Sunday, October 08, 2006

Steyn out of line


Oh, no! I have to take issue with Mark Steyn's new book, America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It.

Steyn is one of my contemporary heroes -- he's in The Gold Standard section of the blogroll -- so I was keenly looking forward to his latest book, and a little disappointed that I need to register a partial dissent.

Mind you, most of his book about America as the only power that stands between raging Islam and all the rest is spot on. America Alone is timely, original, and full of acid humor. Steyn is incapable of writing a dull paragraph, and he scores with wit even when his ideas are shaky. The book is a great read and I recommend it.

Don't look for comfort in his pages, even as you're laughing yourself silly. Steyn thinks the really bad news hasn't reached us yet, and he'd rather deliver it himself than wait for a jihadist madman to make the point in some very unpleasant, if not lethal, way.

Steyn sees trends leading us to, as he puts it, "the dawn of the new Dark Ages (if darkness can dawn)": The West's loss of civilizational confidence and belief in its virtues and achievements. Check. A Muslim intoxication with itself and an absolute belief in its mission to convert all humanity, by force where necessary. Check. And, apparently above all else to his thinking, a European fertility rate that is too low to replace or grow the population -- the indigenous European population, that is. Here's where I part company with the estimable Steyn.

"The single most important fact about the early twenty-first century is the rapid aging of almost every developed nation other than the United States: Canada, Europe, and Japan are getting old fast, older than any functioning society has ever been and faster than any has ever aged," he writes. "A society ages when its birth rate falls and it finds itself with fewer children and more grandchildren."

Ah, but some populations are breeding to a different beat. In Afghanistan, Steyn says, the rate of births per 1,000 people in 2005 was 47.02. In Albania, it was 15.08. "That means Albanians are breeding at a third of the rate of Afghans," Steyn says. Replacement rate -- the number of babies per woman at which the population remains stable -- is 2.1. "Some counties are well above that: the global fertility leader, Niger, is 7.46; Mali, 7.42; Somalia, 6.76; Afghanistan, 6.69; Yemen, 6.58. Notice what those nations have in common? Starts with an I, ands with a slam. As in: slam dunk."

Replacing themselves much less rapidly, in a "population death spiral," are Canada with a fertility rate of 1.5; Germany and Austria, 1.3; Russia (where 70 percent of pregnancies are aborted, and "women are voting with their fetus") and Italy, 1.2; and Spain, 1.1.

If the population is shrinking in places, some of us think that's a good thing for the planet and the quality of life. Steyn has no time for anyone who worries about overpopulaton, though. To be fair to him, he doesn't descend to the complete idiocy of arguments like, "Look at all that empty space we've got," as though new additions to the total population head straight for the desert wastes of Nevada or the tundra up there 'round Hudson's Bay, rather than to ever-expanding urban areas. But he can't resist blasting away at sitting ducks, as when he makes fun of Paul Ehrlich's ecological doomsaying in the 1970s. Ehrlich was a self-promoting charlatan, of the sort you can find in any field, and it won't do to trash the population stabilization movement by dragging in its least responsible spokesman.

So why does Steyn think these low fertility rates in most Western countries mean big trouble? First, because it means that the population will be, on average, much older than the best-of-breed countries. Old people tend to be inflexible, challenge-avoiding. Whereas the younger populations -- those that start with I and end with slam -- are full of energy, ready to take on the world. Which is what they're doing.

More than that, on the nature-abhors-a-vacuum principle, Steyn expects that Muslims will pour into every place that has a population loss and quickly become a majority.

And so they will ... if we allow it. Steyn assumes that we will, even implies that we have no choice. Herein lies Steyn's number one blind spot. For all his good conservative credentials, he seems to have bought the tranzi argument that national borders are obsolete and irrelevant. He's not an open borders advocate so much as someone who just takes them for granted. As far as I know, and I've been reading his columns for at least five years, he has barely noticed the invasion from Mexico to the U.S. and has never urged European countries to shut down the Muslim immigration factory and the asylum racket.

Europe has thrown itself open to Muslim immigration, is paying the price and will soon pay a much greater price, in my reckoning. But the pathology is self-inflicted. No country has to accept the spillover from Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the other Petri dish countries. So with a sane immigration policy -- viz., one that quarantines Islam -- a falling population is no threat to Spain or Italy.

