Fear By Numbers

Alarmist politics in an age of reason

| June 8, 2006

The 21st century, for better or worse, is awash in information -- we know more about ourselves through charts and graphs now than at any other point in history. Population numbers, health statistics, human migration patterns -- the numbers seem to proliferate faster than the populations they describe. The numbers boom, in turn, has fueled an explosion of predictions that project us far into the future -- to the end of time, even. And while the figures may be consistently right, the predictions, so far, have been anything but.

In fact, if history is a worthy guide, such predictions have had less to do with hard numbers than they have had to do with a predilection for apocalyptical visions. If the dire prophesies issued forth from any number of political camps had proved true, writes Nicholas Eberstadt for The Wilson Quarterly, 'the 20th century should never have occurred at all.' Yet these nightmare scenarios persist. Either there will be too many people, and the world will plunge into scarcity-driven anarchy, or there will be too few, and the ageing masses will demand ever more from a shrinking labor force. From the Carter Administration's Global 2000 study and Al Gore's Earth in the Balance, to the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth, Eberstadt blasts the dire predictions -- from liberal groups and individuals -- that contain sensationalized visions of disaster as motivation for socially and environmentally progressive change.

Phillip Longman's vision of demographic trends, on the other hand, takes us in the opposite social direction. In 'The Return of Patriarchy', originally published in Foreign Policy, Longman starts with the axiomatic assertion that population equals power, suggesting that the West, and Liberal Democracy with it, could vanish into the night because of its declining birthrate. As liberals basically liberate themselves out of existence, patriarchal sectors of societies will take hold. Feminism, by his reasoning, is evolutionarily inferior to patriarchy. It's simply a numbers game, after all.

Longman, like so many before him, achieved the movement from statistical analysis to cultural diagnosis in just a few pages. Indeed, the link between demographic analysis and political discourse cannot be denied, suggest Michael S. Teitelbaum and Jay Winter in their response to a similar, earlier piece by Longman, published in Foreign Affairs. When a political or economic power's dogmatic certainty begins to waver, they suggest, 'many thinkers turn to demography for an explanation of its plight.'

Along with Longman, another such thinker is Stanley Kurtz, who called for the restoration of 'traditional' values in his 2005 article 'Demographics and the Culture War', published in Policy Review. Faced with declining birth rates, Kurtz asserted, we have three choices: 'at least a partial restoration of social values, a radical new eugenics, or endless and compounding population decline.' A grim scenario, indeed. Apparently, dystopia and social collapse lurk just around the corner unless we adopt more 'social values,' the antithesis of which Kurtz describes as '[s]ecularism, individualism, and feminism.' In Kurtz's view, then, this trio of terror (maybe a new 'axis of evil'?) is bringing the decline of civilization and must be reversed if culture as we know it is going to survive.

As Tietelbaum and Winter point out, '[w]e simply do not know enough to make daring claims such as Longman's,' which they accuse of being 'based on unproved or unprovable assertions.' Such claims, Eberstadt says, 'have always at heart been a guessing game.' Yet these 'dramatic and unproved visions of the future' persist, and so must be met with healthy skepticism especially when those visions are deployed in the service of overtly political agendas.