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"Defining Deviancy Down" at 30: Reflections on Crime, Welfare, and Mental Health
Last week, I participated in an online symposium convened by the American Enterprise Institute marking the thirtieth anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s seminal essay “Defining Deviancy Down.” Though it’s less well-known than Moynihan’s 1965 study, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, “Defining Deviancy Down” shares with that work a prescient understanding of the social consequences of shifting norms and the perverse incentives at work when efforts to destigmatize socially adverse behavior run up against the realities of life in a large, diverse, capitalist democracy.
The event featured me, Sally Satel, Kay Hymowitz, Steven Teles, and Neil Gross presenting our reflections on the Moynihan’s essay and its continuing relevance for American society in the present day. In what follows, I present my contribution to the symposium in full, along with summaries of Sally, Kay, and Steven’s presentations and AEI Head of Domestic Policy Matthew Continetti’s opening remarks. Even at the time of its publication, “Defining Deviancy Down,” like The Negro Family, was a controversial work. It’s no less controversial in 2023 than it was in 1993, but it is every bit as necessary.
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Daniel Patrick Moynihan served as a Democratic senator from New York between 1976 and 2000. He was born on March 16, 1927, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but after the disappearance of his father, Moynihan spent years living in poverty as a child in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, where he shined shoes and worked at his mother’s bar. Biography is not destiny, but I think we can detect in Moynihan’s formative experiences some of the themes of his later intellectual and political life: the relationship between family structure and poverty; the importance of work; the persistence of ethnicity; the need for safe, habitable, and beautiful urban environments; and yes, the need for a government safety net. Moynihan explored these subjects—and a host of others—in reports, essays, and books that he wrote as an academic, as an official in four presidential administrations, and as an elected official. Today is devoted to just one of
Moynihan’s landmark publications, an essay that appeared in the summer 1993 issue of the American Scholar. His argument three decades ago was simple. He wrote:
The amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the
levels the community can “afford to recognize” … [A]ccordingly,
we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously
stigmatized, and also quietly raising the “normal” level in categories where
behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.
Matthew Continetti is the head of domestic policy at AEI
Let’s take a walk down memory lane. Perhaps the primordial example of “defining deviancy down” was the furious reaction to Pat Moynihan’s infamous 1965 policy memorandum, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. That memo declared that the United States was approaching “a new crisis in race relations.” It explained that “a national effort is required … directed to a new kind of national goal: the establishment of a stable Negro family structure.”
Viewed from today’s perspective, one can see the problem immediately: Just as President Johnson was launching his War on Poverty, along comes a government official baldly stating that the expectations for racial equality are likely to be disappointed, not merely due to anti-black racism, but mainly because the fabric of social life among poor blacks lies in tatters. For many at the time, this kind of talk was simply unacceptable. (And for many on the left of American politics, it remains so today.) How dare a white man say these things? What will happen to reform if studies like this are issued with the imprimatur of the federal government? The author—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an assistant secretary at the US Department of Labor—had to be made an example of.
And so, he was. A firestorm of protest from journalists and civil rights activists greeted the public release of his policy document. A precedent was set thereby, the themes of which will be all-too-familiar to us today. By calling attention to the instability of family life in poor black communities, Moynihan was said to downplay the importance of racial discrimination. By ascribing this trend in part to cultural factors, he was said to be “blaming the victim.” By rehearsing the arguments of such distinguished black sociologists as W.E.B. Du Bois and E. Franklin Frazier—arguments that chattel slavery had undermined gender relations among the slaves, with consequences that reach into the twentieth century—Moynihan was said to be a flat-out racist.
Moreover, in what we’ll recognize in retrospect as an episode of political correctness run amok, productive discussion of “the Negro family” became impossible to sustain. This was the 1960s, after all. Civil rights victories over implacable Southern opposition were fresh in everyone’s mind. Cities were burning during a series of long, hot summers. And, in tonier precincts, radical chic had become the fashion of the day. Advocacy in defense of “traditional values” was in bad odor among progressive elites. The moral authority of traditional norms about social behavior was under assault, while the moral authority of racism’s victims was virtually unquestioned.
