Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Numbers Matter

I have come across a fascinating interview with Gunnar Heinsohn, a German historian, at Gates of Vienna (along with a lot of apocalyptic commentary about Europe’s likely future) about the “Youth Bulge” theory of historical events. This view holds that large numbers of idle young men cause much of history’s trouble. (A more sober Financial Times review of Prof. Heinsohn’s book, which is unavailable in English, is here.)

Every term when I talk about the sustainability of the Chinese miracle, one of the things I tell my students is that there are already significant gaps in the first few years of life of men over women, in proportions far larger than normal. This gap has been growing for some time, a result of the one-child policy of China’s government combined with a cultural preference for boys. I tell my students that this portends social instability in China because angry young men, especially at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, with no wives to socialize them and no jobs to occupy them are the seeds of social upheaval. And in recent years there has in fact been a huge surge in protests in China over land seizures. The idea of idle young men causing a fair amount of the troubles documented in the world’s history books is the only idea offered up in any of my classes that some of my students greet with outright laughter. (Believing in free markets in ideas, I tolerate this good-naturedly.)

It is Prof. Heinsohn’s provocative claim that most interpretations of the great events of history are bunk, in that the ideological causes that drive war, peace and conquest are not the root causes; demographics are. Any society with enough idle young men will have violence of all sorts, and any ideology accompanying the violence is just the sheen on the phenomenon, not the phenomenon itself.

If so, the violence in the Arab world over Palestine, American troops in Iraq, the lack of an Islamist government over Algeria or whatever is simply going to get worse for awhile; there is no pacifying it. The good news is that the jihad may be living on borrowed time; the always-provocative Spengler claimed two years ago that the jihad is going to start running out of fuel some time in the middle of the next decade.

It is a rather dispiriting view of history – the idea of ignoring ideas because they don’t matter; only raw biological energy does. Human society is just a glorified baboon tribe, with fancier tools. But like any view, the only thing that matters is how well it fits the facts.



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