Buchanan's Long March
Fr. Robert A. Sirico
Review of The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigration Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization (New York, NY: Thomas Dunne books, St. Martin's Press, 2002), 308 pages including index.
In the tradition of Oswald Spengler ( The Decline the West, 1929) and James Burnham ( Suicide of the West, 1964), Patrick J. Buchanan seems to have set out to write a book that offers the reader not one piece of good news but instead paints a picture of utter hopelessness. He has succeeded. Never is heard an encouraging word, in this genre of nonfiction. The idea is postulate a titanic but overlooked shift in the course of the rise and decline of civilization itself. The tradition of thought at work here is that of G.W.F. Hegel, who saw human history made up of vast and impersonal forces.
You can try this at home. Decide first whether you want your dominant Hegelian historical force to consist of good trends or bad trends. Next pick up the daily newspaper. Clip all articles that fit with your preconception of these historical forces and toss any that contradict it in the trash. Repeat for 30 days. Assemble the results in a book form. If you are reporting good news, find an upbeat title. If you are reporting bad news, you'll need to find a very scary title that hasn't already been taken by some other discredited prophet of doom. Print.
Buchanan chose the title The Death of the West. His thesis is clear enough from the title but the argument itself is rather convoluted and confused. He has trouble staying on topic or sticking to a simple outline of thesis, argument, conclusion. He moves from gloom to doom and back again, page after dreary and dreadful page, without concern for whether the argument is coherent or whether his solutions fit the problem, or even what the precise nature of the problem is.
He tells us on page two that the core of the crisis he will be discussing relates to a chasm that “is not one of income, ideology, or faith but of ethnicity and loyalty.” If you can't wait to see how this is going to end, you can skip to the next to last pages to find that the crisis is not about race or ethnicity (p. 265) but rather ideology and faith: “Once an ideology takes hold of a society, only a superior force or a superior ideology can exorcize it. To defeat a faith you must have a faith” (p. 267). We face “a crisis of the soul” (p. 252). Or you can flip through the middle of the book to discover that the crisis is really about income: “The richer a nation becomes, the fewer its children, and the sooner it begins to die” (p. 34). In other words, the crisis is about income, ideology, and faith, and not ethnicity or loyalty–a perfect inversion of the thesis that begins the book!
And yet if there is a consistent theme here, it is that we face a four-fold crisis: cultural, demographic, religious, and political. There is no disputing the truth of much of what he says in passing. Sectors of our society and culture are shockingly debased. Part of the story of immigration has been one of displacement and resistence to assimilation. The cultural domination of society by the Christian faith has declined. Our political elites have led the country astray in myriad ways. The major media really is engaged in jihad against traditional values.
All this is true, but it is only part of the truth. Plenty of bad movies are made but plenty of good ones too. There is much bad music and plenty of bad books out there, but great music and great books have never enjoyed a wider distribution. The Christian faith is no longer culturally hegemonic but more people attend weekly worship today than 60 years ago. Our schools are dumbed down and culturally lost but homeschooling is taking off. The major media is insufferable but Mother Angelica and other alternative sources have vast and even global (to use a word Buchanan hates) reach. Globalism builds up awful international bureaucracies but it also leads to rising living standards for the poor.
As for politics, Buchanan might have made his strongest case against the rise of big government, but on the subject is not only silent; he decries the loss of the faith in the nation state (p. 127). And some of his proposed solutions would actually increase to extent of government domination of the culture, such as his suggestion that corporate taxes be raised (p. 233) or that the president institute a national “History Bee” to encourage young people to study the nation's past (p. 263).
As for immigration, it can be destabilizing yet it also brings a reinvigoration of the economy and faith (particularly in the Catholicism of so many Latin American and Vietnamese immigrants). Non-Western immigrants can bring in foreign faiths like Islam but also help shore up Christian voices with the Orthodox believers.
But my method of observation here would not meet with Buchanan's approval because it sees both good and bad aspects to cultural, social, and political change. This is not Buchanan's way. He is a provocateur, a media figure, a former presidential candidate, and glories in being downright reactionary. Subtlety of exposition is not his strength. But to observe that is not to excuse it. Many regard him as a voice in the wilderness, speaking truth to power. Many Catholics look to him for political guidance. He has convictions, to be sure, but he also wants to sell books, and I fear that his moral obligation to say what is true has here been swamped by his desire to vent his rage and get back at all those who didn't vote for him in 2000.
