Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
THE RECENT DEATH OF JULIAN SIMON was a special loss because he was one of those people who took on the thankless task of talking sense on a subject where nonsense is all the rage. A professor of economics at the University of Maryland, Julian Simon wrote fact-filled books about population -- all of them exposing the fallacies of those who were promoting "overpopulation" hysteria.
Ironically, Professor Simon's death comes during the 200th anniversary of Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population which started the hysteria that is still with us today, despite two centuries of mounting evidence against it. Like so many other theories that can survive tons of contrary evidence, overpopulation theory relies on slippery definitions and a constituency that needs a mission more than it wants facts.
What Malthus said two centuries ago was that human beings have the potential to increase faster than the food needed to feed them. No one doubted this -- then or now. From this he made the fatal leap across a chasm of logic to say that there was a real danger that people would in fact grow so fast as to create a problem of feeding them.
The truism that the capacity to produce food limits the size of the sustainable population does not mean that population is anywhere near those limits. No automobile can drive faster than the power of its engine will permit, but you cannot explain the actual speeds of cars on roads and highways by those limits, because only an idiot drives at those limits.
Julian Simon set out to explain what happened to real population in the real world, not what happens in abstract models or popular hysteria. In the real world, as he demonstrated with masses of facts and in-depth analysis, we are nowhere near to running low on food or natural resources.
Professor Simon made a famous bet with the leading hysteria-monger of our time, Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University. Simon had offered to bet anybody that any set of natural resources that they claimed were running low would in fact be cheaper in the future than today. Professor Ehrlich took him up on it. Simon allowed Ehrlich to pick which resources and which period of time.
Ehrlich and his fellow hysterics chose a bundle of ten natural resources and a period of ten years. At the end of the decade, not only was the real cost of that bundle lower than at the beginning, every single natural resource that the Ehrlich camp had picked had a lower real cost than when the decade began.
If we were really running low on these resources, they would be getting progressively more expensive, instead of progressively cheaper. This is elementary supply-and-demand economics. But those addicted to overpopulation hysteria are no more interested in economics than they are in evidence.
What overpopulation theory provides is far more emotionally satisfying than facts, logic or economics. It is one of a whole family of theories which depict other people as so dangerously thoughtless that imposing the superior wisdom and virtue of some anointed social missionaries is all that can save us from disaster.
This vision inspired the eugenics movement in the early decades of this century, the recycling movement today and innumerable other heady crusades in between. Contrary facts mean absolutely nothing to the true believers. Those who insist on talking about those contrary facts encounter only hostility and demonization.
Julian Simon understood that. In a letter to me a couple of years ago, he mentioned a certain Nobel Prize-winning economist who had said to him that "even with all his prestige he would not say that population growth might well be a good thing because he was afraid he might lose credibility." Such is the power of intimidation in our time.
"Yes, one can always argue that such prudence is wise. But we all know the consequences of such 'wise' choices," Simon wrote. It is a society where strident hysteria drowns out truth and where our policies are based on headstrong nonsense, loudly shouted.
With a full understanding of the opposition and smears he would encounter, Julian Simon nevertheless wrote The Economics of Population Growth, Population Matters, and -- his best-known book -- The Ultimate Resource. To him, the ultimate resource was human intelligence.
We should also add, in honor of Julian Simon, the courage to use that
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric