Last Thursday, Derek Hoff, a Professor of History at Kansas State University and 1994 graduate of Carleton, gave a talk about the history of the population question and the change in attitudes towards population growth in the United States.
“Most Americans have come to celebrate population growth,” he began. Americans, he explained, think population growth benefits the economy and is a part of the American identity. The current election, therefore, is “a good entry point into the state of the population question.”
None of today’s politicians really talk about population growth as an issue. Hoff cited three reasons for the decline in the population debate: the culture wars, the immigration debate and the decline in the environmental movement.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, he explained, family planning was not a controversial issue. However, when population became part of the abortion debate, it became too controversial for politicians to discuss. Instead, most simply take a stance on abortion, and do not address the issue any further.
In addition, with immigrants contributing to much of population growth, many people do not want to appear anti-immigrant by condemning poplation growth. Liberals in particular do not want to criticize population growth because they fear that they will offend immigrants who are an important part of their coalition.
Finally, the environmental movement no longer influences policy as strongly as it did in the 1970s. There was no talk on climate change in the recent Presidential debate, and it is therefore very unlikely there will be talk of population growth’s effect on the environment.
However, population growth has not always been quietly accepted. “Even before the founding of the nation,” explained Hoff, “many Americans worried about population growth.” Colonial Americans even thought population growth would make the population poor and used up scarce resources.
This view flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s; Hoff said that experts at the time believed a smaller population would be “good for American quality of life.” These same experts also thought population growth would make it impossible to find solitude in a society overcrowded by people.
By the 1930s, there was widespread pessimism about population growth. According to Hoff, John Maynard Keynes in particular believed that “the first world nations had reached their limit and the rest of the world would soon catch up to them.” Although he was clearly incorrect, his views reflected the paranoia of the era.
However, by the 1970s, the conservative movement began to celebrate population growth. In what Hoff called “market knows best demography,” conservatives argued that more people meant a bigger market and more innovation, so that bureaucrats could not fully manage the economy.
Conservatives also argued that more people would lead to more liberty as the government would be unable to control the increasing number of people.
According to Hoff, the Conservatives won the population debate and now, most Americans celebrate population growth. He concluded by wondering whether or not this view of population growth would change in the future.
The talk was well attended by Carleton students and members of the Carleton community.
“I really wished he had talked more about the cultural side of things and traced how fear of overpopulation dropped out of the American media,” said Jocelyn Friedman ‘13.
Overall, though, Friedman was impressed. “He raised some interesting questions about why we’ve stopped talking about population growth publicly in the United States,” she said.