Matthew Yglesias’ new book, “One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger,” is the thought experiment the title implies: exploring policies that might increase the population of the country threefold by using incentives to create larger families and increased immigration. The book has been harshly critiqued by most reviewers for its nationalistic admiration of China, confusing quantitative growth with sustainable human development, ignoring and naively dismissing the environmental consequences of its proposal (the sort of thinking that created the climate crisis), reinforcing a patriarchal vision of women as mothers, and more.
Its title goes far in revealing the fundamental worldview of the author: People are numbers, and babies are economic inputs. But did his reviewers miss a key point in their critiques? Could he have been focused on something other than a target population?
Obviously, nothing about current trends suggests that a United States of 1 billion of more people will ever happen, and Yglesias admits the same. Quite the opposite, in fact: Smaller families are considered one of the great successes in development, and the trend toward smaller families, which is the most effective long-term way of mitigating the climate crisis, seems likely to accelerate rather than reverse.
So why write an apocryphal proposal? It’s possible that Ygelsias is doing something more sleight of hand with this book. Despite urging lager families, his book necessarily focuses on one driver for its audacious proposal: immigration. He does so right before an election in which immigration features prominently. And he does so from an economic perspective that many conservatives and fence-riders will appreciate and could be swayed by.
Beyond Economies, Toward Becoming a Democracy
But in raising these issues, Yglesias (and almost all of his reviewers) reveal a deep and common conceptual error, the one at the core of his book. He thinks the United States is defined by physical borders. He thinks we are a group of people competing against other groups of people elsewhere in the world, defined by the invisible lines around them, or the historical borders and the militaries that defend them.
That conception does not capture the essence of the United States. The United States is defined from the inside out by its Constitution, at the center of which is the idea that political authority and legitimacy derive from the people, or more accurately, from each person rather than any collective. This error presents a serious problem for Yglesias.
How can we invest sufficient resources in each child, while at the same time creating so many, both here and in places from which persons will immigrate? How can we assure equality — or equal opportunities for each child — and follow Ygelsias’ advice that we simply produce more people irrespective of one’s economic birth position? How can 1 billion people have a meaningful say in their federal governance? The United States isn’t about counting people as much as it is about making each person count, first and foremost in terms of their voice in democratic lawmaking.
If we take seriously the idea of authority and legitimacy as deriving from “We the People,” we might understand that rather than having been constituted in the past by godlike founders, the United States is instead constantly constituting or deconstituting, with each new member, depending on the values at play. And we might understand that which way we go first depends on how the body of people in the United States does or does not reflect the ideal of self-governance. If people are the fundamental source of power, how could we not see our nation in this way?
This way of thinking could give us a new political border, one very different from lines on a globe and the mind-numbing simplicity of the political left and right.
A New and Singular Political Border
Seeing the new and universal political border as defined by the creation of persons exposes very different ways of thinking about who those people should be. One way, reflected in the “baby bust” and “underpopulation” discourse popular in both left- and right-leaning media today (the message Yglesias favors) pushes for creating more and more people to increase gross domestic product, through new future laborers, instant consumers, and an ever-growing tax base. There is no assurance that each of those children will have a fair start in life; we have to ignore that black families have one-tenth of the wealth of white families in the United States. Impacts on the environment are also ignored, as are impacts on democracy. We cannot ask whether each of the children born will experience the true inclusivity of having a meaningful voice, not lost in the crowd, in their governance.
A different way, however, would prioritize these values in deriving more cooperative and child-centric policies for the way we should plan our families. The former is about counting people; the latter is more about making people count. The former exudes the greed, masquerading as amoralism, of markets; the latter reflects the inevitable and specific objective values that human rights and political self-determination that require: equal opportunities in life, small political units where power is decentralized, and the freedom from others inherent in nature.
Arguably, the latter is closer to any coherent conception of the United States and must prevail. We have to create people capable of participating in town halls, rather than simply populating shopping malls, because in a democracy, the latter is governed by the former. Political freedom precedes economic freedom. And as recent scholarship has pointed out, we will remain in relative states of preconstitutionality and illegitimacy (and will resist reaching the Sustainable Development Goals) until we have those policies. Note that this approach moves us toward the idea of open borders: If freedom of movement requires the absence of blocking borders, it would also requires family planning that produces people — in quantity and quality — capable of maintaining such a system. Travelers would not be “othered,” because they would be born of a family planning norm to which we all agreed, rather than the “nobody else’s business” model we use today.
Rather than a rally cry for growth as a means of competing with other countries, Ygelsias’ book may reveal a new border within all nations, and a division between preconstitutional people (or “precons”) and those committed to the inescapable and objective values behind the as-yet-unrealized democratic ideal of the United States and many other nations. Rather than more bodies to fuel an economy, the next part of this conversation might focus on more qualitative questions, such as whether every child deserves a socially and ecologically fair start in life. That focus, rather than treating the way we plan our families as “nobody else’s business,” is the key to the future we and our kids deserve and the realistic policies to get us there.