I have a lot of controversial views. For example, I think it’s morally better to help others more rather than helping them less (utilitarianism), that people matter equally regardless of their group membership, location in spacetime, etc. (impartiality), that therefore the most important impacts of my actions are spread throughout the long-run future, where the vast majority of people are (longtermism), and that advances in AI this century will probably have a larger (positive or negative) long-run impact on aggregate welfare than anything else (transformative AI focus).1 Most people strongly disagree with all those views, and often find them offensive.
But not all my views are controversial. One of my least controversial views is that both the US in particular and humanity in general will probably be better off if the US (despite its many deep flaws) remains the world’s leading power, given the available alternatives for global leadership.
Probably the only way for the US to remain the world’s leading power is for the U.S. to dramatically grow its population, especially its high-skill population. As Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias argues in his new book One Billion Americans:
…the big picture idea of [this] book, that America should try to stay number one, already [commands broad consensus in America]. The question is what follows from that.
For starters, it is beyond dispute that there are fewer American people than there are Chinese or Indian people, as is the fact that China and India are trying to become less poor and seem to be succeeding. Maybe they’ll just stumble and fail, in which case we will stay number one. But it would be unfortunate for hundreds of millions of people to be consigned to poverty forever. It’s not an outcome we have it within our power to guarantee. And even if we could, it would be hideously immoral to pursue it.
By contrast, tripling the nation’s population to match the rising Asian powers is something that is in our power to achieve…
…What the various diplomats and admirals and trade negotiators and Asia hands who think about the China question don’t want to admit is that all the diplomacy and aircraft carriers and shrewd trade tactics in the world aren’t going to make a whit of difference if China is just a much bigger and more important country than we are. The original Thirteen Colonies, by the same token, could have made for a nice, quiet, prosperous agricultural nation — like a giant New Zealand. But no number of smart generals could have helped a country like that intervene decisively in World War II.
A more populous America — filled with more immigrants and more children, with its cities repopulated and its construction industry booming—would not be staring down the barrel of inevitable relative decline. We are richer today than China or India. And while we neither can nor should wish for those countries to stay poor, we can become even richer by becoming larger. And by becoming larger we will also break the dynamic whereby growth in Asia naturally means America’s eclipse as the world’s leading power.
The United States has been the number one power in the world throughout my entire lifetime and throughout the living memory of essentially everyone on the planet today. The notion that this state of affairs is desirable and ought to persist is one of the least controversial things you could say in American politics today.
We should take that uncontroversial premise seriously, adopt the logical inference that to stay on top we’re going to need more people — about a billion people — and then follow that inference to where it leads in terms of immigration, family policy and the welfare state, housing, transportation, and more.
Unfortunately, Yglesias doesn’t actually run the numbers on how different immigration and family planning policies might affect U.S. demographics, how that might in turn affect various measures of national power, and what that implies about the likely relative power of the U.S. and China (and India) in different domains and at different times in the 21st century. That would be a difficult and speculative exercise, but I would love to see it done.
In the meantime, I suspect Yglesias is right about the big picture.
(But, on the details, I roughly agree with some of Caplan’s criticisms, along with some points others have made.)
- For brevity and snark, my descriptions here aren’t quite accurate. [↩]