Monday, January 09, 2006

Fertility and immigration

This month's New Criterion has an excellent essay about demography, by Mark Steyn (also published in Opinion Journal) which has been making the rounds of the blogosphere. I generally agree with what he says: low fertility and dropping populations is, it seems to me, a very serious problem that the Western world is facing:
Most people reading this have strong stomachs, so let me lay it out as baldly as I can: Much of what we loosely call the Western world will not survive this century, and much of it will effectively disappear within our lifetimes, including many if not most Western European countries. There'll probably still be a geographical area on the map marked as Italy or the Netherlands--probably--just as in Istanbul there's still a building called St. Sophia's Cathedral. But it's not a cathedral; it's merely a designation for a piece of real estate. Likewise, Italy and the Netherlands will merely be designations for real estate. The challenge for those who reckon Western civilization is on balance better than the alternatives is to figure out a way to save at least some parts of the West.
Do read the whole thing. That said, it should be kept in mind that population projections have proven wrong before, and as the Muslim world (and the rest of the third world) develops and hopefully modernises both economically and intellectually, its population wave will wane too. Meanwhile this week's Economist has an editorial about how declining population could be construed as a positive sign:
The crucial question is therefore what the effect of demographic decline is on the growth of GDP per person. The bad news is that this looks likely to slow because working-age populations will decline more rapidly than overall populations. Yet this need not happen. Productivity growth may keep up growth in GDP per person: as labour becomes scarcer, and pressure to introduce new technologies to boost workers' efficiency increases, so the productivity of labour may rise faster. Anyway, retirement ages can be lifted to increase the supply of labour even when the population is declining.
People love to worry—maybe it's a symptom of ageing populations—but the gloom surrounding population declines misses the main point. The new demographics that are causing populations to age and to shrink are something to celebrate. Humanity was once caught in the trap of high fertility and high mortality. Now it has escaped into the freedom of low fertility and low mortality. Women's control over the number of children they have is an unqualified good—as is the average person's enjoyment, in rich countries, of ten more years of life than they had in 1960. Politicians may fear the decline of their nations' economic prowess, but people should celebrate the new demographics as heralding a golden age.
I think The Economist is taking a rather cavalier attitude towards the fact that the reform needed to maintain (or even increase) GDP per person is not likely to be implemented anytime soon (at least in Europe).
In addition, I think an important distinction should be made between the US and most of Europe, independently of their specific rates of fertility: the US has significant inflows of immigrants who mostly have a strong desire and commitment to integrate into the surrounding society (nobody in their right mind would move to the US because of the social security or the unemployment benefits), and, in my experience, they are almost unquestioningly accepted as Americans by the "locals," rather quickly after arrival. Conversely, many of the people immigrating into Europe, are here for the money they can squeeze out of the various states, and therefore have little incentive to integrate and learn the host-country's language, usually a precondition to finding gainful employment. As a result they keep to themselves, weigh on the host-country's finances, and are regarded with resentment by the original population. This in turn fosters hostility on the part of the immigrants, and results in a total failure to integrate them into the intellectual and cultural framework of Europe. I perceive this as a major threat, and I think it needs to be urgently adressed. Mind, its cause is not the immigration, but (I believe) in most cases the institutional framework, incentives and attitutes most immigrants find on arrival.
Therefore Europe clearly needs to change the way it views and treats immigrants. It should open its borders to accept more people, cut back its social security (for all of us), accept only people who have proven they are willing and able to integrate (as well as refugees, of course), and give all immigrants strong incentives to make themselves useful. Ironically, many of the wrong-headed policies that create problematic immigration also damage the economy as a whole - all the more reason to get rid of them.
Engendering these positive immigration flows will ensure the continuing pre-eminence of the Western view of the world, as our populations remain stable or grow, and as our mostly superior intellectual framework is brought back and spread around the world by successful and sympathetic immigrants returning to their lands of origin.

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