Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
Many Americans see their country as deadlocked in an endless culture war, with neither progressives nor conservatives able to gain a lasting advantage. “The harsh divisions among Americans in 1968 have largely endured,” writes historian Michael Kazin. “They are rooted in profound disagreements based on culture and creeds that are impervious to compromise…. Each side is convinced it represents a majority — and a moral one at that.”1
Culture war disputes often have to do with personal freedom. In the 1960s, the United States seemed to be moving inexorably in the direction of enhanced individual liberty, with teenagers and social movements challenging a wide array of traditional norms. But opponents began to mobilize almost immediately, and in the 1970s and 1980s they were joined by many centrist Americans who feared that cultural and social change had gone too far, too fast. By the 1990s and early 2000s, a traditionalist backlash was in full swing.2 In the mid-2000s, after several decades of resurgent conservatism, progressives again seemed to gain the upper hand. Then, in 2016, Donald Trump was elected president along with Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, possibly signaling a return to traditionalism.
From a different perspective, the seemingly cyclical pattern of increasing personal freedom followed by backlash may hide a significant long-run rise in personal freedom. There is reason to expect such a rise. As societies get richer, they tend to change in a variety of ways. Among these changes are shifts in what people want and what they prioritize, including personal liberty. Most of us want the freedom to choose what to believe, how to behave, with whom to live, and so on. As material well-being increases, this desire for freedom comes to the fore.3
Has personal freedom in the United States cycled up and down over the past half century? Or has it advanced? How does the US compare to other rich democratic nations?
PERSONAL FREEDOM HAS INCREASED SIGNIFICANTLY
Only a few indicators support the notion of a back-and-forth culture war, in which traditionalists and progressives alternate in having the upper hand and there is little or no movement over the long run. On most issues — including gender roles, family, sexual preference and behavior, abortion, drugs, and end of life — Americans have experienced rising personal freedom.
The desire for freedom to choose and practice religion as one sees fit was foundational to the creation of the United States. There has been no noteworthy restriction of this freedom in the past half century. The only partial exception is court rulings that prohibit parents from refusing medical treatment for their children on religious grounds.
What about freedom from religion? Prior to the 1960s, many public schools in the United States began the school day with a religious (Christian) prayer or a reading of religious verses. In 1962 and 1963, the Supreme Court forbid such practices. These decisions haven’t been amended or reversed. As figure 1 shows, around 30% of Americans approved of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the early 1960s. That share increased steadily but slowly through the 1980s to 40-50%. It has remained at that level.
Family and marriage are core institutions. For traditionalists, they are inextricably linked: a proper family requires marriage. They also are tied to sex: sex is viewed as appropriate only for married adults. However, about three-fourths of Americans believe sex before marriage isn’t wrong. As figure 2 indicates, the share was only 24% at the end of the 1960s but then jumped to around 50% in the early 1970s. By the early 1980s it had risen to about 60%. It remained at that level in the 1980s and 1990s before rising further in the 2000s and 2010s.
Traditional norms discourage births that occur outside marriage. Figure 3 shows, however, that the share of babies born to unmarried parents has increased sharply in the past half century. Data on Americans’ views don’t go back very far in time, but as figure 4 reveals, a solid majority now view out-of-wedlock births as not morally wrong, up from fewer than half at the end of the 1990s.
Divorce, too, is discouraged by traditional family norms. Figure 5 shows that the divorce rate in the United States rose sharply in the 1960s and 1970s. It then reversed course, but the level remains a good bit higher than in 1960. Figure 6 shows that a majority of Americans think it shouldn’t be more difficult to obtain a divorce. That share held constant between the mid-1970s and 2010, but in the past decade it has increased.
Traditional norms hold that a women’s place is in the home, doing housework and child care. Belief in and adherence to this norm has weakened significantly over the past half century. Figure 7 shows that the share of Americans who disagree that “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family” or that “A preschool child is likely to suffer if the mother works” has risen from just 30% in the 1970s to about 75% today. In figure 8 we see that the employment rate among prime-working-age women, and among women with children, rose steadily until around 2000, from just one in three to more than two in three. Since 1970, the employment rate among prime-age men has been falling, slowly but steadily. It now is only a little more than 10 percentage points above the rate for prime-age women and mothers.
Access to legal and safe abortion is, arguably, critical to a woman’s freedom to pursue the kind of life she wants to lead. Since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, opponents have advocated overturning the decision or in other ways restricting access to abortion. As figure 9 indicates, they’ve made little headway in shifting public opinion. The share of Americans who think abortion should be legal regardless of why the woman wants it increased significantly between the 1960s and the 1990s. It then held constant for a while before rising again in the 2010s.
