate of alcohol consumption increased; the feminist movement began in earnest; movies and the technology of modern mass entertainment appeared; literary modernism, whose core was the perpetual delegitimization of established cultural values, moved into high gear; and sexual mores (judging by what little empirical knowledge we have of this period) began to change. Collier argues that the intellectual and cultural grounds for the sexual revolution of the 1960s had already been laid among American elites by the 1920s. Their spread through the rest of the population was delayed, however, by the Depression and the Second World War, which led people to concentrate more on economic survival and domesticity than on self-expression and self-gratification -- which most, in any event, could not afford.

The crucial question about the changes in social norms that occurred during the Great Disruption is therefore not whether they had cultural roots, which they obviously did, but how we can explain the timing and speed of the subsequent transformation. We know that culture tends to change very slowly in comparison with other factors, such as economic conditions, public policies, and ideology. In those cases where cultural norms have changed quickly, such as in rapidly modernizing Third World societies, cultural change is clearly being driven by socioeconomic change and is therefore not an autonomous factor.

So with the Great Disruption: the shift away from Victorian values had been occurring gradually for two or three generations by the time the disruption began; then all of a sudden the pace of change sped up enormously. It is hard to believe that people throughout the developed world simply decided to alter their attitudes toward such elemental issues as marriage, divorce, child-rearing, authority, and community so completely in the space of two or three decades without that shift in values being driven by other powerful forces. Those explanations that link changes in cultural variables to specific events in American history, such as Vietnam, Watergate, or the counterculture of the 1960s, betray an even greater provincialism: why were social norms also disrupted in other societies, from Sweden and Norway to New Zealand and Spain?

If these broad explanations for the Great Disruption are unsatisfactory, we need to look at its different elements more specifically.

Why Rising Crime?

ASSUMING that increases in the crime rate are not simply a statistical artifact of improved police reporting, we need to ask several questions. Why did crime rates increase so dramatically over a relatively short period and in such a wide range of countries? Why are rates beginning to level off or decline in the United States and several other Western countries?
From the archives:

"Thinking About Crime," by James Q. Wilson (September, 1983)
"Today, it is as if we hope to find in some combination of swift and certain penalties and abundant economic opportunities a substitute for discordant homes, secularized churches, intimidated schools, and an ethos of individual self-expression. We are not likely to succeed."

See an index of Atlantic articles about crime.

The first and perhaps most straightforward explanation for rising crime rates from the late 1960s to the 1980s, and declining rates thereafter, is a simple demographic one. Crime tends to be committed overwhelmingly by young males aged fifteen to twenty-four. There is doubtless a genetic reason for this, having to do with male propensities for violence and aggression, and it means that when birth rates go up, crime rates will rise fifteen to twenty-four years later. In the United States the number of young people aged fifteen to twenty-four increased by two million from 1950 to 1960, whereas the next decade added 12 million to this age group -- an onslaught that has been compared to a barbarian invasion. Not only did greater numbers of young people increase the pool of potential criminals, but their concentration in a "youth culture" may have led to a more-than-proportional increase in efforts to defy authority.

The Baby Boom, however, is only part of the explanation for rising crime rates in the 1960s and 1970s. One criminologist has estimated that the increase in the U.S. murder rate was ten times as great as would be expected from shifts in the demographic structure alone. Other studies have shown that changes in age structure do not correlate well with increases in crime cross-nationally.

A second explanation links crime rates to modernization and related factors such as urbanization, population density, opportunities for crime, and so forth. It is a commonsense proposition that there will be more auto theft and burglary in large cities than in rural areas, because it is easier for criminals to find automobiles and empty homes in the former than in the latter. But urbanization and a changing physical environment are poor explanations for rising crime rates in developed countries after the 1960s. By 1960 the countries under consideration were already industrialized, urbanized societies; no sudden shift from countryside to city began in 1965. In the United States murder rates are much higher in the South than in the North, despite the fact that the latter tends to be more urban and densely populated. Indeed, violence in the South tends to be a rural phenomenon, and most observers who have looked closely into the matter believe that the explanation for high crime rates there is cultural. Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore are among the most densely populated, overcrowded urban environments in the world, and yet they did not experience rising crime rates as that urbanization was occurring. This suggests that the human social environment is much more important than the physical one in determining levels of crime.

A third category of explanation is sometimes euphemistically labeled "social heterogeneity." That is, in many societies crime tends to be concentrated among racial or ethnic minorities; to the extent that societies become more ethnically diverse, as virtually all Western developed countries have over the past two generations, crime rates can be expected to rise. The reason that crime rates are frequently higher among minorities is very likely related, as the criminologists Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin have argued, to the fact that minorities are kept from legitimate avenues of social mobility in ways that members of the majority community are not. In other cases the simple fact of heterogeneity may be to blame: neighborhoods that are too diverse culturally, linguistically, religiously, or ethnically never come together as communities to enforce informal norms on their members. But only part of the blame for rising crime rates in the United States can be placed on immigration.

A fourth explanation concerns the more or less contemporaneous changes in the family. The currently dominant school of American criminology holds that early-childhood socialization is one of the most important factors determining the level of subsequent criminality. That is, most people do not make day-to-day choices about whether or not to commit crimes based on the balance of rewards and risks, as the rational-choice school sometimes suggests. The vast majority of people obey the law, particularly with regard to serious offenses, out of habit that was learned relatively early in life. Most crimes are committed by repeat offenders who have failed to learn this basic self-control. In many cases they are acting not rationally but on impulse. Failing to anticipate consequences, they are undeterred by the expectation of punishment.

