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Derek HoffBack to OpinionDerek Hoff

A modest proposal for a new population debate

The population of the United States is nearly 312 million, and projected to become 440 million by 2050. The U.S. has a higher fertility rate than such middle-income nations as Turkey, Chile and Brazil and is a demographic outlier among wealthy industrialized nations, many of which will see their populations decline in the coming decades. Arguments against population growth emanate from a few environmentalists and anti-immigration voices. And authors like Thomas Friedman worry about population in the context of high energy costs.

But a majority of American social scientists, policymakers and talking heads are celebrating the nation’s remarkable demographic enlargement. In fact, most commentators wish Americans would have still more babies – future workers – to pay baby boomers’ looming Social Security bill and avoid the economic stagnation threatening low-fertility nations like Italy and Japan. TV shows such as Kate Plus 8” celebrate large families. Conservative politicians dismiss environmentalists as the “‘people are pollution’ crowd.” When the U.S. population crossed the 300-million mark in 2006, The New York Times editorial page declared America’s “teeming immensity keeps us from going stale, and despite some people’s panic attacks, our population issues have mysterious ways of working themselves out. America has big problems, but it also has 300 million reasons to be hopeful.”
Blueprint America
Perhaps, but for too long, discussion of population growth’s possible harms has focused exclusively on dire warnings about human survival – the “panic attacks.” Americans should also consider whether a rising population might simply harm what used to be called, in gentler times, “quality of life.” The insistence on an invisible hand of childbirth that “mysteriously” solves population problems also reveals shifts in economic ideas that are shaping today’s population thinking.

The current celebration of population growth in the U.S. has a surprisingly recent lineage. Founders like Thomas Jefferson believed a larger population heralded the kind of crowded, commercial European society from which the colonists fled. The 19th century’s classical economists adopted the logic of Thomas Malthus, a British pastor who wrote in 1798 that population growth eventually swamps the supply of natural resources and drives wages to starvation levels. In the mid-20th century, Keynesian economics held that what matters is not the size of the population, but its saving and consumption patterns. Some Keynesians even argued that zero population growth would promote broadened consumption. And conservationists and intellectuals believed overpopulation created sprawl and reduced amenities like open space and quiet.

In the 1960s, surging population rates in the developing world, famine in India and a strengthening environmental movement instigated a radically Malthusian “zero population growth” movement. Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford biologist who wrote 1968’s “The Population Bomb” – “The battle to feed humanity is over,” it began – appeared on “The Tonight Show” several times. For a moment, the establishment jumped onto the doomsday wagon. William F. Buckley wrote in the National Review, “That old dog Malthus turned out to be very substantially correct in his dire predictions, and there seems to be no point in waiting until the United States is like India before moving in on the problem.”

The aesthetic critique persisted, too. In 1969, President Richard Nixon issued a special message on population, urging new polices to adjust to the additional 100 million Americans expected by the end of the century. “Food supplies may be ample,” he argued, but social supplies – the capacity to educate youth, to provide privacy and living space, to maintain the processes of open, democratic government – may be grievously strained.”

What caused the disappearances of not only “population bomb” rhetoric but also the milder quality of life critique? The causes include the bloated rhetoric of the Malthusians; the stagnation of the environmental movement and the breathtaking rise of climate change denialism; the ascendancy of evangelicalism (believers have more babies); the increase of immigration, which made liberals leery of the racial minefield always lurking on the edges of population politics; and post–Roe v. Wade abortion politics, which sucked population questions into “culture wars.”

The current dearth of meaningful dialogue about America’s unique demography also reflects the development of a bipartisan consensus celebrating the economic virtues of population growth. The disintegration of Keynesianism in the 1970s eviscerated the position that a rising population is entirely compatible with a growing economy. Around the same time, ascendant conservative economists reinvigorated the argument, traceable to Adam Smith, which insists that population expansion necessarily broadens the market, fosters innovation, creates efficiencies of scale, promotes liberty and simply produces more Mozarts and Einsteins. They also suggested an invisible hand of childbirth leads parents to rationally choose the right number of children in the interests of all.

We need a new and calmer conversation. There is little doubt that population growth both across the globe and in the high-consumption U.S. exacerbates climate change, species extinction and a lack of clean water. But we are a resilient species and we are not doomed. Instead of asking ourselves whether we can survive with continued population growth, we might return to the aesthetic discussion that resonated for much of the 20th century and ask ourselves whether we want to. Finally, we might confront the sacred cow that economic growth is dependent upon population growth. The time seems propitious to do, for few economists deny that ultimately it is ideas, not body counts, which drive economic growth in today’s information-based economies.

Derek Hoff is an assistant professor of history at Kansas State University and the author of soon-to-be published book “The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policymaking in United States History” (University of Chicago Press).