Kerry Howley, refusing to fret over birthrates and cultural change:
I'm not enough of a cultural hegemonist to care whether the people living on this particular piece of land maintain the dominant American culture into perpetuity; if, in the year 3000, the entire world is dominated by Danish mores, I will not feel slighted. Still, the “conversion versus inheritance” debate is a relatively unhelpful way to approach the issue. The word conversion suggests a wholesale repudiation of one set of beliefs and acceptance of another, but cultures shift as the result of millions of choices at the margin. Europe is rapidly secularizing; you wouldn't call that inheritance, nor would you call it conversion. (You might call it spiritual drift, though I tend to think they're drifting toward something better.) The conversion/inheritance framework assumes that the host culture remains static as outsiders bend to its dictates; it allows for no single person to claim a place in more than one tradition; and it fails to acknowledge that we are moving toward a more mobile society with ever more return and circular migration....
Part of the reason we find it so difficult to think about demographic change is that we fail to notice the goalposts changing around us. It’s true that the people we call social conservatives in this country are reproducing faster than the people we call social liberals. But what will it mean to be “conservative” in America a century from now? In 1908 being a social conservative meant something far less amenable to tolerance than “legal marriage is for straight people!” Yes, Utah’s birthrate is higher than that of Bangladesh. I don’t know how to worry about that particular factoid, because I have no idea what it will mean to be a socially conservative Mormon in 30 years. It certainly means something different today than it did 30 years back.
The point about the weakness of the conversion-versus-inheritance dichotomy is well taken. Saying that we shouldn't fear a Scandinavianized world, though, seems a little beside the point; as Poulos points out, "the question Kerry and her fellow travelers need to answer is whose mores they’d not want to take over the world, ever, under any circumstances." The fertility alarmists (the smarter ones, at least) aren't upset about the prospect that Western culture won't survive in exactly its current form; they're upset about the prospect that whatever Western culture emerges from those "millions of choices at the margin" will be changed for the worse by demographic pressure from cultures that look nothing at all like modern Denmark.
Now it's entirely possible that this alarmism is, well, alarmist, and certainly Kerry's right that the intersection of cultural and demographic change is way too complicated to be effectively predicted. But the mere fact that cultures don't stay static and that cultural change happens swiftly doesn't guarantee the endurance of liberal norms. What Kerry's banking on, perhaps correctly, is the fact that in the modern era, the sort of goalpost-shifting she's talking about has, in a broad sense, moved us consistently in a modern liberal, secular, Dane-like direction. But past results don't always predict future ones (to take a very extreme example, the Pax Romana was very good at assimilating barbarian tribes until, well, it wasn't), and at the most basic level, it remains the case that cultural norms are passed on more effectively from parents to children than in almost any other way that we've devised. Birthrates aren't the only factor in the survival of a given set of norms, but they are a factor, and not a small one either. And so while they may not offer good reasons for wild alarmism, I think falling birthrates among people who share your norms are at the very least a legitimate cause for concern, assuming you approve of the norms in question and disapprove of others.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.