About one in four American women have an abortion at some point in their life.4 The incidence of abortion rose sharply in the 1970s but has fallen steadily since 1980, as we see in figure 10. The chief causes are reduced sexual activity among teens and women in their early twenties, increased use of contraceptives, and a shift toward more effective types of contraceptives.5
Since 1973 some states have enacted laws mandating counseling or waiting periods and reducing the number of abortion providers. Has that contributed to the decrease in abortions? Figure 11 shows the number of new state restrictions adopted in each year. The pattern — a large number in the 1970s, fewer from 1980 to 2010, a large number again since 2010 — doesn’t correlate with the steady decrease in the incidence of abortion since 1980. And a more systematic analysis found that abortions haven’t decreased more rapidly in states that have become more restrictive than in other states.6 Also, if the decrease in abortions were mainly the result of reduced access to abortion, we would expect to see a rise in the rate of teen births. Instead, the teen birth rate, too, has fallen steadily over the past several decades.7 Finally, the cross-country data on abortion incidence, shown in figure 12, don’t appear to indicate an undue lack of access for Americans.
This isn’t to say the new restrictions don’t matter. Even if they haven’t prevented many women who want an abortion from getting one, they can significantly increase the cost, inconvenience, and agony of doing so. Also, given that many of the new restrictions have been put in place since 2010, they could end up reducing abortions to a degree that isn’t yet apparent in the data.
In 2000, mifepristone (RU-486) was approved for prescription use, enabling “medical” abortions in addition to surgical ones. Abortion opponents feared this would lead to a surge in abortions, but that hasn’t happened, though the share of abortions that are medical has risen from 1% in 2000 to 23% in 2014.8
Until relatively recently, many Americans viewed homosexuality as wrong. Public opinion has shifted dramatically since around 1990, as figure 13 shows. A steadily rising share of Americans say they think homosexuality should be accepted by society, homosexuals should have equal job opportunity rights, gay and lesbian sex should be legal, and same-sex marriage should be legal.
Changes in the law also have been liberty-enhancing. Same-sex sexual intercourse was illegal throughout the United States until Connecticut became the first state to decriminalize it in 1962. As figure 14 shows, other states slowly followed suit until a 2003 Supreme Court decision legalized it everywhere.
In 1996, the federal government passed the “Defense of Marriage Act” stipulating that marriage must be between a man and a woman. A number of states also passed prohibitions of same-sex marriage in the 1990s and 2000s via referendum or legislation. The tide began to turn in 2004, as we see in figure 15. In that year Massachusetts’ state supreme court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and legalized same-sex marriage in the state. Courts in Connecticut, Iowa, and some other states issued similar rulings beginning in 2008, and starting in 2012 states such as Maine, Maryland, and Washington legalized same-sex marriage via popular referendums. By 2014, same-sex marriage was legal in 35 states. The Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015 forbids any state from banning same-sex marriage or refusing to recognize same-sex marriages in other states.
Americans have mixed views about pornography. Many see it as degrading to women and a potential spur to violence, but a nontrivial share don’t believe it should be outlawed. Figure 16 shows the share of Americans who think pornography should be either illegal only for children or fully legal. The share has increased by about 10 percentage points over the past few decades. In practice, since the advent of the internet in the mid-1990s it has become very difficult to enforce legal prohibitions or even limits on access to pornography.9
Surveys and other data suggest that the share of men who have paid for sex at least once ranges from 10% to 45% in rich democratic nations. According to responses to the General Social Survey, in the US the figure was around 15% in the 1990s and 2000s and 10% in the 2010s.10
Prostitution is illegal everywhere in the United States apart from a few counties in Nevada. Over the past generation most other affluent democratic nations — Australia (parts), Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland — have decriminalized or legalized prostitution, though it is regulated and pimping and human trafficking typically are outlawed.11 Another approach, first enacted in Sweden in 1999 and now also used by Canada, France, and Norway, is to decriminalize the selling of sex but keep the buying of it illegal.12
The argument for decriminalization or legalization stems not only from personal freedom but also the safety, working conditions, and pay of sex workers.13 Amnesty International is the most prominent organization that advocates decriminalization.
We have relatively little public opinion data on legalization in the US. The available information comes from differing surveys that ask the question in different ways. As figure 17 indicates, in most years legalization appears to have had the support of fewer than half of Americans.
