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The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policy Making in U.S. History

Author(s):Hoff, Derek S.
Reviewer(s):Hammond, J. Daniel

Published by EH.Net (October 2013)

Derek S. Hoff, The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policy Making in U.S. History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. xii + 378 pp. $49 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-22634-762-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by J. Daniel Hammond, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

The State and the Stork is an economic and political history of ideas about population in the United States since the nation’s founding. The narrative is presented chronologically and structured around three ideas that have waxed and waned in the American economic and political spheres. These are (1) the “Malthusian” fear that growth of the population tends to outpace growth of the resource base; (2) the aesthetic concern that crowdedness reduces the quality of life; and (3) the belief that population growth enhances economic growth and thereby enhances the quality of life. The fact that these ideas run throughout American history is thoroughly documented in this study. Clearly, the question of optimal population has not been settled, and it is unlikely to be settled soon. Whatever one?s opinion might be on population questions, including immigration policy, Hoff’s book will help to set the opinion in historical and intellectual context. Historical documentation in support of Hoff?s narrative is extensive.

The first chapter, Foundations, sets up the narrative from the basis of British ideas on population in classical economics as they were brought to America in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. Britons John Locke, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and especially T.R. Malthus, and others appear. Americans Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, among the founders, along with Friedrich List, Henry Carey, John McVickar, George Tucker and others wrote on population and demographics. They made use of or criticized Malthusian ideas in the context of American issues such as slavery, industrialization, and western expansion. Hoff?s thesis is that there was ambivalence among Americans about population from the beginning that has persisted to the present day.

Chapter two, The Birth of the Modern Population Debate, provides a primer on the transition from classical economic theory to marginalist theories of consumers and producers, and a survey of population ideas in economic and political context from the closing of the American frontier in the 1890s to the Great Depression. J.M. Keynes and Keynesian economics in relation to Malthusian ideas of over-population are the subject of chapter three, Population Depressed. Keynes himself regarded population growth as supportive of economic growth. But some Keynesians combined his insights on management of aggregate demand with Malthusian ideas of population management, creating what Hoff calls Stable Population Keynesianism. Chapter four, Population Unbound, covers the post-World War II baby boom and the emerging debate between cornucopianists and doomsayers.

Chapter five moves to the next economic and social era with Managing the Great Society’s Population Growth. This chapter also marks a shift in focus from the ideas of economists to those of politicians during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. Chapter six covers the growth of environmentalism and the campaign to halt population growth, which Hoff calls radical Malthusianism. This is personified by Paul Ehrlich and The Population Bomb (1968). Chapter seven, Defusing the Population Bomb, covers the Nixon presidency, with special attention to the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, established by Congress in 1969 and chaired by John D. Rockefeller III. In chapter eight Hoff argues that in the 1970s fear of the fiscal consequences of an aging population and an emerging conservative political economy that embraced population growth pushed Malthusian concerns off stage. Chapter eight brings the historical account up to the present, setting the stage for the Epilogue.

The primary theme one finds in The State and the Stork is that population questions have loomed large in American public life since the colonial period, with population growth seen at different times as either a portent of danger or of hope. Pessimism is predominant at some times and optimism at others. At the present time Hoff finds Malthusian concerns being suppressed by fear of the economic consequences of an inverted age pyramid. The latest conventional wisdom is optimistic about the effects of population growth, but pessimistic about the prospects for near-term population growth. In the epilogue Hoff makes clear what is indistinct throughout the book, that he is a population pessimist. He is discouraged that few Americans today take seriously the dangers posed by economic growth and overpopulation for natural resources and the quality of life.

Hoff chose to look at population issues through the eyes of economists. But he might have made other choices. He could, for instance, have used biologists ideas on population. It is interesting to ponder what difference this would have made. I suspect that the ebb and flow of concerns about under and over-population would have been much the same, for there is cross pollination between disciplines. Scholars from different disciplines tend to flock together around the same issues and general points of view. Yet the details of Hoff?s history might have been different in crucial ways, hinging on persistent differences in the way economists and biologists view humans.

Biologists tend to view humans as animals. Economists tend to view humans as rational animals. This difference can have profound implications. Animals tend to breed up to the physical limits of their environments. Human beings do not. This was recognized by Malthus, but not by Malthusians, including economists who are Malthusians. Malthusians draw more deeply on the intellectual legacy of the biologist Darwin than they do on the economist Malthus. To explain this point I will attempt to briefly demonstrate that Hoff fundamentally misinterprets Malthus?s 1798 Essay on Population. In misinterpreting Malthus, Hoff is far from alone. His is in fact the conventional interpretation of Malthus by economists, as his book amply illustrates.

Hoff’s conventional interpretation of Malthus is first encountered on page 15: Thus Americans had engaged in substantial population debates long before the Rev. Thomas Malthus argued in An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society (1798) that population growth doomed human societies by overwhelming natural resources.

