Mark Steyn is one of those writers on the “right” who, I suspect, are admired by the sort of folk who read this blog. He is very funny: some of his takedowns on movies and politics have got me laughing out loud. (P.J. O’Rourke remains the Emperor and tends to be less pessimistic and is more libertarian). I mostly supported Steyn’s take on the case for overthrowing Saddam – although I get the impression that he has gone rather quiet due to the mess of the subsequent Coalition occupation of that tortured country. More recently, Steyn has pushed the following thesis: Europe is headed for an Islamist takeover because Those People are, to use the late Orianna Fallaci’s charming expression, “breeding like rats”, and that in 20 years’ time, they’ll be beheading criminals in Birmingham, forcing women to cover up on the Cote’ D’Azur, and they’ll be no more boozing in the Munich Oktoberfest. We are, as Private Frazer would say in Dad’s Army, the old British sitcom, all doomed. No wonder a certain kind of American who tends to despise those “commie Europeans”, is lapping it up.
Steyn bases his thesis on demography. It is both the core but also the main weakness of his book. The problem I have with all such predictions is that the variables have a nasty habit of changing. Even a small change in the birth rate can have a huge impact on the subsequent growth rate of a population set. It is a bit like the law of compound interest. Even a small increase in cost of borrowing money or the yield on a stock can, over 10 years, make a big difference to a mutual fund or the size of your mortgage. Population growth statistics and predictions are like that. Remember the doomongering population scientist Paul Ehrlich? He bet that, by around now, the world’s population would have expanded so fast that we would be starving to death. As the late Julian L. Simon pointed out at the time, Ehrlich’s prediction was hooey. Erhlich overlooked a rather universal trait: as people get richer and no longer have to rely on big families to support parents in their dotage, birth rates fall. It seems to happen pretty much everywhere, including in those countries with very different religious and cultural traditions.
This makes me wonder a bit about whether Steyn is over-egging the point. Demographics is clearly a vital issue, not least in explaining why European growth rates might remain sluggish in the decades ahead. But I cannot help but wonder that Steyn is making the sort of bold extrapolations on population that he would be the first to mock if it was, say, the latest prediction about global warming. Conservatives like Steyn are usually skeptics about Big Predictions, so it seems a bit odd that he has taken up the demographic prediction game with such enthusiasm.
I do not think Steyn is a racist, although in a rather overheated review of his latest book, Johann Hari comes close to making that charge, although even Hari admits that Steyn makes some important points about the follies of multiculturalism and agrees that there is a serious problem with Islamic fundamentalism. But I think Hari does make the important point of questioning whether Steyn has let his own pessimism get the better of him.