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Testosterone is declining because it's illegal

Northrop Yb-49

A lot of people wonder why testosterone levels have been decreasing for decades.

For instance, my friend Justin Mares asks:

Why does the average 22-year-old today have the testosterone level of a 67-year-old man from the year 2000?

I'd like to advance a thesis: We have less testosterone today because testosterone has been criminalized.

Any 22-year-old today who possesses more testosterone than a 67-year-old man from the year 2000 is likely to be in prison.

Testosterone is correlated with aggression and aggression is correlated with incarceration. Even within prison populations, there is some evidence that higher testosterone is correlated with worse crimes: "Ten out of 11 inmates with the highest testosterone concentrations had committed violent crimes, whereas 9 out of 11 who had committed non-violent crimes had the lowest testosterone levels."

The criminalization of testosterone has been achieved through countless gradual changes, some formal and some informal.

Go watch movies from the 1970s and 1980s.

Stealing a car was just a moderately naughty hobby for wayward young men. Accidentally killing a guy in a bar fight was not that big a deal; you just had to lay low in Tijuana for a few years. Robbing a bank was certainly no joke, but you had a decent chance of getting away with it.

Before the 1990s, law enforcement was incredibly ineffective. We did not yet have a massive digital surveillance apparatus and even pre-digital systems were only just starting to get serious.

The Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992 was really the first time the VIN number system (itself only started in 1969) was organized into a formidable interstate deterrent. The NYPD was basically a criminal street gang well into the 1980s. In 1991, there were 9,388 bank robberies. In 2021, there were 1,724.

Today, the ubiquity of smartphones has really sealed the deal. A high-testosterone man can't even get away with fully legal recklessness if it is considered sufficiently "toxic" according to the low-testosterone consensus (except given particular demographics nested in particular geographies).

The result of this technological and institutional evolution is obvious: Males, beginning in childhood, learn that testosterone is generally punished. Male behavior changes, then biochemistry changes, then male behavior changes even more, then biochemistry changes even more, and so on. Testosterone spirals downward.

Now, here's where things get tricky.

As a man today, it's easy to lament the decline in testosterone. It's now a somewhat popular refrain in some circles. But one should avoid the sophomoric talking points of anonymous right-wing body builders because it's actually a hard problem rooted in real tradeoffs: The fact is that most people today really do prefer a low-testosterone world, including macho-signaling men and male health influencers!

What these types never talk about is how testosterone is correlated with so many things that healthy society hates: drinking, fighting, drugs, rape, gambling, reckless driving, scams, rudeness, and many more unsavory behaviors.

Of course, there may be some kind of curvilinear relationship between testosterone and bad behavior, such that low levels of testosterone also produce certain bad behaviors. But there can be no doubt that societies with higher levels of testosterone will, on average, produce higher quantities of the above-listed bad behaviors.

These types of behaviors have all been aggressively curtailed in the past several decades and almost all people are happy that they've been curtailed. If you want more vigorous testosterone levels you have to bite the bullet of increasing all of these things in society. Are you willing to bite that bullet? If not, you can't just simplistically lament the decline of testosterone.

In my personal opinion, I'd rather have a high-testosterone society, but I like getting drunk and talking reckless; a lot of respectable people think I'm a crass, unserious person with a low-class time preference; and I generally don't clutch my pearls at the unsavory manifestations of high testosterone—for instance, when black people loot stores—like many macho-signaling men and health influencers do!

That's right, black people have higher testosterone than white people, so if you lament the decline of testosterone then you should admire black culture. If street gangs scare you, you probably don't want more testosterone in society. If you think street gangs are kind of cool, you might have a higher quality of life in a higher-testosterone society. Did you root for Stringer Bell, or against him?

(To be clear, I don't endorse black people looting, I just don't really mind it. My honest emotional reaction is to find it vaguely exciting. I'd rather not live around that, but when it's in a far-off city, I just don't care or I find it vaguely exciting. I'm not saying this reaction is right or good, it just is my reaction.)

When I say things like this, a lot of the well-to-do, macho men and health influencers would say that I'm being absurd, glib, and immature. And that's why testosterone has declined!

Many of the constituencies who lament the decline of testosterone (successful, healthy WASPs) are the same constituencies who caused its decline (as "Law and Order" voters).

Testosterone has declined because we've made it illegal.