The book’s first chapter on Foundations is on the theories of Malthus and the other leading classical economists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, whose ideas, two centuries later, remain the starting point for serious discussion of population, resources, and the economy (p. 16). Further on Hoff writes: Like many in this era, [Benjamin] Franklin assumed that human population growth followed the same biological laws as plants and animals. In a line Malthus echoed, Franklin wrote, There is in short, no Bound to the prolific Nature of Plants or Animals, but what is made by their crowding and interfering with each others Means of Subsistence? (p. 20).

And one final quotation to illustrate Hoff’s biological interpretation of Malthus: But even if Malthus?s Essay on Population detoured from the prevailing optimism of the Enlightenment, it was born of immediate political and intellectual circumstances. It reflected the burgeoning of biological science. It also was part of a broader attack by the classical economists on the doctrine of mercantilism. Insisting that all societies progress toward overpopulation and misery, Malthus conformed to Enlightenment stages theory (p. 26).

Hoff comes to the verge of a more accurate interpretation of Malthus when he notes that Malthus wrote his Essay to challenge the utopian ideas of the radical political philosopher William Godwin … who, inspired by the revolutionary epoch of the late eighteenth century, believed that paradise, plenty, and human perfectibility were within the grasp of the people of his age (p. 25). But Hoff fails to acknowledge how Godwin expected paradise, plenty, and human perfectibility to come about, and thus he fails to grasp the nature of Malthus’s response.

The point of Malthus’s growth projections of food and population was to show what would happen if population was unchecked. But, he wrote, and this is crucial, population is always checked, though differently for plants and animals and for humans. Among plants and animals the view of the subject is simple. They are all impelled by a powerful instinct to the increase of their species; and this instinct is interrupted by no reasoning, or doubts about providing for their offspring. Wherever therefore there is liberty, the power of increase is exerted; and the superabundant effects are repressed afterwards by want of room and nourishment, which is common to animals and plants; and among animals by becoming the prey of others. The effects of this check on man are more complicated. Impelled to the increase of his species by an equally powerful instinct, reason interrupts his career, and asks him whether he may not bring beings into the world, for whom he cannot provide the means of subsistence. In a state of equality, this would be the simple question. In the present state of society, other considerations occur. Will he not lower his rank in life? Will he not subject himself to greater difficulties than he at present feels? Will he not be obliged to labour harder? (Malthus, Essay, Chapter. 2, Online Library of Liberty).

Godwin’s vision of a just society, in which humans reach their full potential of perfection, was one with perfect equality, without private property or accumulation of wealth, without markets, and even without marriage. Life is blissful, with the workday as short as half an hour and with children having no need to know the identity of their parents. Malthus meant to show that in the type of society envisioned by Godwin there would be overpopulation. Overpopulation would follow the dismantling of social institutions, and this would lead people to rediscover the benefits of the very institutions they had pulled down.

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace both read Malthus’s Essay as they developed their theories of natural selection in the plant and animal worlds. However, as the passages quoted above show, Malthus did not conceive of humans as animals who breed up to the limit of the food supply. With the enormous influence of the theory of natural selection in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is reasonable to suspect that Malthusianism and its complement eugenics owe more to the theory of natural selection than to Robert Malthus?s economic and demographic theory. Malthus, as the presumed originator of Malthusianism, looms large in Hoff’s account. But Darwin makes only a brief appearance.

It may be that among the consequences of Hoff’s decision to examine population questions through the lens of economics rather than biology is his presumption that Malthusian concern about population numbers and eugenic concern about population quality are separable. It is widely acknowledged that the eugenics movement was Darwinist. My suggestion is that the population control movement was also Darwinist. Hoff separates concerns about overpopulation, which presumably are from an enlightened point of view, from concerns over the fitness of members of the population, which presumably are from an unenlightened point of view. He also sorts economists into political classifications of liberal and conservative. Liberals are, by the standards of most intellectuals, more enlightened; conservatives less enlightened. If Hoff had covered eugenics, which had very broad appeal across the social and natural sciences in the first three decades of the twentieth century, this might have prompted him to question the usefulness of his political classification of liberals and conservatives.[1]?

In the Epilogue Hoff writes that currently a continued emphasis on the aging of the population, however justified by spiraling deficits, has encouraged policy makers to think of babies as future taxpayers rather than as potential environmental or social externalities (p. 246). If our culture has come to the point where we either welcome the birth of a new human being because he or she is a future taxpayer or bemoan the birth as the arrival of an external cost, we are perhaps in danger of descending from the rational animals studied by Parson Malthus to the non-rational animals studied by Darwin.

1. See Thomas C. Leonard (2009) “American Economic Reform in the Progressive Era: Its Foundational Beliefs and Their Relationship to Eugenics,” History of Political Economy 41 (1): 109-41.

J. Daniel Hammond will present “Malthus, Utopians, and Economists” at the History of Economics Society session, “New Perspectives on Malthus: What Was He Really Saying about Population Growth and Human Societies?” at the Philadelphia ASSA meeting in January 2014.

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Historical Demography, including Migration
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII