The Demographic Roots of American Power

Lindsay Eyink/Crowds gather at the Lincoln Memorial during President Obama’s inauguration in 2009

Is demography destiny? At the very least, it is one of the foundations of national power. If the United States of America has risen to global preeminence over the last century, demographic growth was, without a doubt, among the necessary conditions. Until recently, U.S. population growth could be taken for granted. However, over the past decade, we have witnessed a collapse in fertility previously assumed reserved for countries like Germany and Japan. This fading demographic momentum is an eventual threat to both sustained prosperity and maintaining hegemony.

The historian Paul Kennedy argued in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers that all successful empires stand or fall on their overall economic capability. The economic capabilities necessary for maintaining a great power in turn depend upon the empire’s people: the size of population—especially the working-age population—and the population’s quality, especially that of the smartest and most capable. Both of these must be sufficient before the necessary social trust and market organization can unlock otherwise untapped human potential, which may then be harnessed to develop national capabilities and be deployed in foreign policy.

Population size is obviously important enough for national power, but quality is often overlooked. Examples such as the Netherlands, Japan, and Singapore show that resource-poor and land-scarce countries can enjoy enviable prosperity, even as some vast resource-rich lands remain impoverished. In all three cases, the poverty of national soil was overcome by actualizing the potential of their intelligent and educated populations.

Since the 18th century, the growth of first British and American power was in large part due to the extraordinary demographic growth of these societies. In 1750, France had an estimated population of 24.5 million and England a mere 5.8 million. A century later, England had reached 16.7 million, or over half the French population. By 1901, England almost doubled again to 30.5 million while the population of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, had reached 41.5 million, just overtaking France.

For France, the consequences of this demographic reversal were geopolitically catastrophic. By her demographic weight and successful state organization, France had assumed a position of political preeminence and cultural hegemony in Europe in the age of Louis XIV and Napoleon. The collapse in fertility coincided with secularization and the ideological drive of the Enlightenment to dismantle Catholicism intellectually and organizationally.

As the 19th century progressed, France would find herself reduced to a position of severe vulnerability to a demographically and economically ascending Germany. Because of this persistent centuries-long trend, France had to turn first to the United Kingdom and eventually to the United States for support. 

At least part of the reason behind this demographic turn, driven by larger families in the English-speaking countries, was the persistence of popular Christianity, with its periodic revivals. There is further a robust and still-present tradition of Protestant natalism in America, often quoting God’s commandment to Adam and Eve to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Genesis 1:28).

American political thinkers have always been aware of population as a fundamental variable of national power. Already in his 1751 “Observations on the Increase of Mankind,” Benjamin Franklin saw that the material ease of family formation in colonial America was leading to an exponential increase in the population. As a result of the doubling of the population every 25 years or so, the colonial Americans would within a century “be more than the People of England.” America’s population has continued to grow, massively outstripping even the largest European nations and their empires.

At the time, demographic differentiation was reshaping the English-speaking countries themselves. Franklin argued that slavery made masters lazy and unenterprising, but also removed the perceived need for population growth:

The Whites who have Slaves, not labouring, are enfeebled, and therefore not so generally prolific; the Slaves being work’d too hard, and ill fed, their Constitutions are broken, and the Deaths among them are more than the Births; so that a continual Supply is needed from Africa. The Northern Colonies having few Slaves increase in Whites. Slaves also pejorate the Families that use them; the white Children become proud, disgusted with Labour, and being educated in Idleness, are rendered unfit to get a Living by Industry.

The century after independence in 1776 would confirm these observations. The first national census of 1790 revealed that the northern free states and southern slave states were relatively evenly matched in terms of the free white population, with 1.73 million and 1.24 million respectively. By 1861, there were 18.5 million free people in the free states and 8 million in the slave states, a position of devastating inferiority for the South. The French foreign minister and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, shared this assessment that slave labor and the institution of slavery itself was a principal cause of the South’s demographic disadvantage compared to the free North.

