Buchanan's premise wrong in 'Death of the West'
4/10/2002 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg
"I think you have to say that Western peoples are dying. And that is a simple statement of fact." That's how Pat Buchanan summarized his demographic argument on a TV show recently. It's a simple statement, but it's hardly a fact, and the latest United Nations data makes Buchanan look a bit silly for saying it.
In his latest book, Buchanan argues that America and Europe will be swamped by the swelling hordes of the Third World. Indeed, the book title says it all: "The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization."
Buchanan's demographic thesis is that "Western" white nations aren't having enough babies to keep up with the exploding populations of non-white nations. These nations, particularly the United States, are making up for this shortfall of babies by importing, via immigration, lots of people from "non-Western" nations or the "Third World."
Modifying the meaning of the term "Third World," which originally described the poor nations not aligned with the United States or Soviet Union, Buchanan defines it as pretty much any non-white nation, no matter how wealthy (say, Hong Kong) or how Western (think: Catholic, Spanish-speaking Latin America).
The lynchpin to Buchanan's argument is his tendentious reading of United Nations data that "prove," according to Buchanan, that the West is "dying" while the Third World is "exploding." Buchanan writes, "Of Europe's 47 nations, only one, Muslim Albania, was, by 2000 maintaining a birthrate sufficient to keep it alive indefinitely. Europe had begun to die." He cavalierly compares declining birthrates in Europe to the mass deaths caused by Hitler and Stalin.
Here's the first and most obvious problem with Buchanan's reading of population trends: It's batty. A declining population is not a "dying" population. According to his reading of the statistics, Europeans are dying simply because the percentage of Europeans will decline relative to, say, the percentage of Mexicans or Indians.
What's so batty about this is that birthrates are high in poor nations because poor nations are, literally, dying. In the West, people live longer and healthier lives, which is why the median age of Europeans and Japanese is rising so quickly. Babies in Europe and America are luxuries. In Africa or East Asia, women have lots of babies because they are economic assets.
It's a sad quirk that birthrates explode in societies the least equipped to care for them. So while sub-Saharan Africa's birthrates are dismayingly high, so are its mortality rates. In the United States today, life expectancy at birth is 77 years old and rising (in Japan it is 81). In sub-Saharan Africa it's 51 and falling.
But for Buchanan, nations that are getting progressively healthier and wealthier are at a disadvantage to nations that are poorer and sicker. He even imports this logic to economic and military debates where it is completely bizarre. Sheer numbers have never had much correlation to economic power. If they did, the Swiss would be applying for visas to live in the Congo.
As for the military, Buchanan can be a brilliant student of history, but it seems he's forgotten that the British Empire ruled the globe when its population was a tiny fraction of those it ruled. Israel, for example, defeated the armies of the Arab world in 1948, 1967 and 1973 with a comparatively tiny population. The United States military had kill-ratios in Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia and Afghanistan rendering such reasoning absurd.
I'm not saying America wouldn't be better off with a higher birthrate, but we don't make babies to become cannon-fodder, and that's a good thing.
Perhaps the most deceptive aspect of Buchanan's population argument is his attempt to make it sound like only Western nations' birthrates are shrinking. The reality is that fertility rates have been plummeting around the world for three decades, including in the Third World.
"Of the 22 nations with the lowest birthrates, only two are outside Europe - Armenia and Japan," he writes. He picks the number 22 for a reason. If he expanded the list to all of the nations with birthrates lower than what's necessary to replace their populations, he'd have to include 65 nations including such non-Western nations as Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macao and this obscure country you might have heard of called China - Buchanan's insistence that "China's enormous population swells inexorably" notwithstanding.
Buchanan's use of U.N. data was selective, but nominally accurate up until 2001. But now new data, just released from the U.N., smashes Buchanan's projections entirely. Some of the most populous nations in the world are expected to see their birthrates sink below the replacement rate far sooner than the worrywarts of the left or right predicted.
Very soon, women in Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, the Philippines and Vietnam are expected have fewer babies than needed for an expanding population. Joseph Chamie, director of the U.N.'s Population Division, whose data Buchanan relied on for his book, calls this a "revolutionary shift" in population projections. India alone will "lose" nearly 100 million people over the next five decades.
I wonder, is Buchanan worried that India is dying now too?