Liberalism and National Greatness: Matthew Yglesias's One Billion Americans

Liberalism and National Greatness: Matthew Yglesias's One Billion Americans

It is difficult to offer a definition or even description of liberalism without referring to some kind of individualism. Liberalism assumes an inherent moral value in  each person and defends their right to make their own decisions for their own lives. This has frequently put it into tension with nationalism, another ideological movement that grew up alongside and gained power at the same time as liberalism, in which the value of the individual derives from being part of a larger whole, the nation. Despite these inherent tensions, however, any roster of prominent 19th century liberals will be full of nationalists as well—individuals like Benito Juarez, Friedrich List, John Stuart Mill, and Frederick Douglass combined a dedication to liberal principles with a strong patriotic streak. Liberalism and nationalism are thus odd but frequent bedfellows. Jonas Rosenthal has argued that these two strands of thought need not necessarily be at odds, but it is impossible to ignore the differences in perspective.

Evaluating Matt Yglesias’s book One Billion Americans, which argues persuasively for liberal policies in the service of a nation-building agenda, requires examining the extent to which these two ideologies can be productively combined. The process is perilous, but Yglesias walks the line successfully, managing not only to make a decisive case for several critical policies but also to confront some malignant beliefs historically present in liberal thought, all while appealing to  American national pride. 

Perhaps the most valuable parts of the book from a liberal perspective are not the policy prescriptions, as important as those are, but rather the full throated condemnation of Malthusianism, the belief that increasing populations outstripping their resources is the root of poverty and misery. This is a particularly important thread to identify and excise both because of its troubled history and because of its far reaching implications that poison discourse and policy well beyond its most obvious applications. David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill both subscribed to this view of human populations, and in both cases its inherent fatalism blunted arguments for greater equality. After all, if it is a law of nature that population growth will maintain poverty, what point could there be in improving the lot of the working classes when they aren’t working to decrease their own populations?  Moreover, the belief that people, at least beyond a certain number, are inherently a problem opens the door for myriad illiberal policy decisions.

Even in the United States, never a dense country by global standards, the argument that there are too many people is an old one. In 1890, progressive political economist Henry George noted that “Why, look at it here today, in this new country, where there are as yet only 65 millions of us scattered over a territory that in the present stage of the arts is sufficient to support in comfort a thousand millions; yet we are actually thinking and talking as if there were too many people in the country.” And yet while most people will agree that it was laughable to assume that the country was full with 65 million people, the same people will turn around and scoff at the idea that a billion people could live comfortably in the United States. Yet such a population in the US would be equal, roughly, to the current density of France and substantially less than the density of Germany or the UK. 

Yglesias’s efforts to dispel this belief are admirable and highly effective, and also backed by a strong liberal tradition. George was a disciple of John Stuart Mill but would eventually break from Mill’s thought on the topic of Malthus. In 1879 he wrote

The denser the population the more minute becomes the subdivision of labor, the greater the economies of production and distribution, and, hence, the very reverse of the Malthusian doctrine is true . . . in any given state of civilization a greater number of people can produce a larger proportionate amount of wealth, and more fully supply their wants, than can a smaller number.

Yglesias echoes this view, as he demonstrates the economic benefits that occur from agglomeration, describing clearly why higher population densities can allow for higher quality and more accessible services, from restaurants to air transportation. Without denying the importance of natural resources in wealth creation, he makes a compelling case that in a modern economy far greater value is created by individuals working in proximity to one another, sharing innovations and taking advantage of high levels of specialization and economies of scale. Rustbelt cities in particular offer a compelling demonstration—it is difficult to argue that living standards are primarily a function of land available per person when faced with cities like Detroit, Baltimore, or St Louis, where declining populations have indisputably led to a diminution of municipal services and a decline in living standards for many residents. Concerns over COVID-19 and unrest related to police brutality have renewed questions about the viability of American urban policy, and so a book that promises—convincingly—to re-invigorate cities is a welcome one. His dual approaches to the benefits of a growing population—discussing both the individual benefits as well as the strengthening of that nation as a whole—address a variety of concerns in a way that makes the book a welcome entry into the cannon of anti-Malthusian argumentation. 

