Demographics is destiny. Never in recorded history have prosperous and peaceful nations chosen to disappear from the face of the earth. Yet that is what the Europeans have chosen to do. Back in 1348 Europe suffered the Black Death, a combination of bubonic plague and likely a form of mad cow disease, observes American Enterprise Institute scholar Ben Wattenberg. “The plague reduced the estimated European population by about a third. In the next 50 years, Europe’s population will relive – in slow motion – that plague demography, losing about a fifth of its population by 2050 and more as the decades roll on.”
In 200 years, French and German will be spoken exclusively in hell. What has brought about this collective suicide, which mocks all we thought we knew about the instinct for self-preservation? The chattering classes have nothing to say about the most unique and significant change in our times. Yet the great political and economic shifts of modern times are demographic in origin. Three examples suffice:
1) The great trans-Atlantic rift. Europeans are pacifists, not merely in the Persian Gulf, but on their own Balkans doorstep. If they cannot be bothered to reproduce, why should any European soldier sacrifice himself for future generations that never will be born?
2) The shift in global capital flows to the United States: old people lend money to young people. The aging populations of Europe and Japan lend money to younger people in the US.
3) The deflation danger. To illustrate, an economist of my acquaintance proposes a thought experiment. Suppose by a magic spell all the inhabitants of the United Kingdom instantaneously aged by 30 years. What would be the effect on the current account balance, the rate of interest, the price level and the exchange rate? (Answer at the end of this essay).
Little enough has been said about the “how” but almost nothing about the “why” of Europe’s demographic suicide. Suicidal behavior is common among (for example) stone-age tribes who have encountered the modern world. One can extend this example to Tamil or Arab suicide bombers (See Live and Let Die, Asia Times Online, April 13, 2002). But the Europeans are the modern world. Have the Europeans taken to heart existentialism’s complaint that man is alone in a chaotic universe in which life has no ultimate meeting, and that man responds to the anxiety about death by embracing death?
Detest as I might the whole existentialist tribe, there is a grain of truth here, and it bears on a parallel development, that is, the death of European Christianity. Fifty-three percent of Americans say that religion is very important in their lives, compared with 16 percent, 14 percent and 13 percent respectively of the British, French and Germans, according to a 1997 University of Michigan survey. Here I draw on the German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), an existentialist of sorts. Few Asians (including Jews) can make sense of Christianity’s core doctrine, namely, original sin, handed down to all humans from Adam and Eve. Original sin motivates God’s self-sacrifice on the cross to remove this stain from mankind; without it, Jesus was just an itinerant preacher with a knack for anecdotes.
All religion, Rosenzweig argued, responds to man’s anxiety in the face of death (against which philosophy is like a child stuffing his fingers in his ears and shouting, “I can’t hear you!”). The pagans of old faced death with the confidence that their race would continue. But tribes and nations anticipate their own extinction just as individuals anticipate their own death, he added: “The love of the nations for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death.” Each nation, he wrote, knows that some day other peoples will occupy their lands, and their language and culture will be interred in dusty books.
The early Christian Church encountered a great extinction of peoples and their cultures through the rise and fall of the Alexandrine and Roman empires. Who now remembers the Lusitani, the Illyrians, the Sicani, the Quadians, Sarmatians, Alans, Gepidians, Herulians, Pannonians and a thousand other tribes of Roman times? As nations faced extinction, individuals within these nations came face to face with their own mortality. Christianity offered an answer: the Church called individuals out of the nations and offered them salvation in the form of a life beyond the grave. The Gentiles (as the Church called them) embraced original sin, which to them simply meant the sin of having been born Gentile, that is, to a culture doomed to extinction. (The Jews, who think of themselves as an eternal people, were having none of it).
In one respect, Christianity was an enormous success. Its original heartland in the Near East, Asia Minor and Greece fell to Islam, but even while Arabs rode victorious over St. Paul’s missionary trail, the Church converted the barbarians of Europe. Christianity made possible the assimilation of thousands of doomed tribes into what became European nations. Something similar is at work in Africa, the only place in the world where Christianity enjoys rapid growth. Yet Christianity’s weakness, Rosenzweig added, lay in the devil’s bargain it made with the old paganism. Christianity’s salvation lay beyond the grave, in the wispy ether of heavenly reward. Humans require something to hang on to this side of the grave. By providing the pagans with a humanized God (and a humanized mother of God and a host of saints), Christianity allowed the pagans to continue to worship their own image. Germans worship a blond Jesus, Spaniards worship a dark-haired Jesus, Mexicans worship the dark Virgin of Guadalupe, and so forth. The result, wrote Rosenzweig, is that Christians “are forever torn between Jesus and [the medieval pagan hero] Siegfried.”
At the political level, Christianity sought to suppress Siegfried in favor of Christ through the device of the universal empire, the suppression of nationality by the aristocracy and Church. The lid kept blowing off the pot. Just when the Habsburgs brought the universal empire to its peak of power in 1519 under Charles V, controlling Austria, Spain and the Netherlands, Germany revolted under the banner of Reformation. There followed a century and a half of religious wars, culminating in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that wiped out more than half the population of Central Europe. France under Cardinal Richilieu (See The Sacred Heart of Darkness, Asia Times Online, February 11, 2003) gave a fatal twist to the Christian idea. Instead of universal empire, the French nation would be the standard-bearer for Christendom, such that French national interests stood in place of divine providence.
All Europe caught the French disease, substituting the warrior Siegfried for the crucified God. Christianity’s inner pagan ran amok. A second Thirty Years War (1914-1944) gave unlimited vent to Europe’s pagan impulses and drowned them in blood. The unfortunate Rosenzweig, who saw the faultlines in Christian civilization so clearly, died hoping that Europe still would embrace its Jewish population as a counterweight against its destructive pagan self. It never occurred to him that Europe would choose destruction and take its Jews with it. Siegfried triumphed over Christ during World War I. No shred of credibility was left in the Christian idea of souls called out of the nations for salvation beyond the grave. In 1914 Europe’s soldiers still fought under the illusion of a God that favored their nation. Germany fought World War II under the banner of revived paganism.
For today’s Europeans, there is no consolation, neither the old pagan continuity of national culture, nor the Christian continuity into the hereafter. The French know that Victor Hugo, Gauloise cigarettes, Chateau Lafitte and Impressionist painters one day will become a matter of antiquarian curiosity. The Germans know that no one but bored schoolboys will read Goethe two centuries hence, like Pindar. They have no ambition but to die quietly, no concerns except for those amusements which might reduce boredom and anxiety en route to the grave. They have no passions except hatred born of envy. They hate America, a new kind of universality that succeeded where the old Christian empire failed. They hate Israel, which makes the Jewish people appear all the more eternal in stark contrast to Europe’s morbid temporality. They will pass out of history unmourned even by themselves.
[Solution to the thought-experiment above: if the entire population of the UK instantaneously ages 30 years, it will spend less and save more for retirement. That is, demand will shift from present goods to future goods, that is, securities. The price level of present goods falls. The price of future goods rises, that is, the compensation for waiting for the future declines, and the rate of interest falls. The suddenly-aged population trades surplus present goods for future goods, that is, exports goods and purchases securities with the proceeds, shifting the current account balance to surplus. The exchange rate will rise. In other words, we have Japan.]