By the year 2000, the English-speaking peoples went from being about quarter of the population of France alone in the 1700s to being comparable to all the rest of Western Europe put together. These societies were at the higher end both in terms of quantitative demographic growth and per capita economic performance. Their institutions required scale to reshape the world and high fertility supplied this precondition decade after decade. In the case of the United States, immigration from continental Europe significantly contributed to its growth between 1880 and 1920, the crucial period when this former colony came to overshadow its motherland.

After 1945, U.S. population growth continued on the back of relatively high immigration and fertility compared to post-war Europe and Japan. In the early 2000s, neoconservatives would point to Americans’ patriotism, militarism, religiosity, and family values as signs of civic virtue, in contrast to decadent Europeans. Since then, however, this cultural difference has faded. Various polls show a collapse in attachment to “patriotism,” religion, and having children among younger Americans. 

This change in espoused values coincides with a significant drop in the U.S. total fertility rate (TFR), which has fallen below replacement levels, now at 1.7 per woman, on par with Sweden and less than France. This does not augur well for American power: as the working age population shrinks and the costs of the elderly rise, all else being equal, national capacities will decline.

There are however also other tendencies that suggest maintaining U.S. preeminence remains possible. It should be noted that in our age of ultra-low fertility, demographic trends are generally even worse in other developed countries, in particular America’s geopolitical rivals China, with a TFR of 1.2, and Russia with 1.5. The U.S. has a relatively high fraction of working-age people and, given adverse trends elsewhere, relative power can be maintained through sheer demographic momentum.

The United States further benefits from a kind cognitive elitism that, paradoxically, its most elitist institutions such as the Ivy League universities strenuously deny while ruthlessly practicing. The unmatched ability to brain-drain the rest of the world of its best talent means that the United States’ economic and scientific leaders are likely to remain peerless. Sergey Brin, Elon Musk, and Jensen Huang are only some of the most prominent contemporary examples.

The emphasis on governing through meritocracy wasn’t so much an accident as it was design. The Federalist Papers frequently make the case for a strong Union government on the grounds that—unlike the component states—the Union will be able to draw on a far vaster pool of talent to staff leadership positions. This wasn’t an argument for quantity of population, rather it was an argument for quality. In retirement, Thomas Jefferson, writing to John Adams on the merits of what was then referred to as “natural aristocracy,” asked: 

May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi [excellent men] into the offices of government?

This theory is noticeably distinct from nearly all contemporary arguments regarding merit-based organization. But Jefferson went further, even musing about the possibility of eugenic polygamy to sire superior humans, before dismissing the idea as likely impossible in a country founded on “the equal rights of men.” Ironically, this aspect of American thought is something that was noticed and picked up by later Chinese thinkers trying to systematically learn from and recreate the benefits of the liberal experiment. 

While using different language and justifications, contemporary leaders around the world are well aware of the importance of population quantity and quality for national power and prosperity. The late founding prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, had no doubt about what had enabled him to preside over by far the most successful national effort in economic development in the whole Third World. He told his countrymen in 1983: “I have 24 years of experience in government and I know the most precious and the most crucial asset that I must have to get a job done is talent. And not just at the top, but supported at every echelon.” Grounded in such thinking, tiny Singapore spared no efforts attracting the best talent from across Asia and in encouraging its highly-educated population to have children, though with mixed success.

Such awareness is reflected in the global race to attract “talent”—essentially to brain-drain other nations of their best and brightest—as well as the recent ideological thaw in discussing and implementing pro-natalist policies across the developed world. These pro-natalist policies have however been largely ineffective in reversing the global trend of collapsing fertility, particularly in developed nations. At most, these policies may have slowed demographic decline. Egalitarian Sweden and conservative Hungary, which both have strong pro-family policies, have similarly mediocre results. However, the most devastating trends are found in East Asia, where Japan now has a TFR of 1.3. China 1.2, and South Korea a dismal 0.7. The latter is especially catastrophic since it means every new generation will be two-thirds smaller than the previous one!

