-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
As one who appreciates the link between the family and the economy, David P. Goldman is one of our better economists. Yet because he is the sort of writer who likes to formulate Universal Laws of History, his efforts as an historian are another matter. He names these laws after himself, or more precisely after his pseudonym, “Spengler.” Thus, for example, we read of Spengler’s Universal Law No. 9: “A country isn’t beaten until it sells it women, but it’s damned when its women sell themselves.” And of Spengler’s Universal Law No. 12: “Nothing is more dangerous than a civilization that has only just discovered that it is dying.” From these and other Universal Laws, Spengler deduces the main conclusion of his book, which is that it’s high time we bombed Iran.
If this sounds unpromising, it is. But the book does have one virtue: It starts with a world-historical trend that many people are still not aware of, even if Goldman mangles its description. Birthrates throughout much of the Islamic world have fallen rapidly over the last generation. The most extreme case is Iran, where according to the United Nations projections, the average woman of child-bearing age will wind up having only about 1.7 children over her lifetime. This falls below the projected rate in Sweden and France and is comparable to that of non-Hispanic whites in the United States. The decline in Muslim fertility is dramatic in many ways. For one, it contradicts the old Malthusian notion that mankind will everywhere breed beyond limits of available resources, and that the planet faces the inevitable prospect of overpopulation. It also contradicts the still common belief that fertility decline is a phenomenon unique to advanced industrial nations.
Yet it also important to get the numbers right and keep them in context before building up some grand theory of history, let alone using them to build a case for another war in the Middle East. On the first page of his book, Goldman sweepingly asserts: “The Muslim World is on the brink of the fastest population decline in recorded history.” This is demonstrably untrue, at least if by “brink” one means anytime soon. Birthrates in the Muslim world may be falling, but so are rates in child and infant mortality. Moreover, a very high proportion of women in most Muslim countries are now of childbearing age, due to the high rates of population growth that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. This means that even as each one of these women typically has substantially fewer children than her mother did, population still keeps growing robustly, and will do so for decades to come.
Thus, for example, at current fertility rates, the population of Pakistan, which is currently 174 million, will reach nearly a billion by the end of the century. Even after assuming further declines in the fertility rates of North Africa, the United Nation projects that the region’s population will increase by nearly a third between 2010 and 2030 and by more than two-thirds by 2085. In Iran, current fertility rates are still high enough to swell the current population by 27 percent by 2050, according to the UN, due to declining mortality and the high number of women currently of childbearing age. Demographers refer to the phenomenon at work as “population momentum.” Goldman seems never to have heard of it.
Which is why, presumably, he blithely pushes forward from his false first premise to make even more bizarre leaps of fact and logic. By the end he would have his readers believe that Islam’s falling fertility is proof that it is faithless, dying civilization and that for this very reason Islam threatens the world with nihilistic violence that must be met by violence. Because of his writing’s inconsistencies and blog-like qualities, it is difficult to offer a coherent description of his argument, but the following syllogism represents a good-faith effort:
One question that leaps to mind: Why isn’t Goldman more worried about countries like Poland, Italy, Japan, and South Korea lashing out with nihilistic violence? After all, these are countries that, unlike any in the Muslim world, are actually shrinking in population. And what about Canada, which has lower birthrates than Iran? Goldman’s committed to the premise that any nation with low fertility is “dying” and that dying nations “embrace death through infertility, concupiscence, and war.” At best I can see, he has no answer—at least no answer rooted in Universal Laws of History. Instead, he breezes by the contradiction by asserting: “Whereas Europe tends toward pacifism because it knows it has nothing to gain from aggression, Iran tends toward belligerence because it knows it has nothing to lose.”
The Limits of Spengler’s Laws
As if he is aware of the inadequacy of this response, Goldman offers all sorts of arguments traceable not to conclusions that he draws from demographic determinism but rather to what he considers the theo-logical deficiencies of Islam. The religion, we are told, is “pagan parody of Judaism and Christianity.” Rather than offering its adherents a true covenant with a loving God, it offers up an Allah who “is beyond good and evil,” and who promises believers nothing more than “success, just as a soldier is rewarded for bravery in battle by a king.” This means, he goes to explain, that when Muslims meet with worldly adversity, the experience causes a crisis of faith and consequent infertility and nihilism—unlike, or to a much greater degree, he argues, that faced by Christians and Jews who face reversals in life. He does not ponder why the real and perceived humiliations experienced by Islamic people since at least the fall of the Ottoman Empire did not long ago lead to a collapse in their birthrates.
One might also wonder: If Islamic theology itself is inherently less life-affirming than Christianity, as Goldman claims, why did the modern trend of falling birthrates begin in Europe, the citadel of Christendom? Here at least, he attempts to wrestle with the contradiction. He suggests that Europe never was truly Christian. Even in the Middle Ages, the Church was just the handmaiden of scheming kings like Charlemagne, he explains. Any remnant of true Christianity in Europe vanished in the seventeenth century during the Thirty Years War, when “European nations without exception chose national idolatry before Christian universality.” By contrast, it was the “new Americans”—starting with the New England Puritans—who built the only true Christian nation, which is what accounts, he says, for America’s comparatively high birthrate.
Yet the contradictions continue to mount. America’s original Puritan stock fell into such demographic decline that Theodore Roosevelt was fulminating a hundred years ago about the country having committed “race suicide” (as Allan Carlson usefully reminds us in The “American Way”). Never mind that the United States would have roughly the same birthrate of both Iran and Europe were it not for its very high rates of (mostly Catholic) immigration. And never mind that U.S. birthrates have dropped rapidly in recent years and are now below replacement rates.
It’s true that American Protestants of an intentionally conservative stripe tend to have more children than do their secular counterparts, but they are no more fecund than Catholic, Islamic, or Jewish “fundamentalists.” It may also be true that the current regime in Iran is dangerous or even nihilistic. And it may be that Iran is growing even more radical because of reactionary fears about what the empowerment of women might mean for traditional Islamic culture. But none of this provides confirmation for Goldman’s Universal Laws of History, let alone supports his conclusion that it’s high time to bomb Iran.
The most demography alone can tell us about the future of the Middle East is that the region will become middle-aged over the next few decades. In Iran, for example, the median age will jump from 18 years at the time of the Revolution to somewhere north of 50 years by 2065, according to UN projections. By that time, the “youth bulges” that marked Iran and many other Islamic nations in the 1970s and 1980s will have long since given way to inverted population pyramids of today’s Japan or Spain—countries that were once violent, imperialistic, even nihilistic powers when they teemed with youthful manpower, but that are now too old to threaten anyone. A nation in which the single-child family becomes the norm does not send forth its few sons to be conquistadors or kamikaze pilots—at least not so far. If demographic history is any guide, then Iranian society of the next generation is more likely to be worried about the cost of health care and retirement than the imperatives of jihad.
But of course, demographic history may not be a guide. Japan and the West had the opportunity to grow rich before they grew old. Iran, despite its oil, is still a poor country, and most other Islamic countries are poorer yet, even as their populations age at a pace faster than that ever experienced elsewhere in the world. At the same time, most Western countries will see their overall populations continue to grow for decades, due primarily to the swelling ranks of middle aged and older citizens, aggravating already intense competition for water and other resources—even as children become increasingly scarce. Mankind has quite literally never before experienced such a revolution in its demographics. Whether it leads to an outbreak of “geriatric peace,” as some have theorized, or to a breakdown of the global economy and the rule of law, is anybody’s guess, because we have never been here before.
Mr. Longman, the author of The Empty Cradle: Why Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It, writes frequently on the implications of falling fertility and global aging.