Random thoughts on Buchanan's The Death of the West

  • Buchanan's book is certainly a worthy competitor in the Big Picture Sweepstakes along with Francis Fukuyama's End of History and Samuel Huntington's Clash Of Civilizations (One of these days, I'm going to write my own entry in the Deep-Think-About-the-21st-Century genre, which I've tentatively entitled The Age of Resentment. Hey, you publishers offering six-figure advances - please stop jostling and form an orderly line!). It's obvious that the reduction of peoples of European-origin from one-fourth of the world's population in 1960 to a U.N. projected one-tenth in 2050 is an event of world-historical importance. Susan "The white race is the cancer of human history" Sontag must be pleased. But others might greet the news with trepidation.

  • There's an ironic paradox here that no one has noticed. Buchanan is more respectful of Third World peoples than are his numerous critics, who tend to be tacitly condescending toward non-Westerners. Buchanan presumes that Muslims, for instance, like being Muslims and would prefer to bring their culture with them as they move into historically-Christian lands. In contrast, most white liberal intellectuals assume - consciously or not - that population shifts don't matter because what the rest of the world really wants to be is a white liberal intellectual. Similarly, Buchanan asserts that when the ratio of Third Worlders to Westerners climbs dramatically, the current Western domination of the world will be threatened. In contrast, his neoconservative and neoliberal critics, who weekly call for the military to go punch out some Third World nation that has aroused their ire, assume that Western superiority is so overwhelming and eternal that raw numbers will never matter. To paraphrase Hillaire Belloc's acid tribute to the Maxim Gun as the foundation of the British Empire, the neos presume, "Whatever happens/ We have got / Stealth technology / And they do not."

  • I would have liked to have seen Buchanan include more chapters exploring demographic trends in even greater detail. For example, birthrates in much of the 3rd World are going down (the Arabian peninsula being a notable exception). This is often said to negate Buchanan's worries. However, "demographic momentum" means these countries will keep growing for decades even after they hit 2.1 children per woman. Unfortunately, "demographic momentum" is a difficult concept to grasp, and it's unfortunate that a superb explainer like Buchanan skipped over it. After 2050, or so, the Third World may also be shrinking rapidly, but that's a long way into the future to forecast. Buchanan's forecasts, which mostly come from the U.N., are fairly certain for the next quarter century.

  • Demographers' forecasts generally assume that in the long run, every group's fertility will converge at the replacement level of 2.1 babies per woman. They believe this for the scientific reason that, well, uh … well, it would be nice if that turned out to be true. Unfortunately, as physicist turned evolutionary theorist Gregory M. Cochran keeps pointing out, there's no particular reason to assume that post-modern cultures will ever get back to replacement-level reproduction. That doesn't mean the human race will go extinct. As Jim Chapin of UPI has pointed out, post-modern cultures might well be eventually pushed aside by whichever groups of religious fundamentalists - Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Wahhabi Islamists - best succeed in motivating their followers to have lots of children. This suggests an especially amusing irony. In this fundamentalist future, Buchanan would be looked back upon not as a reactionary, but as a liberal relic who offered some suggestions for raising the birthrate in an attempt to defend the old non-fundamentalist world.

  • Buchanan focuses mainly on Europe. (My column on how to raise the European birthrate is here.) The birthrate trends in the U.S. are less dire. According to data released today, in the economic boom year of 2000, the total fertility of women residing in America (2.13 babies per woman) exceeded the replacement rate for the first time since 1971. The fertility rate of women who were American citizens, however, was below replacement. Non-Hispanic white fertility stood at a recent high of 1.88 - much better than the European average, but still below replacement. Hispanic women in general averaged 3.11 (the highest figure seen since at least the 1980s) and women of Mexican descent 3.27. (The fertility of women of Mexican descent is higher in the U.S. than in Mexico, and shows no clear signs of declining any time soon.) That's 74% higher than the non-Hispanic white rate, but the effective difference is even larger because women of Mexican origin tend to give birth at younger ages, so their generation length is shorter.

  • Buchanan suggests that below-replacement birthrates are a result of the culture war that began in the 1960s. He uses this theory to justify his positions on a host of issues - such as Southern state flags - that seem at first glance (and sometimes at second) only tenuously related to birthrates. One could caricature Buchanan as not so much a man with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail, but more as a man with a lot of pre-existing nails who has found in birthrates what he hopes is the all-purpose hammer. Still, he makes a decent case that cultural demoralization plays a big role in this trend. He could have strengthened it by comparing birthrates among Americans on different sides of the culture war: for example, as I pointed out a couple of years ago, the white conservative state of Utah has a dramatically higher birth rate (2.76 per woman across all races in 2000) than the white liberal state of Vermont (1.57).

  • I had forgotten that Buchanan is such a master of polemical prose. For example, compare his three paragraphs on GOP electoral strategy on pp. 221-222 to the VDARE columns of mine that he's obviously condensing. I worked hard on my essays (such as this one). Yet, Buchanan's rewrite not only reads better, it can be understood by readers farther to the left on the IQ Bell Curve. You have to be awfully smart to write as simply as Buchanan.

  • In an age of identity politics, it's hard to criticize Buchanan for speaking out for the white working class. It's certainly courageous - not just the "white" part, but also the "working class" part. God knows there are plenty of pundits promoting the economic and cultural interests of the white upper-middle class. Further, no one has ever explained to me a universal moral principle under which it's hugely admirable to be, say, a black or Jewish spokesman, but execrable to speak out for the white working class. Still, I've long argued that the proper way to evaluate policies is not by focusing on race but on the legal category of American citizenship - does, say, our current immigration system optimally promote the general welfare of American citizens? (When phrased in those terms, the answer is obvious: No.)

  • Unfortunately, I fear that Buchanan's Death of the West is one of those books - like Herrnstein & Murray's The Bell Curve and Brimelow's Alien Nation - that are too powerfully argued for the good of the cause they espouse. You'll notice that in the wake of The Bell Curve, it has become practically illegal to mention the social effects of IQ. That's not because the book was refuted. Precisely the opposite has happened. It made such an overwhelming case that the entire topic had to be driven out of public discourse.

In Buchanan's case, see Christopher Caldwell of The Weekly Standard's curious review in the New York Times. Caldwell makes clear that he doesn't want to be associated with Buchanan. But he has almost nothing to say about the vast demographic change Buchanan has called to his attention, other than that it is "broad historical trend." (Thanks, Chris; never would have figured that out without your help!)

Within a year, I suspect, anyone who dares to mention global demographic changes will be shouted down as a "Buchananite."

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]

February 12, 2002