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Jay Currie

One Damn Thing After Another

3/08/2004

Niall Ferguson: Europe

I just finished Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War about WWI. About half the book was brilliant and the other half competent. The brilliant bits brought a creative and economically literate intelligence to the orgins and fighting of this first war of the European madness. When I saw he was delivering a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute I wanted to read it. The transcript is here. His subject was the end of Europe. That blunt.
I want to try to suggest to you that the end of Europe is not merely an economic phenomenon but will in fact prove to be a cultural phenomenon."
Ferguson's argument while not, in my view, terrifically interesting economically (Germany is the de facto economic engine of Europe and it is fast failing, to grossly summarize.), is crucial culturally. He segues from the purely economic to the social malaise he sees in Europe:
Between 1979 and the present, the length of the working year grew in the United States. Or, if you want to put it in more conventional terms, the vacation shrank. Precisely the opposite happened in Europe. In Europe, working hours diminished, vacations grew. Labor participation also diminished. Fewer and fewer of the population actually entered the labor market altogether. And that in many ways explains that differential in GDP growth rates as well as anything I could suggest to you. It's a little hint of what I'm going to say in a minute, that this, I think, is more than just an economic phenomenon. In some ways it is a symptom of that cultural malaise in Europe that I want to see as a critical part of the end of Europe.

To put it very crudely, it is the work ethic itself that has declined and fallen. And it is, I think, noteworthy that the decline in working hours is most pronounced in what were once distinctly Protestant countries of northwestern Europe. Once.
He adds to this the huge drop in the European birth rates and the resulting rise in the age of the Euro population.
The fundamental problem that Europe faces, more serious than anything I've mentioned so far, is senescence. It's a problem that we all face as individuals to varying degrees, but from society to society the problem of senescence, of growing old, varies hugely. In the year 2050, which is less remote than it may at first sound, current projections by the United Nations suggest that the median age of the European Union countries, the EU 15, will rise from 38 to 49.
He points to projections which have the German population falling from its present 82 million to 67 million in 2050. Ferguson acknowledges that the only way in which the Europeans will be able to maintain the population base needed to pay the benefits to their aging and work resistant populations will be immigaration. And where will that immigration come from? The Islamic nations which surround Europe and have birth rates twice to several times that of European states. What happens then? Or now?
Increasingly, European politics is dominated by a kind of dance of death as politicians and voters try desperately and vainly to prop up the moribund welfare states of the post-Second World War era, but above all to prop up what little remains of their traditional cultures.
Ferguson sees the end of Europe as roughly co-incident with the end of Europe as a Christian world.
The reality is that Europeans inhabit a post-Christian society that is economically, demographically, but, in my view, above all culturally a decadent society.
I quote Ferguson extensively because he is running a fundamentally important argument which I find intensely disturbing. Ferguson purports to be untroubled by what he sees as a demographic and cultural inevidability. On the other hand he is moving from England to America.

Canada has been in the midst of an undeclared cultural war which had its crowning moment when we decided to follow the Germans and the French in their refusal to join America and England in Iraq. To a degree our productivity statistics, our birth rate, our demographics, our capacity to believe in ourselves have trended away from America and towards Europe. The notion of a Canadian work ethic is steadily eroding.

We spend a good deal of time promoting an official culture of surprising medocrity while many of our best and most talented slip across the border to America.

The parallels are by no means exact. However, in the next decade Canadians are going to be confronted with a series of choices about what sort of country we want and how we mean to achieve it. One of the most basic of those choices will be whether to hitch our cart to Europe or America. Which model we look to will condition our answers to our internal dilemmas.

Decadence is more about morale and hope than it is about a particular state of economic or demographic affairs.