February 8, 2006


Is “Old Europe” Doomed? (Theodore Dalrymple, February 6th, 2006, Cato Unbound)

[I]t is undeniable that a pall of doom does currently overhang Europe. In retrospect, the Twentieth Century may be considered Europe’s melancholy, long withdrawing roar (to adapt Matthew Arnold’s description of the decline of religion). And just as, according to Disraeli, the Continent of Europe would not long suffer Great Britain to be the workshop of the world, so the world would not, and did not, long suffer the Continent of Europe to dominate it, economically, culturally and intellectually. Europe’s loss of power, influence and importance continues to this day; and however much one’s material circumstances may have improved (just take a look at photographs of daily life in France or Britain in the 1950s and compare them to daily life there today), it is always unpleasant, and creates a sense of deep existential unease, to live in a country perpetually in decline, even if that decline is merely relative.

Combined with this is the fact that most European populations experience a profound feeling of impotence in the face of their own immovable political elites. (My wife, who was born in Paris 56 years ago, cannot remember any period of her life from adolescence onward when M. Chirac was not a prominent figure in French public life, and had he not died after a mere fifty years at or near the top of the greasy pole, the same might have been said of M. Mitterand.) This feeling of impotence is not because of any lack of intelligence or astuteness on the part of the populations in question: if you wanted to know why there was so much youth unemployment in France, you would not ask the Prime Minister, M. Dominque de Villepin, but the vastly more honest and clear-headed village plumber or carpenter, who would give you many precise and convincing reasons why no employer in his right mind would readily take on a new and previously untried young employee. Indeed, it would take a certain kind of intelligence, available only to those who have undergone a lot of formal education, not to be able to work it out.

The principal motor of Europe’s current decline is, in my view, its obsession with social security, which has created rigid social and economic systems that are extremely resistant to change. And this obsession with social security is in turn connected with a fear of the future: for the future has now brought Europe catastrophe and relative decline for more than a century.

What exactly is it that Europeans fear, given that their decline has been accompanied by an unprecedented increase in absolute material well-being? An open economy holds out more threat to them than promise: they believe that the outside world will bring them not trade and wealth, but unemployment and a loss of comfort. They therefore are inclined to retire into their shell and succumb to protectionist temptation, both internally with regard to the job market, and externally with regard to other nations. And the more those other nations advance relative to themselves, the more necessary does protection seem to them. A vicious circle is thus set up.

In the process of course, the state is either granted or arrogates to itself (or, of course, both) ever-greater powers. A bureaucratic monster is created that takes on a life of its own, that is not only uneconomic but anti-economic, and that can be reformed only at the cost of social unrest that politicians naturally wish to avoid. Inertia intermittently punctuated by explosion is therefore the most likely outcome.

In the eternal struggle between Freedom and Security, the Continent is the test case for perfect security.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 8, 2006 8:59 PM

I notice that you haven't reviewed it, but Hilaire Belloc's Servile State is a very good examination of the freedom vs security theme.

Essentially, writing in 1911/12 just when the welfare state in Britain was first being created, he stood athwart history yelling stop, and in particular pointing out to the working classes who were the supposed beneficiaries of the first legislation, that they were making a drastic mistake in trading their liberty for the state security blanket.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at February 8, 2006 9:20 PM

Oh heavens. Doomed to get ever richer at a somewhat slower pace than everyone else. Doomed to a comfortable life, riding on the coat tails of the hard working and innovative americans and asians. Doomed to security provided by others. Doomed to eat cheese and drink fine wine during ever increasing leisure. Doomed, I tell you, DOOMED!

Doom might not be the word I'd have choosen. A wee bit alarmist I think.

Posted by: Bret at February 8, 2006 9:49 PM


No, quite literally doomed. That's why they're so depressed and their populations are in decline.

Posted by: oj at February 8, 2006 10:29 PM

Giving up one percent of growth a year doesn't sound like much until 50 years have gone by.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 8, 2006 11:06 PM

life in europe stinks. nature demands one thing - compete or die. europeans decline to compete.

Posted by: toe at February 8, 2006 11:54 PM

They will not have security either. The barbarians are at their gates.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 9, 2006 12:01 AM

They chose to die because they think they'll be dead before the time of final reckoning comes around. If recent events convince them the moment of trutth might occur on their watch and negatively effect their own lives, they might get motivated to do something towards their own cultural self-preservation, though it's just as likely they'll take a page from Daniel Moynihan's playbook and define deviancy down and convince themselves their current lifestyle is just as good as what they had in the past.

Posted by: John at February 9, 2006 12:06 AM

David Cohen wrote: "Giving up one percent of growth a year doesn't sound like much until 50 years have gone by."

If you also give up 1% of your population per year then it matters not at all as far as income and wealth per capita goes. Indeed, you have progressively slightly more wealth per capita as people die off but the buildings are left standing. Think of the population decline as an extremely slow neutron bomb.

There is, of course, a lag in GDP per capita at the moment as well. But I think that lag is likely to flatten out as they get a bit further behind. When European productivity gets down under about 80% of ours, then our innovation will permeate their society and add to their well-being by sheer osmosis with a delay.

I think that Europe will end up in better shape than y'all think. I'll admit that I personally wouldn't want to live there though.

