The West and the Rest – A Race

There is something of a global, political, economic, and demographic race on. On one side, we have Western and Western-class countries with their open and transparent societies, ethos of tolerance, respect for individual liberties, adherence to the rule of law, and robust economies. On the other side, are various authoritarian countries, that use ideology or religion as a yoke to control their populations. In terms of wealth, growth, and technological leadership, there is a large gulf between the West and the rest.

However, the fertility rates of Western and Western-class countries are rapidly decreasing. In countries like Italy and Spain fertility is far far less than what is required for replacement. In Western Europe, the fertility rate is about a third less than required for replacement. Residents of the United States are not producing children at a rate necessary for replacement. Were it not for immigration, the population of the United States would be decreasing. Though there are a few countries like China that have used Draconian methods to limit population growth and others that match high birth rates with an AIDS epidemic so pervasive that there is the threat of population decreases, the population in developing countries is growing far more rapidly than in developed countries. Even with an expected drop-off in the fertility in developing countries, the ratio of people living there to those in developed countries will significantly increase this century.

It does not take much of an imagination to realize that unsuccessful leaders in developing countries will find the West convenient targets for demagoguery. The assertion that “We are poor, because the West is rich,” has a saliency in the developing world and insolates local repressive leaders from accountability. Unless developing countries can be rapidly integrated into the world economy and unless living standards begin to approach those of the West, there is a strong potential for political instability and increased terrorism. The race is whether these developing countries can achieve some level of economic prosperity before the developed and undeveloped worlds come into more conflict.

The Middle East, particularly the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, is an extreme example of this phenomenon. While Israel is a relatively affluent country, it floats in a sea of despair and economic stagnation. Much of this economic stagnation is a consequence of the authoritarian rule by Palestinian leaders, pervasive corruption, and a consequence of the devotion resources to arms and security as opposed to economic development. This economic despair combined with a culture of misogyny causes birth rates that are so high that it is difficult for any economic development to keep pace. In the West Bank, the Palestinian fertility rate is 5.8 children per woman in a lifetime, far in excess of the 2.1 replacement rate. In the Gaza Strip the rate is an astounding 7.8. It is small wonder that life has become so worthless, that suicide bombers seem to be a renewable resource.

The best foreseeable near-term outcome for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is some sort of agreement where Palestinian leadership, not intent on the destruction of Israel, agrees to live with borders roughly corresponding to the 1967 borders between Jordan and Israel. Even given such an outcome, unless there is very rapid economic development on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the world will be faced with an Israel of modest population density, bordered by high population density areas of relative poverty. No political accommodation can withstand this extreme level of economic disparity. Any honest armistice between the Palestinians and Israelis must be accompanied by intensive economic development. Unfortunately, hopes for the necessary cultural and economic changes are probably more desperate for than those for political change in Palestinian-controlled areas. Without political peace, adoption of a Western economic model, and perhaps massive economic aid to the area, one lap of the world race will likely be lost here.

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