The Corner

Re: The More the Merrier?

Okay, Andrew, as National Review’s in-house demography bore and at the risk of wearying readers of both my recent apocalyptic tomes, I’ll bite. You say:

It is a stretch to claim that Europe’s troubles stem from a supposed “demographic winter”.

Whether or not that’s what Rick Santorum said, it’s certainly the case that “demographic winter” makes Europe’s troubles all but impossible to solve.

As you have observed, demographic decline doesn’t have to be an existential threat. The population of my town in New Hampshire peaked in the 1820 census and then dropped steadily until 1940, and we survived it because (unlike the latter-day US and EU) we hadn’t erected a system of government that depended on looting the future to bribe the present. Sovereign debt, like any other kind, presupposes there will be someone around to pay it off. In much of Europe, there won’t be. In Greece, 100 grandparents have 42 grandchildren – in a land where far too many retire in their fifties and spend their final third of a century living at public expense. Is it remotely likely that the debts run up by 100 Mediterranean deadbeats will be repaid by 42 Mediterranean deadbeats? You follow Continental affairs as closely as anyone here, and you know the answer to that.

The Germans, French and Dutch have healthier trend lines, but only because, as you note, they’ve imported huge populations that will inflict profound transformational changes. That, too, threatens the basic social compact: A decade or two on, is it likely that Ahmed and Mohammed will agree to be ever more punitively taxed to maintain the lavish retirements of Fritz and François? Or that, in the south-western United States circa 2025, a young largely Hispanic population will wish to prop up Medicare for an elderly largely white Boomer population who’ve enjoyed a level of American prosperity their successors will never know.

You assure us that demographic obsession is:

…akin to arguing that the United States risks starvation because there are fewer farm workers than there once were.  Times and productivity have moved on.

Up to a point. At the republic’s founding, it took 90 percent of the workforce to produce enough food to feed the nation. Now it takes less than three per cent. But you still need people to sell the stuff to. When 100 grandparents have 42 grandchildren, how do you grow your economy in an ever shrinking market? Where once were 100 babies for your diaper business, now there are only 42. And, fifteen years on, where once were 100 teens for your caterwauling gangsta rap record company, now a mere 42. And then only 42 potential car buyers, and maybe 21 home owners… You need a hell of an export market to beat back the arithmetic of a remorselessly withering customer base.

You have a point to this extent. Sooner or later, some or other nation will figure a way to buck demography. I would reckon the Japanese will be first, if only because they have no immigrants, don’t want any, and are sufficiently unsqueamish about these things already to be racing ahead with robot waitresses and humanoid nurses for the old folks’ home. It’s not hard to imagine Sony, Yamaha et al cheerfully applying their ingenuity to developing post-humans for “the jobs humans won’t do”.

But the rest of the west? Old and broke seems the way to bet, still frantically kicking the can down the road, even as the leg becomes too wizened, clotted and arthritic to nudge it more than another inch or two.

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.


The Latest