Doomed is still a bit alarmist. In the long run, the United States will cease to exist in its current form as well. Does that mean were doomed too?

Posted by: Bret at February 9, 2006 12:48 AM

Bret: The 1% decline in population is coming from a lack of births, not from deaths.

Posted by: Buttercup at February 9, 2006 6:36 AM


"lag"! Good one!

Posted by: oj at February 9, 2006 7:46 AM

Robert, the barbarians are in the gates already.

Posted by: Mikey at February 9, 2006 8:22 AM

When it comes to demographics, all you really need to know is that this is from the optimist: Think of the population decline as an extremely slow neutron bomb.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 9, 2006 8:31 AM

To paraphrase Steyn, it's the math stupid. At a fertility rate of 1.4 a given population cohort will drop 30% every generation. In two generations the population drops by half. In four generations down to a quarter.

No modern society, much less a welfare-based one, can survive that.

Posted by: Gideon at February 9, 2006 9:06 AM


A decline in population generally requires death.

Posted by: Bret at February 9, 2006 9:33 AM

Bret: But they're not dying any faster than they used to. In fact, they're dying much more slowly than they used to. It is the decrease in births that makes the difference and, in fact, has been ameliorated by extended life spans. This is also part of what's wrong with your argument that a decline in growth is ok so long as the population is falling. A falling population is an aging population and an aging population is a less productive population. So, to assume that an aging economy can, in the long term, stay within shouting distance of a young economy is doubtful.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 9, 2006 10:01 AM

Bret: What Mr. Cohen said.

Posted by: Buttercup at February 9, 2006 10:33 AM

While there is great concern about the birthrate of Europeans (and rightly so), maybe we should all ask ourselves why it is that a state like North Dakota, which was one of only two states to LOSE population this decade (Mass. being the other one), is currently in the top 10 of states in per-capita Gross State Product growth rates.

Of course, Mass. isn't, but that's a different story altogether, right OJ?

Posted by: Brad S at February 9, 2006 11:23 AM

Brad: North Dakota is losing population to emigration which will almost always boost per capita economic statistics in the short term because absent a critical political crisis it is predominantly those with below-average income/wealth/prospects (i.e., the young) who leave. This is just another artifact of the implicit treatment of human beings as bad in economic statistics.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 9, 2006 11:33 AM


Land holdings.

Posted by: oj at February 9, 2006 11:33 AM

David Cohen wrote: "But they're not dying any faster than they used to."

Yes, I'm well aware of that. When I first started reading about the population decline, I was concerned, but as I looked more into it, I've changed my mind. Here's why:

1. Paul Ehrlich and the population bombsters (would be a good name for a rock band, don't ya think?) predicted doom (there's that word again!) for the planet, they based their prediction on the population growth trends that had been trending for thousands of years. They turned out to be somewhere between wrong and absurdly wrong. Y'all are making predictions based on trends that are a few decades old. I think that the idea that these trends will continue long term is likely as misguided as the bombsters.

2. Birthrates in the west are strongly correlated with population density. If the population of Europe becomes smaller, the density will go down, and people will have more children, and the population will end up at some equilibrium point. Many mammals adjust their birthrates (litter sizes) depending on crowding. Humans are no different.

3. It's not true that an aging population is inherently less productive. Consider a population with uniform distribution in ages from 0 to 50 and compare it to a population with uniform distribution from 20 to 70. The latter will likely be more productive per capita even though it's 20 years older. Children aren't very productive. In the real world, the Arab countries have very young population with high birthrates. Europe has a much older and declining population. I'd pick Europe over Arabia any day. I'm not saying there's not some truth to the concept that a declining population has some issues, but I think they're pretty secondary relative to other factors and can be overcome.

That's all I have time for right now, but there's numerous other factors that mitigate the issues of "decline" and "doom" (doom, I tell you, DOOOOOOOOOM!).

Buttercup: What I said to Mr. Cohen.

Posted by: Bret at February 9, 2006 12:16 PM


Wrong. The prediction is based on the culture that Ehrlich is an avatar of, not trend lines.

Posted by: oj at February 9, 2006 12:37 PM

those sneaky canadians better not be making any plans to grab north dakota.

Posted by: toe at February 9, 2006 12:55 PM

oj wrote: "The prediction is based on the culture that Ehrlich is an avatar of, not trend lines."

Substitute "oj" for "Ehrlich" and I agree completely. Your describing your own approach to pontificating.

At least Ehrlich had long term trend lines in his favor.

Posted by: Bret at February 9, 2006 2:41 PM


Yes, he only misunderstood everything else, as Malthusians/Darwinians/etc. always do. Europe is spiritually dead, the body follows.

Posted by: oj at February 9, 2006 3:07 PM

Toe, the lebensraum would happen in the other direction, eh:)

Posted by: Brad S at February 9, 2006 4:14 PM

I dunno. I question the timing-- Canada and Denmark have a dispute over their Artic boundary, and this Cartoon Thing erupts just as Harper is elected. I suspect it's just a distraction cooked up by the Imperial White North so the Danes are caught off guard when the entire Canadian Imperial Army (all 50 of them) is sent to grab Hans Island. Who knows what nefarious pretext they'll cook up when they finally put in motion their attempt to turn every NoDak into a Canuck. (Then again, that's one of those things that might actually improve both countries.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at February 9, 2006 5:08 PM