To be sure, the mad fecundity in the Arab world will have devastating consequences locally. Too bad. It is not the West's job to save countries, especially those where a majority of people see the non-Muslim world as the enemy to be overcome, from the consequences of their own folly. I'd like for African countries and suchlike to see the light and start encouraging birth control for all they're worth. But if they insist on reproducing irresponsibly, they shouldn't look to Europe to take up their excess population, and if it means they find out what one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse looks like up close, I'm sorry -- but maybe famine will teach them a lesson.

In the modern world, more than at any time before, strength is not in numbers. If it were, India and China would rule the world. Maybe they will one of these days, but if so population size will have little to do with it. Civilizational strength comes from economic strength, technological progress, a rule of law, guarantees of private property, self-confidence enough to take risks, and a spiritual foundation. It no longer (if it ever did) derives from having the most bodies to throw into the front lines for cannon fodder.

Steyn's other reason for alarm about shrinking populations is the much discussed problem of having enough workers to support the welfare programs that modern societies, especially in Europe, have grown accustomed to. "The progressive Left can be in favor of Big Government or population control but not both," he says. "That mutual incompatibility is about to plunge Europe into societal collapse."

If he means that we may have to choose between the kind of vast largesse Europeans have become accustomed to -- government-sponsored visits to health spas, six weeks paid vacation, two years of paid maternity and paternity leave, all that -- and a quickly and steadily declining population, then he's right. If those are the only options. But I don't see why they have to be. Surely all the world's brilliant economists, or even just one of them, could figure out a plan for a "steady state" economy provided there was a reward for that model instead of theories demanding constant growth. If the ratio of young workers to old stays about the same from generation to generation (rather than soaring, like in Mali), why should they not balance out and provide for an acceptable though not extravagant social security and retirement benefits system?

What's the alternative? Mark Steyn's. He thinks we ought to be doing our damnedest to outbreed the Muslim world, and presumably have more babies to keep the welfare state going -- although he is as dubious as I am about the overall benefit of a system where people feel themselves dependent on the government for every earthly good. If that means continuously going above replacement rate, then Steyn in effect bids us to keep growing in population forever. Forever. A world of seven billion, 10 billion, 20 billion ... ad infinitum. But that's a crock. Anyone who thinks about it seriously, and for the long term, knows that the Earth's population can't keep growing indefinitely. At some point, it's got to stop. We can debate what that point should be, but some think we've already gotten there if we know what's good for us.

Any day now it will be officially announced that the U.S. population has reached 300 million, or twice what it was when I was born. Many businesspeople will find that cause for celebration, and Mark Steyn will too. He's proud of the U.S. for its wombcentricity. I won't be celebrating more traffic of every sort from cars to airplanes, more urban density and highrises, more land converted to ever-creeping suburbia. Although it is something of an ad hominem, I can't resist pointing out that Steyn himself lives in a one-horse town in New Hampshire; he is among the knowledge workers who can drop out of the urban rat race at will and send his product bouncing off satellites. Most people with jobs are not so lucky. He can easily escape the side effects of the population growth medicine that he prescribes for the rest to swallow.

Enough on that. I've been giving a one-sided account of America Alone. There's far more to it. Steyn's book is an antidote to complacency in the face of implacably aggressive Islam, and showcases the wordplay and outrageous humor that his devotees (myself among them) admire. He's right about the big picture. It is the end of the world as we've known it, and we'd better be thinking hard about what we want to replace it, and how to get there.

UPDATE 10/12

I thank the reader whose nom de blog is Vanishing American and Lawrence Auster for their comments. (Auster replied in a personal e-mail and I will not try to paraphrase his thoughts, but he has expressed his views on Mark Steyn often, most recently yesterday.)

The casual reader might wonder why all this carry-on about Steyn. The answer is that he is a popular author and columnist with a devoted following, and therefore likely to be influential among people who consider themselves conservatives and perhaps others who read him for his clever rhetoric.