Consider the scariest claim in Buchanan's book: “The West is dying. Its nations have ceased to reproduce, and their populations have stopped growing and begun to shrink. Not since the Black Death carried off a third of Europe in the fourteenth century has there been a graver threat to the survival of Western civilization” (p. 9). The core piece of data that scares him is that the Third World is five times as populous as the First World, and, he predicts, it will be ten times as populous in 2050.
Of course, people should be fruitful and multiply, and that goes for people in the First, Second, or Third World. That people in developed nations have neglected their religious duties in this regard is a terrible thing. But why, precisely, the ratio between First and Third World births represents an unmitigated disaster is left unclear. He points out that Western Europe's welfare states cannot be funded with zero or negative population growth, but this is a fault of the welfare state itself, one that has been highlighted in the writings of Pope John Paul II. This is a problem of policy, not the death knell for the West.
And here again, Buchanan presents his argument without consideration to contrary evidence. Consider this news item from the Christian Science Monitor (March 6, 2002): “What culture watchers are calling a fertility boom‚ has pushed US births to their highest level in almost 30 years. Women now average 2.1 children over a lifetime, according to a new government report. During most of the 1970s and 1980s, they gave birth to fewer than two children on average.... Births topped the 4 million mark in 2000 for the first time in eight years.”
This change does suggest something of a cultural shift: the beginning of a possible end to what has long been called the “birth dearth” in the United States. U.S. birth rates are now higher than any other developed nation, including France (1.75), the UK (1.73), Belgium (1.61), Switzerland (1.47), Japan (1.41), Germany (1.38), Italy (1.18), and Spain (1.15)–all of which have lower rates of economic growth and lower standards of living (as measured by standard consumption data). It would appear that, to some extent, high birth rates are positively correlated with higher income rates.
Yes, immigration accounts for some of the rise, and yes, unmarried mothers are bearing more children than they did in the past. Most importantly, however, according to the Monitor: “Some of the growth stems from a prolonged economic boom.” There's more: “Women in their 30s and 40s who had delayed childbearing are catching up. Equally significant, observers see a marked changed in attitudes toward children and families among so-called Generation Xers, those in their 20s and early 30s. This could portend long-term changes in birth rates.”
The Center for Disease Control backs this up, reporting higher birth rates and higher fertility rates for all races. The newest National Vital Statistics Report from the CDC publishes a chart tracking births by age of the mother from 1960 to 1998. From 1960 to 1983, rates generally fell in all groups, though an upswing began in 1980 among women age 30 to 40. From thereon, births have risen for all ages except teenagers, a group among whom the rates of births have fallen. Rates have doubled for women in their 30s.
The new baby boom has already shown up in American spending habits. “In 2000,” the Monitor reports, “Americans spent $6 billion on baby equipment–cribs, high chairs, car seats, blankets, bottles. That marks an 11 percent jump from the previous year....”
As for abortion, the rate of incidence in the U.S. is lower than in many less developed countries such as Bangladesh, Nigeria, Philippines, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Mexico, Vietnam, Turkey, Egypt, but higher than many prosperous countries such as Canada, Germany, Netherlands, France, South Korea, and Sweden (source: Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1999). From just this quick look, it would not appear that prosperity is positively correlated with high abortion rates. (Another surprise is that rates of abortion are not strongly affected by whether the procedure is legal or illegal).
Meanwhile, abortion rates in the U.S. relative to live births continues to decline from a high in 1980 of 359/1000 to 306/1000 from the last available figures (1997). The reported number of legal abortions are lower today, an appallingly high figure but one in which the trend line gives encouragement to pro-lifers, whose efforts are paying off.
Consider another trend which should impact our assessment of current demographic trends: the rise of what the anti-natalists call “Trophy Kids.” Commercial demographers have taken note of a trend that began in the 1990s and continues today among high-income couples, people who own houses valued above $1 million. Their birth rates are out-stripping the average, with many having three or more children. It is now routine in journals such as the Nation for writers to snarl and sniff at this phenomenon.
Hence, not only is Buchanan's pessimism unwarranted, we live in times where there is plenty of evidence that should bolster the most optimistic demographic perspective in decades. This shift is being fueled by rising living standards (not poverty and deprivation). Yet none of this information is reported in Death of the West. It is not even hinted at. It is unclear that Buchanan even knows about it.