Recommendations about universal childcare or vastly increasing the number of legal immigrants seem utopian after the years of deadlock we’ve seen in Congress—but that’s part of the point. Yglesias lays out the case for major policy ideas and argues that the overarching goal of maintaining US prominence on the world scene will be enough to overcome entrenched interests opposed to them. Indeed, given the near inevitability of China continuing to close the per capita wealth gap with the US, maintaining the position as the world largest economy will require these kind of measures—and the hope is that necessity will manage to break through entrenched partisan division.  Even if such ideas aren’t on the table in the near future, it is valuable to unabashedly promote them, in order to have the intellectual work of making policies and marshalling evidence ready in case a coalition can be created to put them into practice. 

More immigrants, bigger families

The plan for achieving the goals set forth revolves around opening up productive immigration and making family creation easier. Part of the appeal is the wide variety of sources Yglesias draws on for his policies—myriad viewpoints are represented, with their primary commonality being a dedication to the idea that more Americans would make for a stronger country. Pulling from socialists like Elizabeth and Matt Bruenig, moderate liberals in the vein of Noah Smith, and religious conservatives like Lyman Stone does seem to say something about the cross cutting popularity of these policies from an ideology perspective. The question that remains is whether Yglesias can succeed in breaking these ideas out of the realm of technocratic policy wonkery and into the more popular consciousness, where deeply-held, if seldom examined or logically defended, fears about density and overpopulation are still strong. The details of the policies and the manner in which they are defended, however, seem well suited to the task. In both arenas, One Billion Americans advances carefully considered policies that benefit a broad enough cross section of the public to be politically viable. 

 Contrary to what his critics have assumed Yglesias argues for an immigration system no more radical than the  ‘point based’ system employed by Canada or Australia. Nonetheless, his analysis of the current immigration system, he goes as far as to suggest that even a poorly designed mass immigration would be better than the status quo. In an extended discussion of the academic debate about the results of the Mariel Boatlift, he writes that “even an enormous and almost comically poorly designed influx of migrants worked out just fine for the typical Miami native, even according to the leadings immigration-skeptical researcher [George Borjas]”. In first arguing that the Mariel Boatlift created very little downside for most American workers, and then presenting his far more modest and carefully tailored plan, Yglesias makes a case that is difficult to argue against from anywhere near the center of the political spectrum. 

The book is also bolstered by proposals that seem designed to win over middle America, speaking very specifically to electorally influential demographics. One that stands out is the proposal for special work visas—that include a path to citizenship—specific to geographic areas experiencing demographic decline. It is hard to look at the precipitous decline of a city like Detroit and not see the need for new, entrepreneurial residents to revitalize it. And smaller examples abound—while the bulk of population growth would end up in larger cities, smaller towns that are shells of their former industrial importance like Duluth, Minnesota or Butte, Montana could easily benefit as well; not coincidentally, these same towns are blue collar Democratic bastions where Trump’s message has nonetheless made substantial inroads. And here, the extensive discussion of Miami post-Mariel comes, once more, into play—if most Miami residents could benefit from unplanned and disorganized immigration, how much more could these cities benefit from a carefully targeted immigration program?  The message may seem far fetched—after all, aren’t these precisely the areas most opposed to immigration, and wouldn’t they simply blame any newcomers for taking their jobs?  However, homeowners who have been slammed by dropping property values, business owners struggling to find customers and employees, and other important stakeholders may be persuaded. After four years of the president promising greatness through immigration restriction, and those promises repeatedly coming up short, such a program could be politically viable in ways it wasn’t a few years ago.

Yglesias presents numerous ideas for making it more financially attainable for Americans to start families, ranging from highly ambitious policy goals like universal childcare to apparently modest but still impactful proposals that stand more chance of being adopted in the near future. One such proposal, the creation of paid leave operating off the social security program, is particularly relatable. I would think almost any parent has at one point or another wished they could spend some of the money and, by extension, time they are saving for retirement to spend more time with their children while they are still children. A relatively minor increase in the payroll tax to make such a freedom a reality would be a small price to pay—and establishing parental leave in this way, rather than trying to twist employers’ arms, avoids many illiberal pitfalls suffered by policies that attempt to implement employer-based benefits. There’s no doubt such a plan would face widespread opposition, nonetheless, but it makes for a much easier sell than most currently debated alternatives with similar goals. Social democrats who would immediately see the value this posed to low income families, conservatives who fear the decline of family life, and even businesses who prefer a tax-funded system to one ‘funded’ by mandated leave policies could be the basis of a strong coalition. Indeed, identifying such coalitions is a strong point of the whole book—Yglesias rarely proposes a policy with only one interest group or ideological constituency in mind, but instead, relying on the inherent positives of a growing population, is able to show how each policy instead benefits a broad range of interested parties. 

