Will increasing numbers of fat, dumb people put democracy at risk?

Pixar’s classic film about environmental degradation, Wall-E, won an Oscar in 2008. It depicts Earth as lifeless landscape speckled with mountains of trash. Humans left long ago and live in gigantic spaceships where they grow into blobs whose only occupations are eating and watching TV. Talk about fat-shaming! No way Pixar would make Wall-E nowadays.

The film has a happy ending, but it takes a very bleak view of the future. It’s not completely implausible, though. Just consider two news items which surfaced last week.

Three American psychologists claimed in the journal Intelligence that average IQs peaked in about 2006 and have been falling ever since.

The authors studied the IQ scores of American adults between 2006 and 2018. It is a well-established fact that these scores have been rising since 1932 at a rate of 3-5 points per decade. Younger generations are supposed to have higher scores. This doesn’t mean that younger people are, on average smarter or more able, but they do better on these tests, for reasons which psychologists do not fully understand. It could be more education, better health, more stimulating environments, or even less lead in gasoline. It’s called the Flynn Effect and it has been observed all over the world.

But in the US, this progress may be tapering off. The recent article found that in matrix reasoning, letter and number series, and verbal reasoning the IQs of American adults are declining. The largest difference was for participants between the ages of 18 to 22. Why? Another mystery. The decline began when smartphones began to become popular. Too much TikTok?

The other news item was about obesity. Last Saturday, in case you missed it, was World Obesity Day. The World Obesity Federation warns that more than half of the world's population will be classed as obese or overweight by 2035 if action is not taken. Childhood obesity could more than double by 2035 over 2020 levels – and nearly everywhere kids are already overweight. Rates are predicted to double among boys to 208 million (a 100% increase) and more than double among girls to 175 million (a 125% increase). Obesity rates are rising more rapidly amongst children than adults.  

Such figures are no longer a “first world” problem. Obesity rates are rising fastest in low and lower-middle income countries, which are often the least able to respond to obesity and its consequences for public health. Just look at photos of crowds in Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro.

IQ and obesity are not the only, or even the most important, indices of a healthy society. But together with a host of other vital statistics they suggest that nations around the world, both rich and poor, are not “progressing” in meaningful ways. Income inequality is rising, fertility rates are dropping, marriage rates are dropping, deaths of despair are increasing. For the first time in about 100 years, life expectancy actually fell in the US for two years running, in 2020 and 2021 – and not just because of Covid.

A handful of worrying statistics do not show that the world is on its way to becoming the garbage dump depicted in Wall-E. But they do suggest that “progress” has stalled.

The late Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Spe Salvi, “If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man's ethical formation, in man's inner growth, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”

The worrying thing is: what happens when both technical progress and ethical progress stagnate? What will that do to world and domestic politics? For a hundred years or so, living standards have been rising steadily. For generation upon generation, sons and daughters have been wealthier and more comfortable than their fathers and mothers. Now that optimistic horizon is clouded over.

Edmund Fawcett, a journalist for The Economist, wrote in his comprehensive survey, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, identified progress as one of four keys for understanding liberal democracy:

“Welfare capitalism, which included universal education and cradle-to-grave social security, became the liberal model of human progress across the Atlantic world. For the next 70 years it often seemed as if the deep, enduring question in Western politics was the cost and sustainability of liberal progress.”

Our democratic system works because it guarantees civic respect (if not equality) and progress as two bulwarks against forces which promote power and conflict. When governments can no longer deliver social progress, can democracy, as we know it, survive?

The problem is that obesity and IQ belong to a class of problems that robust families are capable of dealing with, but governments find intractable. More and more such problems are accumulating – caring for the elderly, a rising dependency ratio, addiction, deaths of despair, and so on. But instead of supporting and strengthening marriage and traditional family life, most Western governments seem determined to undermine them.

If we want to stop liberal democracy, then, from going slip-slidin’ away onto the ash-heap of history, railing against Trump and right-wing demagoguery is only part of the answer. We need to revitalise the family.

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