The New Shakers

Although you can’t expect it to compete for headlines with important stories like Greta Van Susteren’s latest suburban murder obsession or the incredible worldwide implications of snow in New York (which just coincidentally is headquarters for America’s self-important media), Western Civilization is dying.

We are dying, quite simply, for lack of children. The problem is most pronounced in parts of Europe, where people are having so few children that populations are contracting by 30% to 50% each generation.

Other than the Black Death and a few other select moments in world history, such population collapses are unprecedented. This demographic implosion will result in the collapse of our economic systems, military power and welfare states. Two of these potential losses concern me.

One would never know it from the highly successful war on children that has been waged for decades in the name of reproductive freedom, progress and liberating women from soul-killing motherhood, but people are an economic asset. In the end, a nation’s economy is merely the sum of its human labor. Small societies can prosper by efficient use of labor, but I doubt that shrinking societies can, as the output of the young is parasitized by a huge population of expensive seniors and an economic infrastructure several sizes too big.

Can one child be expected to support himself and both retired parents, while raising and educating a family of his own and being taxed for the debts and maintenance obligations of a nation twice the size of his current society?

There is also a critical mass required for certain economic endeavors, and efficiencies of scale apply to economies as well as to individual businesses. The population of Iceland is better educated than that of America. (Oh hush. It is.) But the economy of Iceland is not simply a smaller version of that of America or Germany or even Scandinavia. There are whole industries that simply don’t exist in a small country like Iceland, compared to more populous nations of similar culture and education.

America can have a thriving self-perpetuating community of 1,000 super-specialized engineers focused just on improving shoes. Germany can have an entire industry built around aftermarket parts for one type of scooter. Iceland cannot do such things. Two heads really are better than one. Innovation and specialization benefit from large numbers.

And even if a nation actually achieved the incredible economic feat of maintaining per capita economic activity while withering away in population, who is to say that other, more populous (and less wealthy) nations won’t decide to redistribute world resources in their favor? The root cause of the nation-state is its ability to field collective violence against adversaries, either defensively or aggressively.

In other words, nations have come to exist, in a rather Darwinian fashion, because they can produce armies. An army can then protect the lives, territory and property of the nation that produces it. Alternatively, when the historical mood strikes a nation, an army is also useful for taking the lives, territory and property of another people without so nice an army.

As many of the native peoples of America can attest, simply being there first and drawing a line around the place is no guarantee that another people won’t redraw the lines on their behalf. Borders may seem fixed to this myopic age that once declared an end to history. But they are really just steady-states arrived at where the force of one people pushing out becomes more or less equal to the opposite force of a neighboring people pushing back.

Some have made the fanciful declaration that a shrinking population just means more room and stuff for each generation while everything remains rosy all the while. This idea, by extension, implies that things will be really, really great for the last child born into a declining society, who gets to be President and own the whole place!

But this is fantasy, especially when there are other societies nearby (or within) that do not wither, but grow. Growing Iran will soon surpass shrinking Russia in population and will also soon join her in having nuclear weapons. How long will Iran remain crowded within her small borders when the rebellious Muslim provinces of southern Russia lie just across an imaginary line on the map?

Most economists and political scientists, though, recognize that a continuously and rapidly shrinking population has highly undesirable consequences. But very few seem to want to address the issue in the obvious manner: encourage people to have more kids. Instead, immigration is put forward as the easy solution.

This is a theory especially favored by the economics minded, who seem to see people as interchangeable parts. If the supply runs low in Bavaria, just import a trainload from Turkey. “Labor” is a commodity after all, like wheat or oil or ball bearings. Except that not all societies benefit equally from this commodity, since a Turk is not a German, who is not a Japanese, who is not a Kansan. Culture matters, to counterfeit a phrase.

Assimilation, then, is always the answer to this issue when it is broached. True -except that in assimilating immigrants into a dying culture, you teach them the ways of a dying culture. Once successfully assimilated, the birth rate of the immigrant stock drops to the level of the host population and they begin to whither away as well. So you need to forever import more people, then successfully assimilate them to your aversion to children in this model.

Of course, should the host society fail to assimilate even a portion of the immigrants to their child-o-phobic worldview, the unassimilated alien culture will replace the host culture in just a few generations. Those are your choices if you fail to have a healthy self-perpetuating society: assimilate newcomers ad infinitum to your childless ways, or be replaced by the first group that doesn’t buy the cult of sterility.

Darwin’s laws apply equally to nematodes and nations. You reproduce your kind or you disappear. So how well does the concept of cultural reproduction via assimilation work compared to good old-fashioned biological reproduction and child rearing?

Let’s ask the Shakers. Today they are known primarily for the artifacts they left behind — especially “Shaker-style” furniture. But the Shakers were at one time a successful American subculture. The religious movement was born in England and came to America in colonial times. During “The Second Great Awakening,” a nationwide period of religious revival in the early 1800s, the group began to spread. This was truly amazing because they did not believe in having children. The growth of the Shaker culture was entirely due to conversion, which is rather like assimilation.

The group was well educated, industrious, well thought of and prosperous. Like modern societies, they were prosperous in part because they had so much time to work and shared so little of their resources with children. They lived in separate communities of celibate men and women where they raised the few previous children of converts in Shaker ways. They were innovative and skilled craftsmen and their communal economy worked well, attracting more than enough assimilable converts for many decades.

But then one day, the converts stopped coming. Had the Shakers had their own children, like the Mormons, another industrious group born of this same Awakening, they might now be a large and successful movement. But today they are a curiosity and their culture is a flea market find. That is how reliable cultural recruitment is, compared to having and raising families. The Shakers seem really quite odd to us nowadays.

But they shouldn’t. Today we are the new Shakers: an economically successful and orderly — but sterile — group, recruiting our next generation from the unbelievers and thinking it can all last until the end-time. The Shaker religion practiced celibacy as the ideal, and our secular religion practices a non-reproductive mutual masturbation as the ideal — but evolutionarily these are entirely equivalent.

One day, perhaps, collectors will marvel over the quality of an antique “BMW” — made by an extinct and skilled people called “The Germans,” or they may admire the sense of style of that long-gone group, “The Italians” — just as we marvel over the artifacts of the Shakers in our own time.

We will probably seem strange to the future, where children will be considered desirable and normal again — because the future will belong to those that have children. They will assimilate the remnants of our world into their culture.

The Shakers were trying to get into heaven. I’m not sure what we’re trying to do.