Some Americans who dislike the post-1965 increase in immigration or who worry about its impact on the country’s values and norms have pressed for “English-only” laws, which restrict or forbid access to native-language assistance in schooling and other public services. Since the early 1980s, about 20 states have enacted such laws.14 That could limit non-English speakers’ capabilities. We don’t know exactly how many people this includes, but the share who don’t speak English at home has grown from about 10% in 1980 to 22% in 2016.15
However, some English-only laws are largely symbolic. In any case, the internet, cable television, digital music, and other developments have dramatically increased access to culture, information, and support in languages other than English. With online translation tools, “for the first time in human history, nearly anyone can freely and instantly obtain a rough translation of virtually any document in any language.”16 And as a New York Times report notes, “the United States now has by some counts more than 50 million hispanohablantes, a greater number of Spanish speakers than Spain. In an English-speaking superpower, the Spanish-language TV networks Univision and Telemundo spar for top ratings with ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC. The made-in-America global hit song of the summer [of 2018]? ‘Despacito.'”17
Critics of America’s drug prohibition laws have long argued that marijuana’s effects are no more harmful, and probably less harmful, than those of alcohol, and so marijuana use should be decriminalized or legalized. As figure 18 shows, in the 1970s and 1980s only a fifth of Americans said they favored legalization. Since 1990 that share has steadily increased. The law has moved in the same direction, as we can see in figure 19. More than half of the US states have decriminalized marijuana possession and use, some have legalized it for medical purposes, and a small but growing number have legalized it for recreational use.18 An important caveat is that in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s federal authorities and many police departments got much more aggressive about enforcing marijuana prohibitions and sentencing even minor offenders. But with the decline in violent crime since the early 1990s and the spread of medical and recreational marijuana legalization, this aggressive enforcement approach has faded.
“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” says the US Constitution’s second amendment (given the need, its authors presumed, for a militia). The US has fewer restrictions on gun ownership than other rich democracies, and the number of guns per person is significantly greater here than abroad.19 In 1994, the federal government passed a crime law that included background checks for handgun purchases and a ban on some types of assault weapons, but it expired after ten years and hasn’t been reinstated. About 40% of American homes have a gun in them, a modest decline compared to half a century ago, as we see in figure 20. On the other hand, the number of guns per person seems to have increased significantly.
There is little chance the federal government will adopt a policy of prohibition. As figure 21 indicates, fewer than half of Americans favor a ban on assault weapons and only a quarter support a ban on handguns. Even if there were more public support, the National Rifle Association (NRA) could probably ensure blockage of legislation in the House or Senate or via a presidential veto. And in the unlikely event that a ban became law, the courts might well rule it unconstitutional.
Even so, governments might move to more tightly restrict gun purchases. As figure 22 shows, this tends to have the support of a healthy majority of Americans. Nearly 90%, for instance, support requiring a universal background check before a person is allowed to buy a gun, and 75% support requiring a police permit.
End of life
Should freedom include the right to end your own life? As figure 23 shows, since the late 1970s a growing share of Americans have said people should indeed have that right in at least some circumstances. Around 60% now hold this view.
Figure 24 shows opinions about whether doctors should be allowed to assist in ending a person’s life. Since the question was first asked in the mid-1990s, a majority has been in favor. Between 2000 and 2012 that majority shrank steadily, but in the past few years it has risen again, returning by 2015 to its previous high of more than 70%. In 1994, Oregon became the first state to legalize doctor-assisted end of life, and some other states have followed suit. A small but growing share of Americans now have access to this option, as we see in figure 25.
AN EXCEPTION TO THE TREND: INCARCERATION
Crime, including violent crime, increased sharply in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.20 In response, the federal government and many state and local governments began locking up more criminals and keeping them in jail or prison longer. The “war on drugs” began in the 1970s under the Nixon administration. Mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws, and “truth in sentencing” laws, which forced judges to assign long prison terms irrespective of case circumstances, were added in the 1980s and 1990s. The likelihood of being arrested for committing a crime didn’t change much, but the likelihood of being convicted if arrested, the likelihood of being sentenced to prison or jail given a conviction, and the typical length of sentences all increased significantly.21 As a result, the share of Americans behind bars rose steadily and sharply from the early 1970s to 2007, as figure 26 shows.
The incarceration boom disproportionately affected young African American and Latino men from low-income households. By the 2000s, more than half of black male high school dropouts in their thirties had spent time in jail or prison.22
In the mid-2000s, state governments began to move in the other direction, prompted by the decline in violent crime that started in the mid-1990s, by a rethinking of the utility of imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders, and by the high cost of large-scale incarceration. The incarceration rate has begun to drop, but it remains well above its level of half a century ago.
