A substantial portion of The Decadent Society is about government. It's hard not to argue that a lot of what's gone weird with America intersects with government. Government has undoubted gotten bigger – not just in budget, but in complexity of rules and amount of intersection with American life. Multiple candidates on my ballot this election raised concerns that building codes were a major source of the homelessness problems in the area, and honestly, they've almost certainly got to be right. There's just so many rules to follow that almost all businesses need lawyers before they can even offer a service.
This is why I like building software, and gives a plausible explanation for why the web and technology more broadly is Douthat's one given exception to the stagnation and decadence of American life: it's essentially completely unregulated. People who don't want to beg like a child for permission to do their work will certainly be put off by the 1/3 of jobs in America where you need the government's permission, and plausibly put off by work where the specter of unknown legal retaliation makes you viscerally afraid of a disgruntled customer.
When people hear 'Big Brother', it legitimately does not seem to occur to them that overbearing and terrifying presence of government would be there ostensibly to help you. It's supposed to be an older, steadier, stronger figure, but one that cares for you like family. Someone who would take care of you, if you needed it, but wouldn't be afraid to whip your ass if you're out of line. That's the imagine 'Big Brother' is trying to evoke. But when your brother stops letting you grow up on your own, when he builds a permanent adolescence into his rules for your life, it demands you to shout, "BACK THE HELL OFF! YOU DON'T GET TO DECIDE FOR ME!" This is what my younger brother would do to me, to be sure, if I tried to insist on even one ten-thousandth of what the government does. He's a great guy.
Douthat discusses this, and chooses to popularize the term 'pink police state'. I think this is a reasonable adjustment to the practicalities of modern culture. I'm not sure how to evoke an actual overbearing-older-brother-government anymore, although I tried. This discussion has so much merit, it's hard to say the world isn't better off for having heard it.
That being said... he does adopt a largely conspiratorial stance when discussing the priorities of a 'pink police state', saying people should be free to indulge in pleasure and be 'safe' from not just physical threats but emotional or social ones too. This just-so story isn't just something he imagined, it's entitled Brave New World, and that doesn't seem to be a coherent guess for how things are actually going. The government isn't mailing me heroin. And the number one priority of the current police-state-power-base is making sure cops can't get in trouble for beating you. That's real life for you. There's no grand vision. Just people covering their own asses.
I also think he misunderstands the limits of the college campus style transformation to mandated 'safety'. He notes that it's because the students are the customers, but wouldn't that imply this wouldn't spread into businesses? Managers seem to have all the reason in the world to say, don't electioneer during business hours or through our slack channels. And I see this happening. For every New York Times that's hopelessly lost to campus culture, there are dozens of companies actively repudiating it, and thousands more that never even bump into the problem.
When Google fired someone for 'wrongthink' (an issue he pays some attention to), it was clearly because of the structure of modern employment laws. You could say workplace safety rules have been reinterpreted more broadly because of a more decadent 'safety'-focused era, but... the law comes from 1970, before his observation of decadence began, and companies will always reduce their legal exposure defensively unless there's extremely clear caselaw saying they definitely won't get in trouble. So how is it decadence? 'Big corporation follows advice of cautious lawyer' – more news at 11. If anything, firing people quickly demonstrates a workers-are-interchangible worldview that strikes me a pro-dynamism. They'd prefer turnover and change to a known thing with known benefits (i.e. a productive employee), and were willing to do something unpopular because it helped the corporate mission.
He throws around a lot of other strange ideas, like that a 'pink police state' would be hostile to unplanned pregnancies, and I'm going to be real with you: I have no idea what he's even talking about there. Is this a weird abortion commentary – because that's clearly driven by actual disagreements, not paternalism in any simple sense. Is he saying birth control is legal – even though you need a prescription? What is the shape of his critique? He brings up government sterilization as if this is a thing happening all the time and not an example of just how horrifying and outside of the bounds of sanity the genocide in China has become.
Even less coherent is why he's concerned about privacy so much in America. I don't think he's got a solid case for cancel culture being Orwellian, and here's an example of why some of the discussion around that is incoherently bad. Lack of meaningful privacy protections has enabled extreme dynamism in American tech, at little or no cost to the consumer, who, as he points out, legitimately does not care if ads are targeted to them, for instance. It seems that insisting on information flow being restricted would be a form of decadence itself, and he'd be making the same argument, that everything is decadent, if the situation was reversed. Color me unconvinced.
But through all of his discussion of stable institutions to preserve decadence, or of relatively stable dystopias like 1984 and Brave New World, he doesn't seem to believe that it isn't (solely) a public choice trap, or something bound to be destroyed inevitably by the system or from some external force. There exist pockets of people who aren't decadent, who self-sacrifice and push the world around them out of place. They exist out of an equilibrium, because unlike society-at-large or politics, they don't need cooperation or consent from people who currently disagree with their worldview. But they rely on and inhabit the system, and so have the resources to really escalate anything that shows a decent chance of working.
It also responds to his strange insistence that there are no truly daring religious and social movements. The next part in the book review is about pinning our hopes on advanced and experimental technology.