Der Spiegel tells the story of a man who sells of pews and furniture from dying churches. And he is doing a land-office business. “Some 4,400 church buildings remain in the Netherlands. But each week, around two close their doors forever. This mainly affects the Catholics, who will be forced to offload half of their churches in the coming years. ‘And that’s just the beginning,’ says de Beyer.”
For years the number of faithful has been declining. The trend has swept across all of Western Europe, with churches forced to close in France and Belgium too. But in the Netherlands, Christianity’s retreat from society has been particularly drastic. The Protestant Church alone loses some 60,000 members each year. At this rate, it will cease to exist there by 2050, church officials say.
de Beyer thinks of himself as a rescuer of temples. He wants to preserve their value. His instructions are meant to help distinguish between the valuable and the worthless. He often personally shows up to the churches to provide guidance and support. Pews and Bibles are usually sold to members of the congregation.
“Altars often find new places in Eastern Europe,” says de Beyer. “There’s a big demand there because new churches are always being built.”
But it isn’t just the churches that are dying. Mark Steyn writes that Europe itself is racing its old churches to the graveyard. It isn’t just the churches that boarding up the windows. It’s the factories, the schools and the families.
The problem with the advanced West is not that it’s broke but that it’s old and barren. Which explains why it’s broke. Take Greece, which has now become the most convenient shorthand for sovereign insolvency — “America’s heading for the same fate as Greece if we don’t change course,” etc. So Greece has a spending problem, a revenue problem, something along those lines, right? At a superficial level, yes. But the underlying issue is more primal: It has one of the lowest fertility rates on the planet. In Greece, 100 grandparents have 42 grandchildren — i.e., the family tree is upside down. In a social-democratic state where workers in “hazardous” professions (such as, er, hairdressing) retire at 50, there aren’t enough young people around to pay for your three-decade retirement. And there are unlikely ever to be again.
The New York Times featured the town of Laviano in Italy. Only half its houses were occupied. But any closures of its churches were the least of its problems. It’s problem was even worse: it didn’t have enough kids to keep the schools open. The newly elected mayor “racked his brain and came up with a desperate idea: pay women to have babies.”
Laviano is not unique in Italy, or in Europe. In fact, it may be a harbinger. In the 1990s, European demographers began noticing a downward trend in population across the Continent and behind it a sharply falling birthrate. …
For the first time on record, birthrates in southern and Eastern Europe had dropped below 1.3. For the demographers, this number had a special mathematical portent. At that rate, a country’s population would be cut in half in 45 years, creating a falling-off-a-cliff effect from which it would be nearly impossible to recover. Kohler and his colleagues invented an ominous new term for the phenomenon: “lowest-low fertility.”
What happened? The problem as Steyn succinctly puts it, is that socialism not only “runs out of other people’s money”, as Margaret Thatcher once put it. It simply runs out of people. Future historians, if there are any left, will puzzle over how this came about. The economists will have an easier time explaining it. Through some process, socialism has apparently increased the discount rate to the point where the future is consumed for the sake of the present. Not only is investment taxed to feed consumption, tomorrow is hocked to pay for today.
If the fiscal deficit is the direct monetary expression of this high discount rate, the collapsing population is its equivalent demographic expression. Both are saying the same thing, in different terms. In incentives terms, the future is no longer real; so people don’t save up for it nor do they have any incentive to sacrifice for it.
Steyn points out that one feeds into the other. By failing to provide for the next generation to feed present consumption, the present West has also reduced its capacity to service the debt when tomorrow rolls around.
As Angela Merkel pointed out in 2009, for Germany an Obama-sized stimulus was out of the question simply because its foreign creditors know there are not enough young Germans around ever to repay it. The Continent’s economic “powerhouse” has the highest proportion of childless women in Europe: One in three fräulein have checked out of the motherhood business entirely. “Germany’s working-age population is likely to decrease 30 percent over the next few decades,” says Steffen Kröhnert of the Berlin Institute for Population Development. “Rural areas will see a massive population decline and some villages will simply disappear.”
If the problem with socialism is, as Mrs. Thatcher says, that eventually you run out of other people’s money, much of the West has advanced to the next stage: It’s run out of other people, period. Greece is a land of ever fewer customers and fewer workers but ever more retirees and more government.
Ironically this outcome was baked into socialism from the beginning. It was suspicious of “tomorrow”– that place where the worker would enjoy his benefits — and preferred to consume things today. The most hated tomorrow in socialist opinion was the Christian heaven. It was the “opiate of the people”; the object to which they lifted their eyes the better not to see the miseries of the present. The sooner man was rid of heaven and its earthly equivalents, the nation or the country, the better the new man would be. As John Lennon knew, the best way to understand socialism is to imagine a world without tomorrow.
Imagine there’s no heaven.
It’s easy if you try.
No hell below us, above us only sky.
Imagine all the people living for today.
And that is precisely what the welfare state consisted of. Living for today. Social security is a perfect example. It was never a “fund”; it was never anything more than a payroll tax moving money from young workers to old workers. For it while it seemed to work, but only because the West was running on the legacy of a generation that believed in tomorrow and had sacrificed its life and youth in World War 2 to secure it. The “living for today” lifestyle resulted in the spectacular party some may remember at the end of the 20th century: an era that valued unlimited sex, unlimited welfare, and sacrifice for God and country not at all.
Imagine there’s no countries.
It isn’t hard to do.
Nothing to kill or die for.
And no religion too.
And then the music stopped. This was the silent scene where we came in at the beginning of the screening: the churches closing at the rate of two a week; the factories closing even faster. What Lennon failed to grasp was that any society that had nothing it would sacrifice for would find nothing worth investing in. And so here we are, dragging on the end of our smokes, tipping over any bottles that still might contain some wine. Because the vineyards are barren and will stay that way. The ultimate problem with “living for today” is that tomorrow eventually comes.