The last article I linked to in these pages was atrocious. This one is not:
Immigration is only one part of a complex story. Another reason why the labour supply in the US went up in the 19th century is, not to put too fine a point on it, sex. The native-born population was growing at what were, at the time, unprecedented rates: a 2.9 per cent growth per year in the 1800s, only gradually declining after that. By 1850 there was no available farmland in Eastern Seaboard states. Many from that ‘population surplus’ moved west, but others ended up in eastern cities where, of course, they competed for jobs with new immigrants.
This connection between the oversupply of labour and plummeting living standards for the poor is one of the more robust generalisations in history. Consider the case of medieval England. The population of England doubled between 1150 and 1300. There was little possibility of overseas emigration, so the ‘surplus’ peasants flocked to the cities, causing the population of London to balloon from 20,000 to 80,000. Too many hungry mouths and too many idle hands resulted in a fourfold increase in food prices and a halving of real wages. Then, when a series of horrible epidemics, starting with the Black Death of 1348, carried away more than half of the population, the same dynamic ran in reverse. The catastrophe, paradoxically, introduced a Golden Age for common people. Real wages tripled and living standards went up, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Common people relied less on bread, gorging themselves instead on meat, fish, and dairy products.
Much the same pattern can be seen during the secular cycle of the Roman Principate. The population of the Roman Empire grew rapidly during the first two centuries up to 165AD. Then came a series of deadly epidemics, known as the Antonine Plague. In Roman Egypt, for which we have contemporary data thanks to preserved papyri, real wages first fell (when the population increased) and then regained ground (when the population collapsed). We also know that many grain fields were converted to orchards and vineyards following the plagues. The implication is that the standard of life for common people improved — they ate less bread, more fruit, and drank wine. The gap between common people and the elites shrank.
This puts my previous encouragement of fecundity in a dimmer light. Natalism is a stance I first came around to only a few years ago, and I support it in fits and starts. I’ve never found a satisfactory way to reconcile the virtues of abundant family life with the vices of overpopulation and poverty, which, even if antinatalist elements on the left exaggerate them, are very real. The best accommodation I can envision between these conflicting interests is one in which a relatively small number of parents raise large families and bring their larger number of childless friends and relatives into the fold as real or honorary aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Arrangements like this are a lot more common than one would guess based on the handwringing of alarmed natalists on the right. I see examples of it in my Facebook feed all the time, and I’m something like an honorary uncle to two boys in Orange County and, more tenuously, to two younger boys near Seattle, although I’m not great about bonding with toddlers who rhythmically whack me on the thigh when I’m half asleep. (I don’t hold it against them; it’s just that that isn’t the kind of company that I’m thrilled to keep.)
Pay close attention to what Peter Turchin has to say about fatal pandemics. It’s impossible to adequately convey their sheer gruesomeness in a concise survey of economic history. Plagues like the Black Death are really, truly fucking ugly. For people who have lived their entire lives in peace, prosperity, and good health, the specters of war, famine, and plague are usually vague shorthand conventions for something not very good in the distant past. The specter of war brings out armchair hawks who, because they have never experienced its horrors, wax eloquent about what a beautiful thing it is and fantasize about how it turns boys into men and reinvigorates a nation. This is a stupid, dangerous, vile worldview. There were American GI’s who came home from the Second World War ruined for life. They tried to be stoical and were ashamed to call attention to their plight, but they were human wrecks. Some of them were maimed or disabled, some of them were psychologically ruined, and some were ruined in body and in mind. No amount of high public morale or gratitude for their service could erase what the war had done to them. If Tom Brokaw hasn’t interviewed them, it’s probably because the war that they lived has left them permanently off-message, unable to properly commemorate the war that Tom Brokaw would like to remember. There is no sunny side of life for them to inhabit after the war. Mr. Brokaw will have to enjoy it for them.
Plague is a living hell in its own right. To get an idea of its horrors, take a look at coverage of the recent Ebola outbreaks in West Africa. Just realize that the public health systems in these countries, despite being dysfunctional by Western standards, would have been world-class by the standards of medieval Europe. Famine is probably the least destructive of the three in its own right, but even in its early stages it breeds war and disease.
This is why I get disgusted with affluent people who get up on their high horses about the evils of contraceptives. Braying about the awfulness of abortion is something that I can mostly accept, even in the context of its truly hideous, if delayed-action, alternatives, but fatwas against condoms, IUD’s, oral contraceptives, or, most appallingly, vasectomies are a bridge too far. I’ve read about these pathologies that consume societies when population outstrips the material, technological, and organizational capacity to support it. I’ve contemplated them. They’re untenable.
Mark my words, war, famine, and plague are worse than separating the unitive and procreative functions of the marital sex act. Far worse. They are far worse than most of the weird, decadent sexual proclivities that take hold in advanced societies. To complain about these relatively innocuous sexual eccentricities while willfully disregarding pathologies that bring large number of people to early, gruesome deaths is a vile, almost profane sort of White Whine. I have a perfectly clean conscience in saying all of this.
How to square these concerns with the interests of healthy family life and maintaining a society that doesn’t look like One Foot in the Grave, where the youngest people in the village are two baffled thirty-something constables? Beats me. I wish I had a better idea of it.
Maybe we can learn something useful from Japan without our population of ablebodied shut-ins with virtual girlfriends proliferating in Japanese fashion. Japan has managed to keep immigration at exceptionally low levels for a wealthy country with a graying population. The dysfunction of its government services looks less intractable, paradoxically, in the context of its being systemically corrupt, deliberately inefficient, and in the vise grip of an electoral gerontocracy. This means that the impediments to its reform are mostly political, not structural. Whether any of this is worth a pot of shit to a given disaffected Japanese young person is a matter of personal taste.
I still believe that the poor being receptive to children while the middle and upper classes are cautious about childbearing to a fault is a major driver of inequality and a really worrisome state of affairs. This dynamic appears to be part of a nasty positive feedback loop. As long as the wealthier classes value cutthroat social climbing–that is, inequality at the macro level–their barrenness will endure, and so will their hostility to the fertile poor. At the opposite political extreme, it can’t be a coincidence that contraception-for-me-but-not-for-thee politics masquerading as pro-life virtue moved from the most wacked-out, disreputable fringes into the mainstream of the American right wing at a time when socioeconomic inequality was already growing in the United States. The Great Compression ended circa 1973; pro-life natalist celebration of other women as single mothers has been picking up steam since maybe the mid-eighties, with a big boost around the turn of the millennium (I’m fuzzy on the dates, and it’s been a pretty gradual process in any event). Pro-life activism targeting unmarried women on the part of women who micromanage their own reproductive tracts is treacherous and duplicitous. Mainstream mid-century Americans would have been aghast at the discovery of such a position, and probably amazed that anyone came up with it.
If you’re thinking Wow Much population Very confuse, you’re not alone. I can’t reach my own consensus. There are, however, some assholes I would encourage to honor us with holy silence until they have something decent to say. At least Peter Turchin isn’t one of them.