Did we need to reduce the personal freedom of so many young Americans in order to combat the rise in violent crime? The case for the incarceration-heavy approach has several empirical problems.23 There was a lag of two decades between the rise in incarceration beginning in the early 1970s and the decline in crime beginning in the mid-1990s. That’s longer than we might expect if incarceration has a large impact, though this may owe partly to the fact that much of the rise in incarceration was for drug crimes, rather than for violent crimes. Other rich countries didn’t follow the US lead in ramping up incarceration in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, yet they too experienced a drop in violent crime beginning in the mid-1990s. And in the US, states that have reduced incarceration since 2000 have enjoyed the same continued decline in violent crime as states that have maintained or increased incarceration. According to the most thorough assessment to date, a 2014 report prepared for the National Academy of Sciences, “On balance, panel data studies support the conclusion that the growth in incarceration rates reduced crime, but the magnitude of the crime reduction remains highly uncertain and the evidence suggests it was unlikely to have been large.”24
THE US IN CROSS-NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE
America’s Declaration of Independence says liberty is an inalienable right, and its national anthem proclaims the country to be “the land of the free.” Are Americans freer than their counterparts in other affluent longstanding-democratic nations?
A helpful comparative measure is the personal freedom portion of the Human Freedom Index. It is a composite of 30 scores for seven components of personal liberty, available beginning in 2008. It is shown in figure 27. The United States has a fairly high score, but it has consistently been near the bottom among the rich democracies. Areas in which the US lags behind include bias in the criminal and civil justice systems, harassment of minority religions, and difficulties faced by persons who wish to change their gender identity.
Culture wars continue to rage in the United States, but the terrain on which they are fought has shifted steadily in the direction of increased personal freedom. There is plenty of room for further progress, as suggested by, among other things, America’s personal liberty deficit relative to other rich democratic nations.
- Michael Kazin, “America’s Never-Ending Culture War,” New York Times, 2018. ↩
- Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Crown, 1991; David Gates, “White Male Paranoia,” Newsweek, 1993; Rick Perlstein, Nixonland, Scribner, 2008. ↩
- Ronald Inglehart, “Changing Values among Western Publics from 1970 to 2006,” West European Politics, 2008; Christian Welzel, Freedom Rising: Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation, Cambridge University Press, 2013; Ronald Inglehart, “Modernization, Existential Security, and Cultural Change: Reshaping Human Motivations and Society,” in Handbook of Advances in Culture and Psychology, volume 7, edited by Michele J. Gelfand, Chi-yue Chiu, and Ying-yi Hong, Oxford University Press, 2018. ↩
- Rachel K. Jones and Jenna Jerma, “Population Group Abortion Rates and Lifetime Incidence of Abortion: United States, 2008-2014,” American Journal of Public Health, 2017. ↩
- Rachel K. Jones and Jenna Jerman, “Abortion Incidence and Service Availability in the United States, 2011,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2014; Rachel K. Jones and Jenna Jerman, “Abortion Incidence and Service Availability in the United States, 2014,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2017. ↩
- Jones and Jerman, “Abortion Incidence and Service Availability in the United States, 2014.” ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Families,” The Good Society. ↩
- Centers for Disease Control, “Abortion Surveillance — United States,” various issues. See also Farhad Manjoo, “Abortion Pills Should Be Everywhere,” New York Times, 2019. ↩
- Tim Alberta, “How the GOP Gave Up on Porn,” Politico, 2018. ↩
- ProCon, “Percentage of Men (by Country) Who Paid for Sex at Least Once”; General Social Survey (GSS), sda.berkeley.edu, series evpaidsx. The GSS question is “Thinking about the time since your 18th birthday, have you ever had sex with a person you paid or who paid you for sex?” ↩
- ProCon, “100 Countries and Their Prostitution Policies”; Wikipedia, “Prostitution.” ↩
- Simon Hedlin and Birgitta Ohlsson, “How We Should Handle Prostitution,” Los Angeles Times, 2015; Rachel Moran, “Buying Sex Should Not Be Legal,” New York Times, 2015; Margaret Wente, “Sweden’s Prostitution Solution,” Globe and Mail, 2015. ↩
- Reihan Salam, “It’s Time for Legalized Prostitution,” Slate, 2014; Emily Bazelon, “Should Prostitution Be a Crime?,” New York Times, 2016. ↩
- Wikipedia, “English-Only Movement.” ↩
- Christopher Ingraham, “Millions of U.S. Citizens Don’t Speak English to One Another. That’s Not a Problem,” Washington Post: Wonkblog, 2018. ↩
- Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots, Basic Books, 2015. ↩
- See, for example, Simon Rivera, “Spanish Thrives in the U.S. Despite an English-Only Drive,” New York Times, 2018. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Marijuana,” The Good Society. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Guns,” The Good Society. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Safety,” The Good Society. ↩
- Jeremy Travis, Bruce Western, and Steve Redburn, eds., The Growth of Incarceration in the United States, National Academies Press, 2014, ch. 2. ↩
- Bruce Western, Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison, Russell Sage Foundation, 2018. ↩
- Kenworthy, “Safety,” The Good Society. ↩
- Travis, Western, and Redburn, eds., The Growth of Incarceration in the United States, p. 155. ↩