Despite this ideological diversity, the ideas presented are all well in line with a broadly liberal view of the future of the country. On immigration, the point system Yglesias promotes would be such a substantial net increase in immigration that even an open borders advocate should see it as a best-case compromise. In terms of the broader benefits for families that he proposes, much of it would simply take current programs that are means tested and make them universal—a move that is effectively more liberal, limiting the need for government prying into individual finances or making determinations of ‘worthiness.’ Universal benefits are also more efficient, more effective, and less fragile in the face of unexpected events. And on both sides, the practical impact is to give some individuals more freedom to make a broader variety of life choices—to come to the United States, to become a citizen, to start a family, to rent an apartment, or to ride a train. Opposing all these are only marginal losses; no one is forced to change citizenship, to abandon a child free lifestyle, or to abandon their cars. 

Nowhere is this more clear than in the substantial sections of the book that address urban policy changes needed to accomodate all these Americans. The primary obstacles to more accomodating cities, in Yglesias’s view, are not technical or even economic—instead, they are restrictions on what kinds of housing is allowable. The focus is on opening options, not enforcing a single view of what is acceptable housing or transportation. To the extent that any group would lose latitude for decision making, it is primarily the ‘freedom’ to enforce neighborhood or other community standards, or the ‘right’ to free parking and driving through congested traffic zones. On the other hand, millions of people would gain the capacity to use public transportation, to choose to drive or not drive to work, and to live in housing arrangements other than single family housing. The trade off, as Yglesias presents it, is an easy choice. And in many ways, these reforms are not simply necessary to accommodate a larger population, but would be substantially easier to achieve with such a population, as new residents encouraged investment and greater density made mass transit more practical. 

The discussion of urban policy also shows another key strength of the book—Yglesias is not afraid to take good ideas from other countries, and demonstrates effectively not just how those policies work, but the circumstances that led to them being adopted and the broader context behind why they were adopted, and why they work. For transit, he delves into the German S-Bahn model, showing how carefully considered layout and design can dramatically improve the efficiency of US commuter rail—largely by allowing trains to run through or under the urban area, rather than simply back and forth between suburbs and the urban center. When discussing the famous Finnish ‘baby boxes’, more focus is placed on what they symbolize about what they say more broadly about how society views children—as an asset for the entire community to protect and nurture. The universal nature of these boxes serves to create solidarity in the society, rather than the sort of class divisions that are all too often highlighted by means tested programs, and “ensures that middle-class and affluent families with real political voice are invested in maintaining high standards.” This point leads into the broader discussion of universal childhood programs, which he convincingly argues are more politically durable than means tested ones. 

Climate change

The most significant policy weakness of the book is on climate change. There can be little doubt that a billion Americans are going to produce more greenhouse gasses than three hundred million will; this is the case even if the entirety of that population growth is through immigration, simply because there is such an enormous difference in consumption levels between Americans and the rest of the world. Yglesias does not ignore this fact. He notes that, on a global scale, even at current levels of CO2 production there are going to be dislocations, and that much of the actual harm that is predicted will occur precisely because people are trapped behind borders in areas that cannot offer them decent living standards. 

He further argues that slowing climate change by forcing people to continue living where their living standards are lower is hardly a clear ethical choice. The book also provides several examples of policies that will likely reduce per capita carbon consumption—increased investment in mass transit, loosened zoning restrictions that allow for denser development, and congestion taxes on automobile transit. Yglesias also calls specifically for carbon taxes, a measure that has proven effective elsewhere—Sweden, for example, has utilized a rising carbon tax since 1991, which has contributed to a 25% decline in overall carbon emissions despite a growing economy for most of that period, and more recently British Columbia has had success with its (markedly smaller) tax. It seems reasonable that with these changes along with greater population density, American per capita carbon emissions could drop substantially, perhaps rivaling the EU average. In such a case, the net impact of one billion Americans, especially if many of them were moving from countries like China or Russia that currently produce more carbon per capita than the EU average, would be decreased. Nonetheless, this is without a doubt the most salient question regarding the wisdom of policies that would increase the US population, and the book would have benefited from a deeper examination of how to prevent the worst outcomes.