The hard line on Steyn is that while ostensibly sounding an urgent warning, he is actually a defeatist who has written off Europe and reduces the great struggle for preservation of national identities and personal freedoms to a demography derby. Taking his work as a whole, but America Alone in particular (because that book is freshest in my mind), my impression — based on the written record; I can't look into his soul — is that he is genuinely alarmed at what he sees and wants to motivate his readers to save what can still be saved (which for him doesn't include Europe).

But it's always easier to point out what's wrong than to devise realistic, coherent and practicable solutions, and Steyn is no exception. Perhaps because of a demanding publishing schedule (he calls himself the "one-man content provider"), he tends to fall back on a well-rehearsed routine of viewing-with-alarm, which seems reasonably original each time because he is gifted at finding funny and striking ways of expressing the same thoughts about the dangers of Islam. It may be that he doesn't have time to ponder deeply what our reply to Islam should be, or it may be that he has taken the soft option of peddling a simplistic solution, i.e., mass production of the Weaponized Baby System.

Why can't he understand that the first line of defense, and the easiest to achieve if the will is there, should be a reassertion of national boundaries and a refusal to accept immigration of people whose main reason for arriving is to undermine existing institutions and substituting their own? I don't know; but Steyn is so enthralled with the "demography is destiny" vision that apparently just enforcing border controls seems to him routine and undramatic by comparison with a Fecundity Five-Year Plan.

Given his prodigious talent with words, I'm glad Steyn at least gets the problem mostly right and I'm happy to have him trashing multi-culturalism, political correctness, etc. But I too wish he'd think more deeply about how we can turn back the moral and political plague that is eating our future.


Vanishing American said...

I have the same reservations about Steyn as those you expressed here. I haven't read the book, and given that it seems to be more of Steyn's cheery, flippant fatalism, I am not sure I want to read it.
I know Steyn is one of the Holy Trinity for many Republicans, (along with the President and Condi Rice), I have had to part company with him ever since he wrote a piece called 'It's the demography, stupid', which pronounced the end of Europe and the advent of Eurabia. I guess Steyn's seeming insouciance about that is what turned me away.
I grant that he is a gifted writer, witty and clever, but he seems to lack a serious core. And it's true he has been absolutely silent on the Mexican invasion and immigration in general.

Michaelcd said...

Not only has he been silent on the Mexican invasion, when he has been asked about it directly he has simply avoided the question completely. Usually he simply contrasts them with Muslims in Europe, so his view is - yes you are about to become a Hispanic nation but hey, at least you won't have to pray towards Mecca. For some reason, he doesn't seem to realise that this is scant consolation!

As talented a writer as he is, Steyn simply can't fathom a scenario where people respond to crises. He expects that people will sit their passively, whilst their countries economies collapse and Muslims take political control. My experience has been to the contrary, especially with countries like Italy and Holland, the people are resisting and opposing the Islmic tide.

lmg said...

I've been waiting for decades (since I first read Ehrlich, actually) for someone to acknowledge that we can't keep the population growing forever. Here in New Jersey even the smallest patch of trees is bulldozed to build yet another house, road or strip mall. People forget that humans need the non-human world, not just for its resources, but to remain human ourselves. We need open spaces to grow food, expanses of forest, wetlands and unpolluted ocean to recycle oxygen and wastes, and places where we can get away from our fellow humans and just be left alone.

A shrinking population that stabilizes at a lower level is not a bad thing, but as you said, we need to work out the economic solution.

BTW, that Mexican invasion is the only reason the U.S. population continues to grow. Without it, we would be slightly below replacement rate, and on our way to a more comfortable future of less crowding, less pollution, and less energy dependence. It was said that we reached the 300 million mark today, and the child was Hispanic. I don't consider that anything to celebrate.

Rick Darby said...


Your comment is very well expressed.

I've also been trying for years to get across the idea that population is directly related to quality of life. But too often, the discussion revolves around false issues like how much uninhabited space remains (in remote places where no one wants to live), or Malthusian questions of resources, answers to which are impossible to quantify because the answer you get always depends on what unprovable assumptions you make about known sources, comsumption rates, and technology.

I make no secret of my loathing for Paul Ehrlich, whose apocalyptic predictions (meant, I think, to publicize and sell his book) in the 1970s turned out to have been ridiculous and convinced many people that population was a non-issue. No avowed enemy of population stabilization could have done more harm.