Nothing, it was said, is inherently good about two-parent families and nothing inherently bad about single motherhood. Deviancy was defined down. Calling attention to the weakness of black family life was said to be a distraction that shifted focus from what’s wrong with America to what’s wrong with black people. Moynihan—a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat whose principal policy recommendation in that report was to expand public employment for black men—became, for many, the personification of anti-black sentiments dressed up with a Harvard pedigree.
There was only one problem with all this. Pat Moynihan was mostly right about the Negro family in 1965, both in his diagnosis of its condition and in his forecast of the likely implications. Looking across the social landscape today, nearly sixty years after his dire warning, we can see the plain fact that conventional family relationships in the black urban ghettos have collapsed. What is more, nothing approaching social inclusion for the lower classes of the black American population has been, or soon will be, achieved. More speculative, but still entirely plausible, is the conclusion that these two undeniable facts are closely linked, with the former being a primary reason for the latter. Defining deviancy down comes at a price. And that price is being paid mainly by the deviant, not the definers.
But in 1965, and subsequently, critics were much more interested in what they supposed to be Pat Moynihan’s motives than in the acuity of his analysis. Fast and furiously came the accusations of ill will. A period ensued that lasted for decades, during which little critical assessment of black family life was undertaken, and no policy response was fashioned. The story is by now a familiar one, even to the casual student of American social policy: Any discussion of the internal cultural dynamics that might underlie black poverty in America must be left to those with racial standing to talk about such matters. Failing that, such discussion must be avoided altogether. Precious few of us with standing to address such matters elected to do so.
The fiercely negative reactions to Moynihan’s report were a brand of intellectual thuggery that would become all too familiar in due course. Smug in their certitude, the thought police in the universities, the government, the editorial pages, and the foundation boardrooms managed, in effect, to censor public discourse on crime, affirmative action, school desegregation, urban renewal, welfare policy, and much more.
The thought police were emboldened. It even became dangerous to celebrate the success of the civil-rights revolution by noticing the emergence of a new black middle class. The signature tactic was to accuse the politically incorrect of being racists. The willingness to entertain certain hypotheses—that forced busing could cause white flight, that proliferating criminal violence among blacks might retard urban development, that affirmative action compromised academic standards and stigmatized its beneficiaries, that stable families are a necessary precondition for human flourishing—came to be seen as evidence of a lack of fidelity to progressive values.
Reliance on ad hominem argument grew more commonplace: What kind of person would say such a thing? became the progressives’ first question. The list of unsavory characters lengthened. To Moynihan’s name were added those of Edward Banfield (for his reflections on urban decline), James Q. Wilson (for worrying about rising crime rates), Nathan Glazer (for noticing some downsides of racial affirmative action), James S. Coleman (for exposing the limits of school desegregation), Charles Murray (for suggesting that welfare could create dependency among long-term recipients), and Abigail Thernstrom (for questioning racial gerrymandering).
I am not saying that these writers were correct in every detail. But I am saying that, like Moynihan, all these social critics made cogent and important arguments that were rooted in astute observations, and they deserved to be taken seriously. What is more, all these critics have, in one way or another and to varying degrees, been vindicated by subsequent events.
But here’s the key point: The furiously negative reaction to Moynihan’s report, the subsequent suppression of the issue of family structure and interpersonal behaviors among the poor, the reticence to invoke norms of civility, decency, and respectability in our public discussions of the plight of the disadvantaged—all of these developments proved to be a disaster, both politically and sociologically, for the newly liberated black masses, reflecting what must be seen in retrospect as one of the great failures of the last half-century of American social policy. In my view, the black poor have paid a terrible price for this folly. Not that Moynihan was right in every detail, or that he was above criticism and without foibles and vanities. But he was right about the big questions and, contrary to his critics, his values were progressive to the core.
It must be said that Banfield, Coleman, Wilson, Thernstrom, Murray, Glazer, and others (this list could be considerably lengthened) were equally right about some of the larger themes of the late-twentieth-century American social-policy debate: about negative unintended consequences from progressive social interventions, about limits of liberal reforms to create genuine equality, about the importance of social order, and about the irreplaceable role in maintaining it of the traditional institutions of civil society. Events have consistently borne them out.
