Monday, July 30, 2007

It's The End of the World As We Know It

I've noticed a change in how Western Civilization is described recently. It's almost like some are gleeful that it's almost over. Why wait for tomorrow? Some write the glowing post-mortem today:

There is no reason a nation with a shrinking population cannot maintain steady rates of GDP per capita growth if mechanization and labour productivity gains keep up a good pace. Indeed, George Mason economist Robin Hanson argues that soon enough robots will be doing almost all the jobs [pdf] anyway. So it is easy enough to imagine a country that maintains a high standard of living as the population eventually shrinks to ... nothing. People differ rather vehemently on this issue, but I see nothing wrong with a population dwindling away entirely, as long as living conditions remain high. All individual lives come to an end, but they are not therefore worthless. Societies don't last forever either, and neither do nation-states. A society that fades away in high style might count as a spectacular human triumph, not a failure. Where's the underprovided public good in steady-growth population decline?
Who cares about the Western world? Societies eventually die. If it dies in this generation, but dies in style, fantastic. The article was written by an economist calling into question the notion that children are a public good. Some aren't a public good, I'll grant him that. Neither are some economists.

I would like to suggest that the chances of Western Civilization going out in style are slim to none without military to protect it. Forget about breeding workers to feed the pensions. The wealthy and childless don't need a pension anyway. They have their money. Who cares about the dull-witted and poor? Tough bananas. They're going to die one way or another.

Actually, with a dwindling population, the rich and poor will likely die in the same way: at the point of a sword.

The Western world may be run by a world of robots, but someone has to run the robots. And a wealthy society, as fat and old as Europe, is ripe for the picking by a younger, hungrier bunch.

I think the save the earth, one-child types might want to consider how they want to meet their Maker. It is unlikely they will go out while communing with nature. It is more likely they'll go out communing with human nature.

H/T Glenn Reynolds


David said...

The brilliant Italian blogger "Joy of Knitting" (who mysteriously disappeared) once observed that there are many people who want to "dance on the ruins."

I think it would be a much less thrilling experience than they imagine it to be.

Anonymous said...

You may want to check that last sentence.

Melissa Clouthier said...

Oops! Thanks for the heads up. It's nigh to impossible to write with a wiggling two year old on your lap, but I do my best.

Anonymous said...

Malthus's Second Postulate basically says: "Weathy societies have relatively few children - just replacement rate".

All over the world, as societies come out if the Agrarian Age and hit the Industrial Age or, better yet, the Information Age, they get lower birth rates, better lving standards and longer lifespans.

Luckily for us, they also get firepower beyond imagining. One young Air Force Segreant is currently the deadliest man alive: in 2002 he killed an entire Taliban brigade of 3000+ infantry, 20+ tanks and 40+ artillery pieces by directing individual JDAMs against them - while sitting on horseback. All of the delivering aircraft were flying above the cloud cover and were immune to ground fire- and invisible to the taget population.

Do not fear the Future: revel in it.

- OldFan

Melissa Clouthier said...


You make a good point.

To which I would ask: When the West gets so fat and self-satisfied will they have the will to unleash said Air Force Sergeant?

David said...

Oldfan...where did you get that Malthus postulate? What I found was:

"I think I may fairly make two postulata.

o First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.
o Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state."

Indeed, from his phrasing of this second postulate it doesn't sound like he even considered the possibility that sex could ever be decoupled from reproduction.