My grandparents had a large family. Often a dozen people crowded their dinner table. But there was always room for one more. If someone showed up uninvited, my grandfather would say “FHB,” which meant “family hold back.” My grandparents were not rich. But they had enough to share. Their table was never full.
My grandparents would be appalled to learn that last week the president declared that “our country is full.” American leadership has not said anything like this before. But it resonates with an argument made in the 1970s by the environmental scientist Garrett Hardin in an essay entitled “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor.”
Hardin focused on the struggle for survival in a world of finite resources. He pictured each nation as a lifeboat with a limited carrying capacity. He said we ought to prevent others from climbing aboard because too many people would swamp our boat.
Echoing an argument made in the 18th Century by Thomas Malthus, Hardin suggested that rescuing the poor encourages them to breed and exacerbates their plight. Aid prevents the needy from solving their own problems. Hardin’s cold advice is to leave the destitute masses to their plight, either to sink or to swim.
The ethic of the Golden Rule points in another direction. My grandparents would not callously disregard strangers in need. Nor would they agree with President Trump’s recent claim that an open border is “treason.” The family is not betrayed by inviting more people to dinner, even if this means that we each have to hold back.
The motto of hospitality is “the more the merrier.” Growth is good. There is always room for one more. And if you are full while others are hungry, you are selfish and unkind.
One deep source for this idea is found in the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes. Some see this as a miracle. But it demonstrates the magic of hospitality. Those we welcome to our tables are not passive, gaping mouths. Rather, our guests bring their own gifts and contribute to the whole. If you throw a party, you end up with more food and drink than you began with.
The good news is that since 1974, our population has grown by 50%, along with general prosperity. When Hardin wrote his article, the population of the U.S. was about 210 million. Today it is about 330 million. And we are generally doing better thanks to technological innovation and entrepreneurial energy. Our lifeboat has not collapsed.
A similar point can be made globally. Since Malthus, global population has grown from fewer than 1 billion to over 7 billion. Global wealth has increased and people generally live longer and healthier lives.
A cynic might suggest that the catastrophe has simply been deferred. Some ecologists warn that as population grows and global warming worsens, we are destined for calamity. In an overpopulated and overheated world, the Malthusians will want walls to keep out the swarming hordes.
But this assumes we will keep breeding and burning at current rates. The lifeboat ethic supposes that human beings are too stupid and selfish to learn and adapt. It assumes that no other technological or cultural innovations will solve our problems.
But human beings possess reason and virtue. Education and opportunity — especially for women — create positive change. Liberty and science spur creativity, innovation, and moral progress. Global solidarity and cooperation are the key to solving global problems.
The Malthusians don’t understand this. They view the world from the vantage point of self-interest. They see life as a zero-sum struggle for survival. They think that each new person on the lifeboat is an egoist who will take advantage without adding to the commonwealth. And they are clearly not willing to abide by my grandfather’s idea that the family should hold back to make room for the other.
The ethic of hospitality sees things differently. When someone is hungry you feed them. When a stranger arrives you make room and hold back. But hospitality is not primarily about holding back. It is about throwing a party that begins with five loaves and two fishes and ends up feeding a multitude.