A year or two back, I started using the city of Bangalore as an all-purpose shorthand for emerging economies. If you’ve heard me on air or in person, you’ll know the kind of thing: “Chip in Berkeley doesn’t work as hard or create as much wealth as Rajiv in Bangalore, who gets up early every morning and heads off to put in a full shift making the latest electronic toys that Chip loves. But Chip assumes he will always live better than Rajiv simply because he’s American and Rajiv isn’t. He’s wrong. Eventually, economic reality will assert itself.” Whenever I use my little riff on radio or TV, I get a flurry of e-mails asking what was that goofy, foreign-sounding city I mentioned. That would be Bangalore, a burg whose name I have found mellifluously exotic since my childhood but which over the last three decades has become known as “the Silicon Valley of India.” Even Americans who’ve never heard of the joint would feel instantly at home if suddenly dropped in one of its many IT parks to stroll past the likes of Dell, Nokia, Hewlett-Packard.
Bangalore is also home to the Indian Institute of Management, wherein resides Professor R. Vaidyanathan. The professor has an arresting phrase he likes to use: “the nationalization of the family.” I would doubt he’s the chap responsible for the coinage, but he applies it brilliantly, as the defining fact about the decline of the West. He has a certain post-imperial chippiness and he’s nobody’s idea of a right-winger, but I think he’s on to something. Once upon a time, in Britain, Europe, and beyond, ambitious leftists nationalized industries — steel, coal, planes, cars, banks — but it was such a self-evident disaster that it’s been more or less abandoned, at least by those who wish to remain electorally viable. On the other hand, the nationalization of the family proceeds apace. “The West has nationalised families over the last 60 years,” writes Vaidyanathan. “Old age, ill health, single motherhood — everything is the responsibility of the state.”
Once you start to think like that, it seems entirely natural for a 30-year old student at Georgetown Law — whence graduates move on smoothly to jobs with a starting salary of $160,000 — to whine to Congress and on national television that someone else ought to pay for her birth control. Even if you accept Sandra Fluke’s estimate of $3,000 in contraceptive expenses, that’s equivalent to less than her first week’s salary. Why not just take out a loan against your first paycheck instead of demanding that busboys and hairdressers and New York Times business reporters pay for it?
Well, because, as Vaidyanathan says, we’ve nationalized the family — which means that these days a right isn’t a real right unless it comes from the state, and for “free.” This is why the Mitch Daniels distinction between “fiscal” and “social” issues is so unhelpful. The nationalized family is the key to understanding why the West’s economic “downturn” is not merely cyclical. Like any other nationalized industry, the nationalized family prioritizes more and more perks for its beneficiaries, is unresponsive to market pressure, and revels in declining productivity. Literally: The biggest structural defect in the Western world is its deathbed demography, the upside-down family tree. When 100 grandparents have 42 grandchildren (as in Greece), it is a societal challenge under any circumstances. When 42 grandchildren have to pay off the massive debts run up by 100 grandparents, that’s pretty much a guarantee of disaster. The Great Contraceptive War of 2012 is a classic nationalized-industry story straight out of moribund pre-Thatcher Britain: The workers are demanding more pay for less productivity — or, to be precise, no productivity. Nancy Pelosi argues that fewer births will help the economy, but Kavita Ramdas, executive director of the “Program on Social Entrepreneurship” at Stanford University, argues that fewer births will save the planet. As she told the Daily Caller, “empowering women to time their pregnancies” and avoid unwanted births would reduce carbon emissions between 8 to 15 percent globally.
And that’s what matters, isn’t it?
The West is already doing a grand job of reducing its own emissions. With more and more retirees to support, will dwindling numbers of young Westerners be prepared to work harder? A recent New York Times story explained, in unsparing detail, why (in Steve Jobs’s words) “those jobs aren’t coming back”: Workers in Asia have “flexibility, diligence and industrial skills” that Americans can’t match. As China is to the U.S., so India is to Britain. The natives look at the mother country and despair. The Indian tycoon Ratan Tata bemoans the work ethic at his British Jaguar and Land Rover plants. “Friday from 3:30 p.m. you can’t find anybody in the office,” he sighs.
As Mitch Daniels might say, that’s the economy, stupid. But it’s really the stupidity, economists. Could Mr. Tata’s U.K. workers either rediscover the Protestant work ethic or adopt the Hindu one? I wouldn’t bet on it. From the Daily Telegraph a year or so back: “Physical inactivity should be classed as ‘disease in its own right’, a pair of leading public health experts have proposed.”
Why stop there? We’re surely only a pair of public-health experts away from declaring that, if the Western world is crippled by debt, then debt must be a disability. And not merely of the sovereign variety. In Spain, private debt is 227 percent of GDP. The nationalized family doesn’t save. Why should it? The state pays for your retirement, and your kids, and your aged parents, and your health care. What’s to save for?
In the end, in Britain and much of Europe, the nationalized industries of the post-war years got privatized — which is how an Indian tycoon came to own the formerly state-run Jaguar and Land Rover. Privatizing the nationalized family will prove a tougher proposition.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline.com.