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Dear David Frum: U.S. Population Growth Is Not A Problem, It’s A Solution


In the April print edition of The Atlantic, David Frum has an article about immigration. His basic take is simple: because progressives have gone crazy and stopped exercising responsible management of immigration, fascists (his word, not mine) have taken over.

The solution, Frum suggests, is to cut immigration by even more than the Trump administration suggests. We can reasonably debate the correct amount of immigration. Americans are about evenly divided between people who want more, less, or about current levels of immigration, so I won’t try to solve that debate here. It’s far from clear how Frum thinks his argument will at all convince The Atlantic’s more progressive readership.

But Frum made one comment that simply cannot stand. He says:

Under present immigration policies, the U.S. population will exceed 400 million by 2050. Nobody is seriously planning for such population growth—building the schools and hospitals these people will need, planning for the traffic they will generate. Nobody is thinking very hard about the environmental consequences, either. The average American causes the emission of almost 17 tons of carbon dioxide each year, quadruple the annual emissions of the average Mexican and 45 times the emissions of the average Bangladeshi.

There are people planning for the 400 millionth American. There are people planning for, dreaming for, the billionth American. I am one of them. And the fact that David Frum has hysterics over 400 million people being in America 30 years from now reveals him as a declinist with no real vision for the country and little to offer its policymakers in terms of a way forward.

Frum Is Wrong On The Merits

First of all, Frum is just wrong that “nobody is seriously planning.” The entire reason he can cite that 400 million number is because the Census Bureau produces forecasts to support planning for the future! The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) produces long-run budget forecasts. Social Security trustees produce annual revisions to the trust fund’s outlook.

We make expensive repairs to highways, bridges, and trains to make them last for an extra 20, 50, or 80 years, precisely because we are planning for the future, whatever it may bring. Around the country, free market activists have attacked the destructive, controlling, blue-state policies of restrictive zoning precisely because they are planning for a future where America is much more populous.

There are, of course, people who aren’t planning a future for America. Declinists, who see around every corner a bugaboo much too scary for America to survive it, see no point in planning a future. Whether it’s big bad China, terribly scary global warming, or (gasp!) the extremely scary Muslims, the cowardice of American declinism is common.

It’s easy to find people who don’t believe in America anymore, who think that we do not now have the strength to achieve great things. It is sad but not entirely surprising that Frum is one of those declinists. His particular form of decline fantasy appears to be about domestic politics: immigration is creating such a large population of foreigners that it is hurting natives, and they are reacting with angry politics. This creates an intractable cycle, or what Frum’s fellow Atlantic writer Derek Thompson called a “doom loop,” whereby our politics become more and more divisive. Eventually, the country splits, and apparently at that point fellow Federalist writer Jesse Kelly and I have to fight it out to the death.

Frum echoes a specific kind of declinism––environmental declinism. His concerns are twofold: congestion, and carbon emissions. These basically both add up to a worry about overpopulation. But overpopulation concerns are clearly a major fear for folks on the left: from Paul Ehrlich’s apparently defused “population bomb” to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s musing about whether having a child is environmentally destructive, the fear Frum is citing is fundamentally the province of the left.

Indeed, fears about overpopulation go back at least to a wildly racist article by environmentalist Garrett Hardin, wherein he argued that governments should restrict reproduction to protect the environment. Hardin’s argument influenced future environmentalists, but he went on to have a career lobbying against immigration, and he helped found the major immigration-restrictionist group in America, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

Put bluntly, far from his usual schtick as a moderate, Frum has picked up a radical environmentalist argument that we need population control to save the climate. Of course, as I’ve demonstrated, population control will actually do absolutely nothing to help the environment.

So simply on the factual question, Frum is wrong. There are people planning for a future with many more Americans. They just have a key difference with Frum: they actually believe America can be great again.

A Bigger America Is a Better America

Contrary to Frum’s declinism, the actual solution to America’s problems is the same solution we used throughout our storied history: get bigger. Growth heals many wounds.

Indeed, the vicious cycle Frum and Thompson identify assumes one fact to be immutable: that native-born Americans will have a slow rate of population growth. Their assumption, the bedrock to their whole argument, is that there’s just nothing we can do to cause faster population growth among natives. Frum touches on this issue:

Some people look at migration pressures and see a solution. The 325 million Americans of 2017 gave birth to fewer babies than did the 160 million Americans of 1953. Without immigration, the U.S. population would age and then shrink. So would most European populations. Japan is leading the way to the dwindling future: In 2017, 1.34 million Japanese people died; only 946,000 were born.

Well I suppose my name is now Lyman Some People Stone, because yes, there’s a solution. Have more babies and fewer funerals.

Deaths of despair are wiping out a generation of prime-age Americans, reducing births, reducing the number of natives who can help integrate new migrants, and contributing to a culture of despair, hostility, and reaction. Luckily, we can do things about deaths of despair! Programs to provide rehab, counseling, mental health support, and better basic medical care, as well as systematic dismantling of cartels through aggressive law enforcement action, can together reduce deaths of despair.

We don’t just have to accept an ever-increasing pace of preventable deaths. We can beat suicide and drug overdoses just like we are beating heart disease and cancer and ISIS. To simply act like we have to accept that America’s future is one of ever-increasing drug overdoses is absurd, offensive, and in willful denial of the evidence. Many other countries have lower death rates than we do, and it turns out that different policy choices do result in more or less deaths. America can be greater.

