A Case for One Billion Americans?

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger
by Matthew Yglesias
Portfolio Penguin, 2020
xx + 267 pages

Matthew Yglesias, a cofounder of Vox and frequent writer for it, has some useful insights in this book. But he perfectly exemplifies a type of mind that is capable of doing great damage. I hesitate to say this, as he seems engaging and intelligent, but the evidence is unmistakable. He is a statist and planner, who sees his goal for America as obviously true. He fully recognizes the controversial nature of some of the measures he favors to achieve his goal, and he will be glad to debate you about their merits; but practically all Americans, he thinks, accept this goal.

The goal is to keep America as the most powerful nation in the world. He says,

The United States has been the number one power in the world throughout my entire lifetime and throughout the living memory of essentially everyone on the planet today. The notion that this state of affairs is desirable and ought to persist is one of the least controversial things you could say in American politics today…while some left-wing intellectuals might suggest that the end of American hegemony would be desirable, I’ve never heard an elected official from either party articulate that view. (p. xiv)

What happens if we are not the world hegemon? Isn’t it enough that people can live their lives in peace, defending ourselves only if we are invaded by another nation? Indeed, isn’t it wrong for any nation, even America, to rule over other nations?

Oddly enough given his goal, Yglesias recognizes that some things that go on in foreign countries aren’t our business, and he favors reducing American military spending. He says,

Military defense is an important national task, but a very large share of this money seems to be spent on things like prolonged deployments to the Middle East that are only tangentially related to actually defending the country—or even to defending reliable allies….When something bad is happening somewhere in the world—Libya, Syria, whatever—there is often a sense that the United States perhaps ought to “do something” about it. Nobody expects Chile or Singapore to “do something” about foreign civil wars because there is nothing they can do. But the American military is vast enough that we can, in fact, intervene—albeit at additional cost. If these interventions were systematically helpful, it might be a good reason to maintain such a large defense establishment. But the cost-benefit ratio of trying to help foreigners through military intervention is miserable—indeed, it’s difficult to ascertain whether the trillions spent on twentieth-first-century wars have been helpful on net at all. (pp. 248–49)

Has Yglesias changed from an ultrahawk at the beginning of the book to a benevolent noninterventionist near the book’s end? Alas, his conversion is incomplete: we must limit wasteful military spending so that we can concentrate on a confrontation with our main enemy, China. Why China is a threat to us is nowhere explained. The principal sin of its government is that it seeks to unseat us as the world’s foremost power, and we cannot have that, can we?

Yglesias acknowledges that China’s ascendancy would not pose a direct threat to America, but nevertheless it cannot be accepted. Never mind why.

And, obviously, even if China were to become a greater military power, it’s not as if we’d have Chinese tanks rolling down the streets of Washington. . .But American leaders, with good reason, aren’t talking about learning to adapt to a world where the United States is a second-rate power. (p. xvii) 

But even if we accept Yglesias’s goal, aren’t we relatively safe? Isn’t America much richer than China? Yes, says Yglesias, at least for now, but China has an advantage over us that wealth alone will not suffice to counter. Our author thinks that history is on the side of the big battalions, and that we will succumb unless we can counter China’s superior population. If we want to maintain American hegemony, “we’re going to need more people—about a billion people—and then follow that inference to where it leads in terms of immigration, family policy and the welfare state, housing, transportation, and more” (p. xiv).

For Yglesias, strong government isn’t the problem: it’s usually the solution. At one point, I thought I had misjudged him. A section heading in the chapter “Comeback Cities” reads. “Decentralize the federal government.” Has he for once abandoned centralism for localism? You will not be surprised to learn that he hasn’t. He doesn’t mean that he wants the have the states, or even better, local government, take over the functions of our bloated Leviathan. To the contrary, he wants to move parts of the federal government to areas he considers underpopulated to encourage people to settle there. “The key point is to identify cities that, like Detroit or Cleveland, are currently overbuilt from the standpoint of housing stock and infrastructure—cheap rents, few traffic jams, airports that are operating below their historical capacity—and provide them with the biggest thing they need to succeed, an infusion of new jobs and people” (pp. 168–69).

One could proceed by giving more examples of the author’s compulsion to plan our lives, but, with characteristic generosity, I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll give some examples in which he makes sense by actually proposing to ease the iron grip of government. In line with his support of large numbers of people in small spaces, he opposes land-use regulations that use force to keep people living apart. “The vast majority of America’s developed land is zoned exclusively for single-family detached homes. That’s true not just in suburbs, but in central cities….Obviously if you make it illegal to deploy the best available technology for conquering land scarcity, then land scarcity will become a serious problem” (p. 194). In a brilliant passage, he points out that many people like single-family homes but “just because something is desirable doesn’t mean it makes sense to require it—a concept American policy makers have little trouble grasping in almost any context other than housing” (p. 197, emphasis in original).

He calls for easing the licensing requirements to practice medicine:

As Dean Baker, the idiosyncratic left-wing economist who’s been writing about this issue for years explains, “Currently, foreign doctors are banned from practicing unless they complete a U.S. residency program. Foreign dentists are prohibited from practicing in the United States unless they graduate from a U.S. dental school.”…a sensible approach would be to establish some clear objective training standards and then allow anyone who can meet them to practice in the United States…simply increasing the supply of doctors would make getting treatment easier and more convenient for everyone—a clear win. (pp. 127–28)

We now must confront a problem. If Yglesias recognizes the value of free choice in these instances, how does he reconcile this with his support for planning to maintain American world hegemony? I do not know the answer, but I’d like to offer a suggestion. He seems very well-versed in Chicago price theory, and, as Murray Rothbard pointed out, Chicago economists often do not regard taxation as interference with the price-system. Given this position, they can in their own minds consistently oppose price controls but support redistributive taxation. I don’t know whether Yglesias holds to this doctrine, but if so, it would make what he says in the book more coherent.

And support heavy taxation he certainly does. Faced with the not insignificant question of how his ambitious plans are to be financed, he answers that “to the extent we need higher taxes, it makes sense to tax things we would like to see less of. One set of popular options involves increasing taxes on the wealthy….The other big source of potential tax revenue is taxing bad things” (pp. 248–49). The “bad thing” he has principally in mind is alcohol consumption. It doesn’t interfere with freedom if the government makes consumption of goods it doesn’t like much more difficult: it isn’t forbidding people to consume them. Such pettifoggery ill serves the cause of freedom, but it may well be useful in the global crusade against China.

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