Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Victorian Virtues

Gertrude Himmelfarb at the AEI. The stats should be in everyone's head by now, but no harm in hammering those golden nails one more time.

Why have values become a subject of such intense discussion? And why do the Victorian values--or virtues--loom so large today?

The answer to both questions lies, in part, in statistics. Thomas Carlyle once rebuked his countrymen with being obsessed with "figures of arithmetic"--about wages and prices, the cost of food and the standard of living. The more important issue, he insisted, was the "condition" and "disposition" of the people: their beliefs and feelings, their sense of right and wrong, the attitudes and habits that would dispose them either to a "wholesome composure, frugality, and prosperity," or to an "acrid unrest, recklessness, gin-drinking, and gradual ruin."

In fact, the Victorians had "figures of arithmetic" about these matters as well--about crime, drunkenness, pauperism, vagrancy, illiteracy, illegitimacy; "moral statistics," they called them. It is instructive--and disquieting--to compare their moral statistics with ours.

In Victorian England, the illegitimacy ratio--the proportion of illegitimate births to total births--fell from 7 percent in 1845 to less than 4 percent by the end of the century. In East London, the poorest section of the city, it was less than that: 4.5 percent in midcentury and 3 percent by the end of the century. Apart from a temporary increase during both world wars, the ratio continued to hover around 5 percent until well into the middle of the twentieth century. In 1960 it began to rise, to 12 percent by 1980, and to 32 percent by the end of 1992--a two-and-a-half times increase in the last decade alone and a sixfold rise in three decades.

She looks at crime, too.

The low crime rate persisted until the mid 1920s, when it started to rise and continued to do so through the war years, levelling off or declining slightly in the early 1950s. A dramatic rise started in the mid fifties, increasing more than fivefold by 1981 and almost doubling in the following decade. By 1991 the rate was ten times that of 1955 and forty times that of 1901. (In 1955, the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer remarked upon the extraordinary degree of civility exhibited in England, where "football crowds are as orderly as church meetings." Within a few years, those games had become notorious as the scene of mayhem and riots.)


Voyager said...

You tend to propagate what you tolerate

Anonymous said...

The rise in crime etc parallels the fall in fathers (in the old sense)
A nanny state has no discipline