“We Shall Overcome!” That was the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. And yet, with a third of black children now living in poverty, with nearly one million black men under lock and key on a given day, with an average deficit of three years in acquired reading skills for black youngsters relative to whites by the end of adolescence, with nearly three out of every four black babies being born to unwed mothers, with hardcore ghettos in Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, St. Louis, Houston, New Orleans, Baltimore, and dozens of other American cities continuing to fester in their marginality and hopelessness.
With all of this wreckage so readily at hand, it is clear that we black Americans have not yet overcome. Not by a long shot. And we never will, so long as we insist on continuing to define deviancy down.
Glenn Loury is the Merton E. Stoltz Professor of Economics at Brown University and a Paulson Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
From the standpoint of mental health and substance abuse, I consider whether the recalibration of deviance over time has made some situations worse and others better. But first, a clarification. I do not consider the symptoms of severe mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia) a sign of deviancy—and I can’t imagine that Moynihan did either. I suspect he meant that politicians and mental health officials—or as Glenn calls them, the “definers”—were deviant in their apparent complacency in the wake of deinstitutionalization. They largely stood by as the sickest patients foundered within communities unequipped to treat them and uninterested in their welfare.
The fallout is still reverberating, as psychotic individuals inhabit the streets and jails. While the behavior has been “normalized,” most Americans do not accept the situation. Today we can see some encouraging signs of resistance to this complacency. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams has introduced a program of benign coercion for hospitalizing people so psychotic that they cannot meet basic needs. Los Angeles is about to enact a similar plan.
Furthermore, I disagree with Moynihan that deinstitutionalization happened because “society” could no longer accommodate people with psychotic illnesses, and so had to redefine severe mental illness. More correctly, the motivating factors were (1) the awful conditions in asylums, (2) newly developed antipsychotic medication, (3) patients’ rights activists urging community-based care, and (4) states’ eagerness to shift costs of mental illness to the feds.
Some norms in the mental health sphere have also changed in the right direction. For example, people are more willing to talk about their conditions and to get treatment. There is more open discussion about suicide, which was once considered deeply shameful. All are welcome trends. At the same time, we see worrisome examples of deviancy defined down among young people. TikTok, for example, may be fomenting a contagion of Tourette’s symptoms, cutting, and anorexia. Whether used by teens as a means of bonding, getting attention, or securing an identity, these seductions represent a pathological form of normalization.
In the realm of substance abuse there has been a similarly double-edged shift. We have made moral progress in terms of harm reduction (e.g., needle exchange, distribution of Narcan, etc.), yet, in some urban enclaves, local officials and advocates have tolerated dangerous and squalid encampments with open-air drug markets and corruption of civic safety, all under the watch of ultra-progressive harm reduction activists who appear to believe that treatment and recovery are not the answers and abolishing capitalism is.
If Moynihan described moral deregulation, Charles Krauthammer, writing 1994, described moral “upregulation” in an essay “Defining Deviancy Up.” Modern versions include safe spaces, prosecution of microaggressions, implementation of trigger warnings, use of euphemisms (in my field, the word “addict” is proscribed; surely “deviant” is, too), and other efforts to insulate against perceived slights or threats. Along with this presumption of fragility, we have defined trauma up and medicalized many normal responses to human adversity. Krauthammer sees these “phony” solutions as a retreat from solving true social problems.
As Krauthammer notes, efforts to define deviancy up and down—DDD and DDU for short—are part of the vast social project of moral leveling. “It is not enough for the deviant to be normalized,” he writes, “the normal must be found to be deviant.”
Why? One answer is nihilistic: Perhaps Definers simply see the problems of addiction and homelessness as intractable.
But the deeper agenda, it seems to me, is to lift the marginalized, which sounds benign, and exert social control, which does not. Along the way, many bad things can happen. The most vulnerable are forsaken; new, illegitimate victim classes are created; new diagnoses are established (i.e., when normal behavior is medicalized); and those who protest redefinitions are shamed for being intolerant, even hateful. Definers believe that a moral society is a tolerant society, even when an excess of tolerance prompts new immoralities.
Notably, it is the left that tends to do most of the normalizing and sensitizing, though the Right has normalized Trumpian behavior. In the end, the Definers face a paradox: They are trying to change the social order while giving up on fixing serious problems.
