Do we need more people?

Michael Anton is in the news because he asked the obvious, if nowadays taboo, question: why do we need more people? Anton asked this in the context of the US immigration debate. The conventional answer has for a long time been an economic one: immigration grows the economy. That is what gets conservatives on side, and liberals get on board too because, among other things, immigration grows their voter base beyond organized domestic labour. That has given immigration bipartisan support. But of course the populist wave which began in the US and has even lapped into the Canadian backwater is a rebuke to these positions. True, immigration helps the economy in the sense that it grows overall, but working people end up worse off, with the result that the lives of my generation will be poorer than those of our parents. Another way to put this is that measuring economic growth does not tell you much about peoples' quality of life, which rather raises the question of why we should care about that measuring economic growth. The lower middle classes including the left-wing labour base have been hard hit. Consequently, not only the right but also the left is bleeding into the growing populist torrent. 

But there is another reason to wonder whether we need more people, which is not taboo perhaps because it is so obscure. I remember reading of one of my favourite essayists, the Australian philosopher David Stove, that he wasn't an environmentalist, but given the choice between having another human being and another kangaroo, he'd choose another kangaroo every time. Since Stove's death this disposition has been powerfully articulated by Sir Roger Scruton. His book, Green Philosophy, shows how the linguistic closeness of conservatism and conservationism is not just an artefact of language, since both are projects of preservation aimed at something that is familiar, and fragile, and loved. Scruton hopes to bring back a conservative conservationism – and I hope he succeeds. Now for a conservative conservationist, why do we need more people? Is it not relevant to point out that from 1950 to now, the US grew from about 157 million to 320 million, and Canada from just under 14 million to something over 35 million? Rome, at its height, had about 1 million people in it. My city is unremarkable at about that size. In what sense are our lives improved by these huge numbers of people? Wouldn't it be better to have more nature and less urban sprawl? When I consider the value of another human being as against another kangaroo (I suppose I should pick something Canadian, so let's say another caribou), I find that like Stove, I'd rather have the animal.

To make the observation that it might be good to have fewer people tends to invite the charge of eugenics. But observing the problem does not mean committing to some drastic solution. In fact no solution is necessary; left alone the problem will solve itself. In both Canada and (to a lesser degree) the United States, birth rates tend stubbornly down. Those in thrall to an economic account see this as a problem, and use immigration to keep refreshing our numbers, which then again tend downward… Lovers of nature (whether on the left or the right) should see falling birth rates as the blessing that they are, a wordless repudiation of the massive populations of today. When Benedick falls in love with Beatrice, he reaches for platitudes to shake off his opposition to marriage: "The world must be peopled." A good point, at the time. It's not so obvious today.