why do we feel compelled to argue from decline?

When we want to argue for something, we often feel we must assert that the thing we value has declined, eroded, or worsened of late. For example:

If you ask Americans about teenagers, they are quick to lament the decline of respect and discipline and the alleged increases in delinquency and bad behavior since their own youth. Even teenagers assume that those are the real trends. But all the official data show significant improvements in teen crime, early pregnancy, and drug use.

At the National Rifle Association conference, a member tells the New York Times, he is worried about “the further erosion of my rights.” But the individual rights of gun-owners have never been so honored: recognized for the first time by the Supreme Court and expanded by many state legislatures to unprecedented levels.

Friends in my field (civic education) claim that civics has declined. The Christian Science Monitor reports, “The problem has a new term – a civics recession. And any number of groups are trying to reverse it.” Actually, civics test scores are flat or slightly up, and more states have added requirements of late than subtracted them.

Liberals like to lament that public education has been slashed in the era of Reagan, Gingrich, and George W. Bush. Actually, total per pupil spending (in constant 2008 dollars) rose from $2,808 in 1961, to $7,105 when Reagan left office, to $10,441 when G.W. Bush finished his second term.

You can care deeply about public education, civic education, teenagers’ behavior, or–if you must–gun rights, but there is no basis for arguing that these things are worse than they used to be. I am pretty sure that the argument from decline (argumentum ad declivem?) is a harmful fallacy … although I am not saying that it has become more common of late.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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