Even more distressing that Buchanan's mangling of the facts is his interpretation of the facts. In his discussion of what causes population reductions, he flounders from page to page seeking a theory of causation. He notes that in the Great Depression, the U.S. birthrate fell between population replacement rates. “Pessimism, a sense of despair that the good times are over and may never come again, can apparently impact national fertility. The Silent Generation was born in the 1930s, a relative small cohort and the only generation of the twentieth century never to have produced a president” (p. 26).
Thus, he reasons, economic instability and declining living standards cause birth rates to decline. That sounds fair enough. But turn over a few pages and you find exactly the opposite theory: “The richer a national becomes, the fewer its children, and the sooner it begins to die” (p. 34). How can it be that both poverty and wealth are cited as the explanation of the exact same phenomenon?
And yet he is not through explaining. Elsewhere, Buchanan says that declining births are caused not by wealth or poverty but by the sexual composition of workforce: “Businesses, large and small, offer packages of pay and benefits to lure talented women out of the home and keep them out of the maternity ward” (p. 33). Later on, he blames materialism: “Young people are not concern about their souls; they are worried about the Nasdaq” (p. 47ˆas if it would be impossible to be concerned about both!). Still later, he blames secularism: “Kill a nation's faith, and its people will cease to reproduce” (p. 180). And still later, he argues that the decline is entirely related to the technology of birth control (p. 26).
Thus we have Buchanan theorizing that a decline in population is fully attributable to one or all of the following: poverty, prosperity, working women, materialism, secularism, and technology. The first two explanations are mutually exclusive, the third could be an effect and not a cause, the fourth is frequently cited by the left as the cause of the new birth explosion, and though the last seems plausible, it is not a universal explanation. Are we supposed to believe the Libya, with a female-to-live-birth ratio of 6.4, is so much less secular and more religious than Ireland, with a ratio of 1.9, or the Ukraine, with the lowest ratio in the world of 1.4? As for birth control, he is certainly right that its impact on lives is huge and deeply troubling. But in a book supposedly about depopulation, surely this merits more than two paragraphs.
The truth is that there is not a single cultural, economic, or political factor that singularly influences the decision to reproduce at higher than replacement rates. To arrive at that, you need to look more deeply at a range of economic issues. There is plenty of evidence, for example, that it was the declining living standards of the later seventies and early eighties that drove women to choose career over family, as families struggled to keep their heads above water. Thus, the beginning of the answer to this issue might be found in creating a more stable, low-inflation, growing economy. That is not the whole answer, but it is surely part of it.
My point here is not to offer a comprehensive alternative theory but simply to suggest that it is irresponsible for an author to offer a treatise on the problem to the world when the author himself seems to be deeply confused on the subject. If we are to take Buchanan seriously, should we seek to become more prosperous or poorer? He offers evidence for both conclusions and thus offers no firm guidance.
Consider, for example, the effect of his demand that businesses pay men a “family wage” such that husbands and fathers be paid a higher salary than single men, regardless of their contribution to the output of the firm (p. 233). Will this wage be above market? Surely, but if so, this can only end in making husbands and faith less, not more, employable. It would mean that every father would arrive at a job interview with a higher price tag attached to resume. When possible, then, businesses would discriminate even more in favor of single men. Take away from husbands and fathers the right to offer their services at a price of their choosing and you end up closing off options for them and discouraging others from joining their ranks. Hence, Buchanan's alleged solution would have exactly the opposite effect of what he believes it would—a point that could be made of most of his economic policy suggestions. A far better path to the family wage is the growing market economy, where incomes of everyone rise, including those of husbands and fathers.
This is not to say that there is not good material in this book, although even the best material is excessively incendiary or dark to the point of absurdity. It is not a manifesto that any conservative Catholic ought to embrace. In fact, we might go farther and say that Buchananism poses a threat, certainly intellectual and possibly even political. Inadvertently, he himself explains why. Buchanan writes of the Marxist-influence Critical Theory: it “induces cultural pessimism‚ a sense of alienation, of hopelessness, of despair where, even though prosperous and free, a people comes to see its society and country as oppressive, evil, and unworthy of its loyalty and love. The new Marxists considered cultural pessimism a necessary precondition of revolutionary change” (p. 80). If true, Buchanan has done nothing more in this book than remake Critical Theory in his own image, and tried to package it as conservatism.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute
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