Why Rising Distrust?

IN the realm of trust, values, and civil society, we need to explain two things: why there has been a broad-based decline in trust both in institutions and in other people, and how we can reconcile the shift toward fewer shared norms with an apparent growth in groups and in the density of civil society.

The reasons for the decline of trust in an American context have been debated extensively. Robert Putnam argued early on that it might be associated with the rise of television, since the first cohort that grew up watching television was the one that experienced the most precipitous decline in trust levels. Not only does the content of television breed cynicism in its attention to sex and violence, but the fact that Americans spend an average of more than four hours a day watching TV limits their opportunities for face-to-face social activities.

One suspects, however, that a broad phenomenon like the decline of trust has a number of causes, of which television is only one. Tom Smith, of the National Opinion Research Center, performed a statistical analysis of the survey data on trust and found that the lack of it correlates with low socioeconomic status, minority status, traumatic life events, religious polarization, and youth. Poor and uneducated people tend to be more distrustful than the well-to-do or those who have gone to college. Blacks are significantly more distrustful than whites, and there is some correlation between distrust and immigrant status. The traumatic life events affecting trust include, not surprisingly, being a victim of crime and being in poor health. Distrust is associated both with those who do not attend church and with fundamentalists. And younger people are less trusting than older ones.

Which of these factors has changed since the 1960s in a way that could explain the decrease in trust? Income inequality has increased somewhat, and Eric Uslaner, of the University of Maryland, has suggested that this may account for some of the increase in distrust. But poverty rates have fluctuated without increasing overall in this period, and for the vast majority of Americans the so-called "middle-class squeeze" did not represent a drop in real income so much as a stagnation of earnings.

Crime increased dramatically from the mid-sixties to the mid-nineties, and it makes a great deal of sense that someone who has been victimized by crime, or who watches the daily cavalcade of grisly crime stories on the local TV news, would feel distrust not for immediate friends and family but for the larger world. Hence crime would seem to be an important explanation for the increase in distrust after 1965, a conclusion well supported in more-detailed analyses.

The other major social change that has led to traumatic life experiences has been the rise of divorce and family breakdown. Commonsensically, one would think that children who have experienced the divorce of their parents, or have had to deal with a series of boyfriends in a single-parent household, would tend to become cynical about adults in general, and that this might go far toward explaining the increased levels of distrust that show up in survey data.
From the archives:

"Kicking in Groups," by Nicholas Lemann (April, 1996)
Just as intriguing as Robert Putnam's theory that we are "bowling alone" -- that the bonds of civic association are dissolving -- is how readily the theory has been accepted.

Despite the apparent decline in trust, there is evidence that groups and group membership are increasing. The most obvious way to reconcile lower levels of trust with greater levels of group membership is to note a reduction in the radius of trust. It is hard to interpret the data either on values or on civil society in any other way than to suggest that the radius of trust is diminishing, not just in the United States but across the developed world. That is, people continue to share norms and values in ways that constitute social capital, and they join groups and organizations in ever larger numbers. But the groups have shifted dramatically in kind. The authority of most large organizations has declined, and the importance in people's lives of a host of smaller associations has grown. Rather than taking pride in being a member of a powerful labor federation or working for a large corporation, or in having served in the military, people identify socially with a local aerobics class, a New Age sect, a co-dependent support group, or an Internet chat room. Rather than seeking authoritative values in a church that once shaped the society's culture, people are picking and choosing their values on an individual basis, in ways that link them with smaller communities of like-minded folk.

The shift to smaller-radius groups is mirrored politically in the almost universal rise of interest groups at the expense of broad-based political parties. Parties like the German Christian Democrats and the British Labour Party take a coherent ideological stand on the whole range of issues facing a society, from national defense to social welfare. Though usually based in a particular social class, these parties unite a broad coalition of interests and personalities. Interest groups, on the other hand, focus on single issues such as saving rain forests or promoting poultry farming in the upper Midwest; they may be transnational in scope, but they are much less authoritative, both in the range of issues they deal with and in the numbers of people they bring together.

Contemporary Americans, and contemporary Europeans as well, seek contradictory goals. They are increasingly distrustful of any authority, political or moral, that would constrain their freedom of choice, but they also want a sense of community and the good things that flow from community, such as mutual recognition, participation, belonging, and identity. Community therefore has to be found in smaller, more flexible groups and organizations whose loyalties and membership can overlap, and where entry and exit entail relatively low costs. People may thus be able to reconcile their contradictory desires for autonomy and community. But in this bargain the community they get is smaller and weaker than most of those that have existed in the past. Each community shares less with neighboring ones, and has relatively little hold on its members. The circle that people can trust is necessarily narrower. The essence of the shift in values at the center of the Great Disruption, then, is the rise of moral individualism and the consequent miniaturization of community. These explanations go partway toward explaining why cultural values changed after the 1960s. But at the Great Disruption's core was a shift in values concerning sex and the family -- a shift that deserves special emphasis.


The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.

Francis Fukuyama is the Hirst Professor of Public Policy and the director of the International Commerce and Policy Program at George Mason University, in Virginia. His article in this issue will appear, in somewhat different form, in his book The Great Disruption, to be published by The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, next month.

Illustrations by Brian Cronin

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1999; The Great Disruption; Volume 283, No. 5; pages 55-80.

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