AEI reports that Ben Wattenberg has died. I met him only once but had admired him for years, and it strikes me that he stands as a particularly important figure today. Not for his intellect, though it was keen; or for his energy, though it was abundant. No, what marked Wattenberg foremost was his courage. When the world went crazy around him, Ben Wattenberg found the truth, stood for it, and refused to abdicate his post.
Let me explain. Beginning in 1968, America fell into the grip of a Malthusian demographic mania. It had its roots in historical racism, but commingled with the radical ideals of the sexual revolution, the nascent environmental movement, and then-thriving Marxism. The flashpoint for the hysteria was the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, which became one of the most influential books of the century. Ehrlich predicted total calamity—hundreds of millions dead because of “overpopulation” within a few years. He proclaimed (among other things) that England would cease to exist by the year 2000.
In response, Ehrlich proposed a number of correctives, some of which were laughable, others of which were horrifying. He wanted to ban the internal combustion engine, for instance. He also wanted to impose punitive taxes on people who had children and advocated that the government take coercive actions, such as drugging the water supply to stunt women’s fertility and reduce the number of children being born.
It sounds crazy now, but this madman was celebrated at every level of society. He was a frequent guest of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show; he was showered with academic prizes; his advice was sought by generals and presidents. Such was the mania of the day.
And against this storm stood Ben Wattenberg. In 1975, at the height of the overpopulation hysteria, Wattenberg began looking at the data and noticed that fertility rates had plummeted across the West and were falling precipitously just about everywhere else, too. He wrote a piece for the New Republic highlighting this research and proposing that the Malthusians had it exactly backwards: Within two generations, the world’s big economic problems were likely to be caused by there being too few people.
Wattenberg expanded this piece to book length in The Birth Dearth in 1987. It stands as a landmark to truth. Where Ehrlich’s work has been thoroughly discredited—not just in the academy, but even by the New York Times!—Wattenberg’s has been vindicated. Totally. Completely.
It takes an uncommon mind to challenge the assumptions of the age in search of the truth. But the fortitude it takes to stand amidst the mob insisting on the truth once you have found it is ever more rare. What a man.
Ben Wattenberg is gone, but his courage remains an example to us all.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s coming demographic disaster.