National greatness

Whatever the book’s serious merits, though, it is likely that many readers will never get past the star spangled-cover, and it’s worth exploring whether this problem is merely aesthetic or if it seriously undercuts the liberal underpinnings of the book. A vocal minority will argue that any text premised on strengthening the United States or celebrating any of its virtues is unserious, so deep and incorrigible are the flaws of American society and so heinous the crimes of American nationalism. Followers of Noam Chomsky, who wrote in 2013 that the “pertinent question” for the world to ask was “Can the United States be contained and other nations secured in the face of the U.S. threat?”, and in whose eyes the main impact of US economic dominance has been the spread of an exploitative neoliberal system, would likely find the diminution of US economic power to be a welcome shift.  Even if the US is as irredeemable as they argue—a sort of American exceptionalism that is just as rarely justified by facts as the nationalist variety—the majority of the reading public, even the liberal leaning public, has a generally positive opinion of the country and its position in the world, and insisting that the only books worth writing are those that attempt to break down this world view is counterproductive. Historically, the provision of social goods, from Otto von Bismarck to Lyndon B Johnson, has frequently been argued for as an ingredient or qualifier of national greatness, and it’s unrealistic to expect proponents of such policies to discard this rhetorical tool. 

However, there is a real danger in justifying good policies with promises of ‘national greatness’—what if greatness, in the way imagined, doesn’t result from the policies? Yglesias explicitly denounces restrictions on birth control or abortion, but what if all of these pro-family policies don’t actually lead to a higher birth rate? If the public believes that a billion Americans is not only desirable, but crucial, will the otherwise welcome anti-Malthusianism in the book invite harsher measures to try to obtain the goal? The danger seems real enough—in the twentieth century, this happened on both sides of the population debate. Malthusian arguments were used to justify the laudable goal of giving women more choice in family planning, but those same arguments were then used to strip that autonomy from women who, it was feared, would make the ‘wrong’ choice. And one need only look to Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, or Ceausescu’s Romania to see that the anti-Malthusian desire for a greater population can also be used to justify restraints on women’s reproductive freedom. 

These are important considerations, but One Billion Americans, in its content focus and rhetorical tone, minimizes the danger as much as possible. First, while Yglesias defends the realism of the titular goal, he does not fixate on it. There is no numerical goal set forth for the number of immigrants, the number of new births, or any similar goal that could be easily twisted for illiberal ends. His argument for a billion Americans primarily seeks to dispel beliefs about what such a number would entail—coast-to-coast megacities, crowded tenements, and the like. This decision is wise, not merely to sidestep squabbling about exact figures but also to keep the emphasis on the policies, not on the numerical result, which cannot be predicted or controlled with any certainty.

Rhetorically, Yglesias prudently keeps his focus on elements of choice and freedom. For example, when discussing the falling birth rate, his primary focus is not on the feasibility of social security or shrinking GDP. Instead, he focuses on the number of children most people say the want to have (for men and women this number is similar, around 2.6, and how that contrasts with the number of children they actually have on average (currently about 1.8). He is quite clear that “People should be equipped with the tools they need to avoid pregnancy and childbirth, but also with the kinds of social supports that are needed to have and raise children”, presenting viable family support as a complement to reproductive freedom that allows families to avoid having children if they so choose. This emphasis on choice and freedom permeates the book—the choice for couples to start families, the choice for immigrants to move to the United States (and for companies to employ them), the choice for developers to build apartments, or for commuters to use public transit. Every policy is justified by granting an additional option to individuals. The only freedom he asks that they give up is the freedom to continue accumulating wealth at precisely the same rate they have already been—owning a house or driving a car or having a high income would cost somewhat more under Yglesias’s plans, but the goal is not to make any of these things impossible, but rather to make other choices more viable. 

Another way Yglesias blunts the potential danger of nationalism is by downplaying the possibility of military conflict with China, and indeed proposing great possibilities for cooperation.  Yglesias points out, quite reasonably, that given the relative trajectories of our economy, and of China’s, and the massive difference in population, the US falling from its position as the largest economy in the world is near inevitable, and that this fact is not lost on the Chinese leadership or people. If the US is not making efforts to increase its population, and it is not ready to abdicate its position, then the only logical assumption for Chinese leaders to make is that the US intends to sabotage the growth of the Chinese economy. Yglesias points out that such a strategy would be morally abhorrent, given the suffering it would imply inflicting on hundreds of millions of people—nonetheless, from a Chinese strategic perspective it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this must be the US strategy, and nothing the current president has done would dispel that notion. As Yglesias writes, “American officials have no explicit plan to embrace the idea of a national decline. … And they certainly don’t have a plan to match China in population. Under the circumstances, China staying poor is the only way for America to stay on top, and it’s natural for Chinese officials to have some concerns about that.” The picture Yglesias paints of a billion citizen United States is one that is confident enough in its own position that it can peacefully cooperate with any potential rivals—one that doesn’t have to fear the per capita growth of other countries and can thus, in his word, “say frankly, sincerely, and credibly that we wish the Chinese and others well and hope they can improve the lives of their people as much as possible.” One Billion Americans even goes so far as to suggest reigning in military spending in order to invest in the programs it proposes, arguing that such a strategy would be more cost efficient, even in confronting real security needs, than the current strategy of international military intervention.  Even an acolyte of Chomsky could find this to be a hopeful goal—with a population comparable to any rival, the United States could lean less on military power, and would have less of a real or perceived incentive to undercut the economic growth of populous ‘rivals’, opening the door to greater cooperation.  When viewed from this perspective, the drive for a billion people makes a great deal of sense, and the patriotic goals espoused are largely free of the militarism that so often accompanies them. 

Moreover, Yglesias strategically alienates a particular segment of the pro-natal community in order to decrease the danger of feeding malignant nationalism—there is no sympathy here for ‘replacement theory’. Yglesias emphasizes that the recent fall in national birth rate is not because of the white birth rate—which has been low for some time—but rather because Black and Latina women are having fewer children. By extension, he figures, more extensive childcare benefits would likely raise their birth rates disproportionately—“programs to help families with children would, unless explicitly structured in racist ways, disproportionately help people of color”—largely because Black and Latina women are far more likely to be of childbearing age. And of course the impact of more liberal immigration laws would likely be anathema to white nationalists. The result of One Billion Americans, achieved via the means laid out in the book, is almost certainly a country where a minority of those Americans identifies as white. Furthermore, the urban policies laid out would lead to exactly the dismantling of white neighborhoods that replacement theorists bemoan. There is no sympathy to be found here for ethno-nationalists, and really no recommendations to bring about their conception of America. Indeed, Yglesias is clear he sees the breaking down of ethnic chauvinism as a desired outcome of this patriotic dedication to universal American greatness—“That reluctance to help out children who look different contributes to America’s stingy welfare state, and understanding the issue at least in part in nationalistic terms could be helpful in transcending ethnic divides and persuading people to take care of the entire national community.”

To what extent de-racialized patriotism can replace ethnic loyalty is unclear, but it seems more promising, perhaps unfortunately, than most other rhetorical avenues. And it is hardly unique to Yglesias or to this century. From Frederick Douglass insisting, in ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July’, that he drew “encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions”, to Lyndon B Johnson arguing for the Great Society as a means to “enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization”, the use of patriotic imagery and hope for future national greatness to sharpen critiques of the present as well as provide urgency to calls for improvement is a time tested tool of American rhetoric. Yglesias carries on this tradition (indeed, much of what he calls for echoes Johnson’s proposals for accommodating a society he imagined would house 400 million people) with somewhat less soaring rhetoric but largely the same general effect. 

As a result, the book manages to minimize the danger inherent in justifying a good policy proposal with an appeal to patriotism. That is not to say that the danger can ever be completely excised—and One Billion Americans is no substitute for scholarship and arguments that forcefully argue for open immigration and family support systems on their own liberal merits. However, it is a valuable supplement that is frankly more likely to be convincing to those voters and decision makers most influential in determining these policies. Liberalism and Nationalism will never be identical, and those whose primary loyalty is to liberal ideals will always need to proceed cautiously to ensure that any cooperation between the two is balanced and in fact advances liberal society. Nonetheless, the relationship has been mutually beneficial in the past and can be in the future: One Billion Americans is a useful blueprint for what that might look like in the 21st century. 

Featured Image is Health Inspection of Immigrants in the 19th Century, from NIAID