Book on social upheaval provides lesson for political leaders

June 16, 1999|By Linda Chavez

FRANCIS Fukuyama likes to take on big issues, as he did with his first book, "The End of History and the Last Man," an analysis of the post-Cold War world published soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Fukuyama, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., has taken on an even more ambitious project in his latest book, "The Great Disruption," trying to explain why social order seems to be unraveling in the last half of this century -- and not just in the United States.

Key indicators

Mr. Fukuyama describes three indicators of the great disruption that have occurred throughout most Western countries in an amazingly short time span, roughly since 1960: rising crime, the breakdown of the family and diminishing trust.

By now, most Americans are wearily familiar with statistics about violent crime in the United States, which began skyrocketing in the late '60s and peaked in the early '90s. Throughout this period, the United States experienced homicide rates at far higher levels than any other Western nation, but the phenomenon of rising crime was not unique to this country. Indeed, crime rose consistently during the same period in most of Europe as well. By 1992, Sweden, which had long had relatively little crime, saw its violent crime rate rise to nearly the rate of such crime in this country.

Property crimes during this period increased just as dramatically, especially in Europe, where the theft rate actually exceeds that of the United States by a fairly wide margin. In 1990, the theft rate in England and Wales was about 60 percent higher than here, while in Sweden, the theft rate was about twice as high.

Only in the most developed nations of Asia -- namely, Japan and South Korea -- were these trends reversed. Japan actually experienced a significant decline in violent crime from 1960 to the present.

Perhaps more disturbing than rising crime has been the precipitous decline in the formation of families throughout most of the West, which Mr. Fukuyama describes in great detail. Marriage rates are down, and divorce rates are up, as are illegitimate births.

In the United States, nearly one-third of all children -- and more than two-thirds of all black children -- are born out of wedlock, but these rates pale in comparison to those of Sweden, where nearly 70 percent of all births now occur outside marriage. Indeed, marriage as an institution is in such disrepute in Sweden that divorce rates for that nation are nearly meaningless, because so few couples bother to marry in the first place.

But the most surprising -- and portentous -- evidence of the great disruption Mr. Fukuyama presents has to do with declining fertility. Illegitimacy may be up throughout the West, but births overall are down -- dramatically.

"Although it sounds silly to state a point so obvious," Mr. Fukuyama writes, "social capital cannot exist without people, and Western societies are failing to produce enough of them to sustain themselves."

Immigrant births

Europe is losing population at the rate of about 1 percent per year and will be a fraction of its current size by the end of the next century unless current trends reverse. And even the United States would stop growing were it not for the infusion of so many immigrants from nations with high fertility rates, such as Mexico.

What these lower fertility rates mean is that fewer people will spend major portions of their lives living in families. Already, half of all Scandinavians live alone, as do one-third of the Swiss and one quarter of Americans.

"In a couple generations," Mr. Fukuyama points out, "most Europeans and Japanese may be related only to their ancestors." In other words, the family as the basic unit of society will virtually cease to exist in these nations. And it is not clear that any other social arrangement will ever be able to take its place.

Despite the evidence of social dissolution he amasses, Mr. Fukuyama remains relatively sanguine about the future. With another presidential campaign gearing up -- and the inevitable discussion of family values that each election brings -- "The Great Disruption" ought to be required reading among both parties' candidates.

Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/16/99

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