Great Power & ‘The Manpower Thing’

Review of One Billion Americans by Matthew Yglesias (Penguin, 2020).

In 1776, the burning policy question of the hour was what to do about slaves. Would freeing them lead to economic growth, or hinder it? In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith took the affirmative, writing that “The liberal reward of labour, therefore, as it is the effect of increasing wealth, so it is the cause of increasing population. To complain of it, is to lament over the necessary cause and effect of the greatest public prosperity.” [1]

Though the debate over emancipation today thankfully lies in the past, the economic debate over whether low-wage workers drive growth has intensified, and shifted increasingly into terms of immigration policy. Wealthy countries in North America and Western Europe are wrestling with the question of whether and how many refugees and workers to admit from countries in Central America and Western Asia. Too often, though, these debates assume a zero-sum game, where charity to foreigners is assumed to be damaging to domestic economies and national identities. It is helpful to pivot from the prism of domestic affairs to see a different picture. 

Matt Yglesias’s One Billion Americans is, on the surface, a bold, new clarion call from a progressive writer to pursue what has been a de facto conservative goal: to magnify “American greatness, rather than simply return to some prior era, by increasing not only immigration but increasing the sliding birthrates of current American citizens, too.” [2] According to Yglesias, the contest for the title of future  geopolitical power is simply going to be about “more” – more ideas, more ambition, more utilization of resources, and more people. He argues that if the United States does not grow, perhaps especially numerically, it will lose out to bigger countries like China and India: homes of major population clusters in the global marketplace and the powerful, natural network effects that accompany them.

But someone might ask, why should population matter? Perhaps demographics do not matter in competition with China as much as they did against Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, given the many other advantages the United States has (such as an advanced economy and natural resources) which China and Russia in particular have struggled to obtain. Yglesias offers a partial rebuttal to this, claiming that “Chinese people do not need to become as rich as Americans for China’s overall economy to outweigh ours… China is so big, it does not need to come close to beating us on a per person basis to beat us overall – a situation very different the United States faced vis-a-vis twentieth-century rivals.” [3] 

To this it would also be worth acknowledging the fact that countries, like college football teams, tend not to punch above their population’s weight: small states like Idaho and New Mexico are no match for populous ones like Michigan, Texas, and California, where talent pools are rich enough to support multiple successful programs (as opposed to one or two middling ones in small states). If the United States has a third the entrepreneurs of China or India, it would stand to reason that it could eventually have one third the wealth if those countries continued to grow. 

Digging a bit deeper into Yglesias’s argument, however, it is something of a copied idea (buried in his acknowledgements, Yglesias admits that “in tweet form, this whole book is simply [Doug Saunders’s] Maximum Canada, but for America” [4]). It also lacks the substance of and misses great opportunities to explore how and why this goal – the numerical strength of a national population – is so important, particularly in the realm of great-power competition.

  Yglesias refers throughout the book to the need to achieve parity with countries such as China and Russia. In his preface, he writes that

…the reality [is] that the balance of power is shifting away from America and toward China, and beyond it, India and Nigeria and others. And the reasons for this are not in any way mysterious. When America faced down Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, we were the big dog. We had more people, more wealth, and more industrial capacity. But against China we are the little dog: there are more than 1 billion of them to about 330 million of us. The good news is that, for now, we still have more wealth and more industrial capacity… but it will likely continue to shrink. [5]

Disappointingly, Yglesias offers little explanation as to why this matters beyond a sort of Chestertonian “My mother, right or wrong,” progressive nationalism. While acknowledging that some “left-wing intellectuals” might desire an end to American hegemony, he accepts that the rise of an aggressive autocracy in China is the only realistic (and undesirable) hegemonic alternative and proceeds from there. Less likely alternatives such as a multipolar world, in which America pursues more internationalist aims rather than narrow nationalist ones, are not addressed; nor is one where another rising democracy such as India becomes preeminent.

Yglesias is admiringly unapologetic in calling for “more people,” despite acknowledging those on the Left who tend to worry about environmental issues and others on the Right who fear overcrowding and the cultural implications of higher immigration levels. But where the book has the opportunity to explore a truly bipartisan, pro-population-growth philosophy, it often sputters into a repackaging of Democratic Party talking points such as universal Pre-K, free college, and increasing the minimum wage.

That said: Yglesias’s chapter on immigration policy proper shows some of the promise of the idea. Could the United States increase both in population and in wealth by taking in more people? Yglesias presents a sliding-scale policy recommendation for those wary of opening floodgates, and admits that “English language ability is, in fact, an important overall predictor of labor market success in the United States.” [6]  He elsewhere admits the challenges of cultural integration, proposing “fairly free and open immigration from Canada, Australia, the Anglophone Caribbean, America’s NATO allies, or some other subset of countries that seems popular.” [7]

And yet, devils still lurk in the details. What would be the foreign policy implications of adopting such a policy? While liberal writers often repeat the received dogma that “diversity is America’s greatest strength,” nearly half of white Americans fear that a majority-minority United States would weaken the country. [8] How could the U.S. actually make that the case from a foreign policy perspective? Furthermore, what would a pro-natal policy package look like that allows for a sliding-scale of government funding? What organs of civil society could the government support in that effort? How would countries such as India and China view an America that is striving to directly compete with them in population terms?

Some policy thinkers on the left and right alike have recently proffered answers to some of these questions. Ross Douthat recently reviewed Utah Senator Mitt Romney’s proposal to reform family benefits by rolling them into one program that would provide $350 a month for kids five years of age and under, and $250 a month for kids up to 17, up to a certain income level and benefit cap. [9] Matt Breunig, founder of the People’s Policy Project think tank, has promoted a package of family benefits more in line with a Nordic welfare system. [10] Yet few have attempted to analyze this from a foreign policy perspective, as Yglesias has, which leaves a field ripe for further argument.

Had Yglesias engaged more with these questions, One Billion Americans would have been a much richer addition to the growing literature on America’s great-power competition. As it is, it concludes largely as a rollout of stale ideas with a catchy thesis. Nevertheless, Yglesias’s modern-day echo of Smith’s thesis provides a refreshing alternative path to the growing Western declinist narrative in foreign policy circles (especially in China). He echoes Smith, who assessed the success of the British colonies in North America, to the “great multiplication of the species,” by concluding that “as Chinese national strength over the long term stems fundamentally on its huge scale, money spent at the margin on growing the [U.S.] national population will be money well spent.” [11] Were there a more strategic focus to the book, it would be worth exploring exactly why.  

James Haynes is an alumnus of the AHS Chapter at Princeton University, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 2018 with a degree in Classics and a minor in Mandarin Chinese. He now works as an independent research consultant for The New Yorker. 


[1] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, (Gutenberg Project, 2019),

[2] Matthew Yglesias, One Billion Americans (London: Penguin Publishing Group, 2020): xvii.

[3] Yglesias, xvii. 

[4] Yglesias, xiv.

[5] Yglesias, xv-xvi.

[6] Yglesias, 125.

[7] Yglesias, 110.

[8] Pew Research, “Americans are more positive about the long-term rise in U.S. racial and ethnic diversity than in 2016,” 1 October 2020,

[9] Ross Douthat, “Why the U.S. Needs the Romney Family Plan,” The New York Times, 6 February 2020, 

[10] Matt Bruenig. “Family Fun Pack: People’s Policy Project,” (People’s Policy Project, 2019), 

[11] Yglesias, 249.

Image: “Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-wealth, ecclesiasticall and civill.”, by Jheald, retrieved from, image is in the public domain.

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