Sally Satel is a psychiatrist and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute
In his infamous 1965 report, The Negro Family, Moynihan didn’t use the term “deviant” to describe the growing population of single-mother, welfare-dependent households, but there’s no question he viewed it that way. The vast majority of Americans would probably have agreed with him. The United States had, for some time, what he called “a recognizable family system,” a normative way of forming families. He was referring to the nuclear family: a household including a mother, father, and their children. This wasn’t just a Leave It to Beaver fantasy. In 1965, three quarters of all households consisted of married couples; only 3% of white households with children were missing a husband or father. Among blacks, the number was considerably higher, though the nuclear family was, for the time being, still the norm.
For most of history, human societies had dealt harshly with women who gave birth outside of marriage, and America at the time Moynihan was writing was no exception. Given the illegality of abortion, unmarried women who became pregnant often had little choice but to give up their babies for adoption. Nonmarital births were referred to as “illegitimate,” and the children were not uncommonly known as “bastards.” Pregnant teens were either put in homes for “wayward girls” or sent to live with a distant relative. Typically, unplanned nonmarital pregnancies ended in shotgun marriages, which can be thought of as a kinder, gentler way to keep single mother “deviance” under control.
Twenty-eight years later, it was clear that the usual methods of social control were no longer entrenched in American life. Sixty-four percent of black children were born to unmarried mothers; among Hispanics and whites the number was 34% and 18% respectively. Moynihan’s explanation, formulated in “Defining Deviancy Down,” for why this happened was that interest groups—social workers, welfare officials, and educators—had a professional or “opportunistic” interest in normalizing single motherhood, since it meant more power and influence for them. “[T]hose who control the deviant population,” Moynihan wrote, benefit from a “transfer of resources.”
As brilliantly prophetic as the Senator had been in 1965, when he warned about the fracturing of the black family, this explanation strikes me as wrong. It fails to take into account that the downward definition of the family was one of an interlocking group of social norms all undergoing radical rethinking. New reproductive technologies, especially the birth control pill, allowed ideas about premarital sex, cohabitation, no fault divorce, and gender roles that were once considered deviant to look far less risky and to free men and women from norms that could often seem oppressive to individual happiness and decision-making. The term “deviance” itself began to seem outdated.
Freedom from once-settled norms also helped to usher in a redefinition of the meaning of marriage. It became an arena for self-expression and self-fulfillment rather than a social arrangement for rearing the next generation and for creating new families. We’re continuing to grapple with the unexpected consequences of those redefinitions today.
Kay Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute
The idea of “defining deviancy down” resonated so deeply when Moynihan published his essay in 1993 because there was a wide-ranging agreement that social disorder had gotten out of hand. The upward surge in crime that started in the 1960s was nearing its peak, teen parenting had not yet started its steep multidecadal decline, and cities in general were still widely believed to be in terminal decline. Few actually read Moynihan’s essay, choosing instead to focus on the arresting title, which spoke to a belief that we needed to start pushing back against “deviancy” rather than redefining it.
The actual argument of the essay made specific claims about why deviancy might get defined down that were not reducible to a simple spread in permissiveness. Moynihan specifically argued that norms and enforcement capacity had to be in some sort of equilibrium—when there was too much deviancy to effectively punish, it was norms that would have to adjust. That argument assumed a few things. It assumed that effectively policing deviancy was a matter of whether society invested in enforcement, but it also turns out that there are some kinds of “deviant” behavior that
just turn out to be difficult to figure out how to police. It also assumed that the aggregate amount of enforcement capacity was fixed, but—as Professor Loury demonstrated very early in his book on mass incarceration—that was far from true.
That said, this does not mean that something like Moynihan’s mechanism is not operative. My friend, the late Mark Kleiman, argued in When Brute Force Fails that police in particular can experience “enforcement swamping.” When crime is going up, at least before new capacity can come online, police will have to triage, directing existing capacity to more serious crimes and de-prioritizing others. As that happens, the prevalence of the less serious crimes goes up. While society as a whole might not define deviancy down, particular institutions very well might.
Steven Teles is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center