The same goes for fertility. Fertility rates today are at their lowest point in American history. But this isn’t a product of some long-run turn against childbearing, it’s a very recent phenomenon. Just over a decade ago, we had above-replacement birth rates. We can get there again.

With sufficient support for families, with a turn back towards timely marriage, with a concerted effort to change cultural expectations and behaviors, with a little less hopelessness, we can have more babies, which, research shows, makes people happier. And with more babies, we get faster growth of the native-born population.

A return to replacement rate fertility and rising life expectancy would improve the population growth rate of native-born Americans by almost one million people per year. That’s a million extra Americans: a million extra workers, soldiers, voters, citizens. A million extra participants in the project of liberty and the experiment of self-governance.

That’s a million extra contributions toward making America bigger, better, and stronger than ever. Academic research shows compellingly that faster population growth yields a more dynamic economy, with less inequality, better wages, and more entrepreneurship. And of course it makes long-term obligations like Social Security more solvent.

With a faster pace of growth among natives, the foreign-born share of the population will tend to decline even if immigration continues at its current pace. More natives means easier integration.

In other words, Frum proposes a drastic cut to immigration as a way to manage the size of the foreign-born population, because he just can’t imagine a world where Americans work together to solve the problems that are keeping native population growth low. But if, instead, we choose to believe that America can still do great things, it’s transparently obvious that the better solution here is to try and fix the amount of opioid deaths and the lack of babies.

We’re Gonna Need Those Millions

The 21st century will present real challenges for America. One in particular is worth discussing at length: the return of China as a major geopolitical player. From 200 BC until 1850 AD, China was widely recognized by people anywhere in its sphere of contact as a major power, or even as the premier power. But then a series of disasters, including disastrously bad Chinese policy choices, and aggressive invasions by Western countries, threw China off course and yielded a lost century.

But over the last few decades, China has gotten back on track, and is reclaiming its ancient place as one of the premier powers. This rise concerns many Americans: China’s expansion challenges U.S. dominance of the western Pacific, threatens the independence and sovereignty of many nearby countries (including U.S. partners like Korea, Japan, and the Philippines), and could eventually lead to a contest of power between us.

This terrible event is even more likely if Chinese policymakers perceive that America is weak. One thing that would make us weak is if our population has stagnated, getting older and smaller and less healthy, resulting in a situation where we have no “deep bench” for our military.

A world where our young people are overburdened paying for Social Security for an exploding retiree population, and military recruitment comes from a smaller and smaller pool of healthy young candidates — that is, the world Frum envisions — is a world where China is free to force Korea into its sphere of influence, to seize outlying island chains from Japan, to seize practical administration of Taiwan, and to exert sovereignty practically up to the beaches of Malaysia. A world where America declines is a world where a major war in the Pacific becomes much more likely. And if we’re in demographic and economic decline, that’s a war we are likely to lose.

But it turns out there’s a different possible future. China’s fertility rate is even lower than ours, and the Chinese government tightly restricts immigration. As a result, their population is likely to decline this century.

The United Nations produces a range of population forecasts for different countries. As you can see, the 21st century will be very challenging for China. Sometime between 2023 and 2036, their population will begin to decline, and fast. Meanwhile, though certainly not rosy, the forecast for the U.S. is considerably less dire. Our population is likely to continue increasing for most of the 21st century, although the pace of increase may be slow.

But if we do as Frum suggests and slash immigration while implicitly ignoring the drivers of native population growth, we will rapidly drift down to that lower scenario, and face decline. Our roads won’t be crowded, partly because the Chinese will be wrecking us commercially and fewer of us will be able to afford new cars.

On the other hand, if we can achieve that higher growth scenario, the gap in population between the U.S. and China closes pretty rapidly. It’s possible to imagine a 22nd century scenario where there are more Americans than there are Chinese. We would not only be richer and freer than China: we’d be able to outnumber them. And in that scenario, there’s probably no war, because nobody has a strong incentive to start a fight. Population growth in America helps preserve the peace of the Pacific.

America’s and China’s Trajectories Are Related

Interestingly enough, these scenarios are related. One of the biggest immigrant groups in America is Chinese people, and emigration is a key driver of China’s population decline. If the United States achieves higher population growth by receiving more immigrants from China, we not only push our forecast population up, we push China’s down. And if we have more native-born population growth, absorbing these immigrants will be fairly easy.

An American population of 400 million and beyond is not only imaginable, not only being planned for: it’s the world most Americans should want. It’s a world where China’s moment of apparent supremacy is just that: a moment. It’s a world where the 21st century, and indeed the 22nd, are secured for democracy and capitalism, and basically through peaceful means.

It’s a world where our country wields unparalleled strength and power, standing secure on our shores as not only the richest country on earth, but likely one of the most populous, alongside India and perhaps Nigeria. The threat of authoritarianism in China will recede as their average age skyrockets and they find themselves suddenly unable to maintain the extensive foreign policy apparatus they have tried to construct.

More important than relative power is, simply, peace. A growing America, a mighty America, an America with a wind at its back as successive large generations of young people propel it to success and innovation and strength, sends a signal to the rest of the world that the experiment is working. Liberty and self-government, aside from being morally good, are simply more effective than the alternatives. This sets the stage for more peaceful and confident relations between the United States and other countries.

So unlike Frum and other declinists, I’m excited for 400 million Americans. I’d like even more than that. I’d like to see 500 million. I’d like to see a billion Americans. The larger the share of global population being raised in prosperity, republicanism, liberty, and self-government, the better the world becomes. So don’t be afraid of a population explosion. Learn to love the bomb.