Few have truly come to terms with what the demographic collapse of the working-age populations of the developed world—where the great bulk of scientific discovery and innovation is concentrated—will mean for the future of humanity. Given the decline of fertility even in south and southeast Asia, The Lancet forecasts that the absolute majority of births in 2100 will be in sub-Saharan Africa, with almost 80% of all births in lower income countries. Even these forecasts may be too high, as population projections for Africa have been repeatedly revised down in the face of unexpectedly falling fertility.

Part of the answer to demographic decline may be found through the utilization of current and emerging assisted reproductive technologies. In vitro fertilization (IVF) has enabled millions of people—including older women, single women, and lesbian couples —to have children since the 1980s. Developments in gene sequencing and embryo screening have further enabled children born of IVF to be free of congenital disorders. Some countries have been keen to harness reproductive technology to improve their demographic fortunes. Whereas about 1% of babies born in the United States are the fruit of IVF, in Israel the figure was 4.3% already in 2013. 

While it is likely the religiosity and consequent high fertility of the ultra-orthodox Jews of Israel that has helped the country eke out a numerical advantage over Palestinians, IVF has been embraced even in those communities, showing compatibility between the religious and technological approaches to fertility is possible. During the ongoing war in Gaza, Israel again showed its willingness to use reproductive technology in service of familial and national perpetuation with the program of posthumous sperm retrieval for fallen soldiers

The extent to which other nations will exploit the emerging opportunities of such technology remains to be seen. France, which historically developed a strong natalist policy tradition to keep up with the German threat, has characteristically been the most flamboyant in signaling its embrace of these emerging technologies. With the number of births in France last year falling under 700,000 for the first time since World War II, President Emmanuel Macron recently announced his government is working on a “great plan” against infertility, which affects one in four French couples, as part of a wider effort of “demographic rearmament.”

However, in many countries, the constituencies most concerned about demographic decline, including many conservative or religious groups, are often wary or outright hostile to reproductive technology as “unnatural” and “playing God.” Given the failure of conservatives so far to resurrect traditional families through policy measures, this may be unwise.

Unlike Israel and France, the United States has no currently active tradition of pronatalist policies, though many of its policies do in fact affect fertility. As a continental hegemon protected by the oceans, with until recently a spontaneously highly fecund population at home, and a population explosion rather than implosion expected abroad, explicit natalist goals appeared unnecessary. Any such policy was also too similar to America’s 20th century experiments with fertility policy, which were politically defeated in the late 1960s and soon after fell into disrepute.

There have been more recent attempts to argue higher fertility should be a policy goal on purely economic grounds—ostensibly free of eugenic association—and further that it can be achieved through measures such as child allowances and paid parental leave. This is still a contrarian position and unlikely to capture either the liberal or conservative mainstream however. 

While IVF remains a minority phenomenon today, scientific breakthroughs in the coming years may enable radical increases in the uptake and power of reproductive technologies. In vitro gametogenesis might, for example, allow for the creation of ovaries without the traditional costly and onerous cycle of extracting them from the mother. Eventually artificial wombs might radically increase the convenience of having children—and come to eclipse pregnancy in popularity. Our recent cultural history shows that ethical and moral objections once considered sacrosanct tend to evaporate not through fiery arguments, but rather through mere convenience. 

There is significant patient interest in using polygenic embryo screening to have children with the least chance of developing complex conditions, such as schizophrenia or diabetes. With time, will a kind of “techno-natalism” emerge as a powerful way to expand reproductive choice and increase both population quality and quantity? 

If so, the United States may once again find itself well-positioned and may come to realize these technological possibilities in our emerging age of ultra-low fertility. The country pairs the strongest biotech sector in the world together with a unique ideological commitment to individualism. This individualism for now remains paired with a broad—if fading—support for families. A desire for children, an individualist perspective that values choice above other considerations, and the incentives of commerce might together just lead to mass adoption of technologies that unexpectedly shore up the crumbling demographic foundations of American power this century.

Craig Willy is a Brussels-based health and biotech policy consultant. He is the editor of the Genetic Choice Project, a blog on reproductive genetics and population trends.