Remembering an economist who believed in the future
Professor Julian Simon, RIP
By Quentin Langley
Dateline 14 February 1998
Economics is known as the dismal science. Justifiably. The large majority of economists seem to have missed the central truth of their field of study: that the human race has been getting richer, year on year, for centuries. Sadly, one of the very few economists to berate his colleagues for this appalling oversight has passed away, aged 65.
A critic might say that Julian Simon's life was sadly wasted. He devoted a large proportion of it to repudiating Malthus. Surely, in the bicentenary of the year that Malthus predicted the World was on the point of running out of food, Malthus has been repudiated by time? But this is to miss the point. Malthusian arguments did, and do, need to be confronted. Malthusians will not accept that Malthus was wrong. They just keep moving the goalposts.
Each new doom-laden prophecy tells us that food will become dangerously scarce in about five years. And five years later, the moment of mass starvation is postponed again. There is an equally facile sub-breed of Malthusians convinced that the World will exhaust its energy reserves in 15-20 years. (Though why this should bother us, when we will all have starved to death by then, is anyone's guess).
I don't think Malthus ever mentioned the five year deadline favoured by his acolytes, but since he re-wrote his theory in 1803, it may well have been the timescale he had in mind.
In 1798, when Malthus first predicted imminent starvation, the population of the World was approximately 900 million. Today it is around six THOUSAND million, and we are, on average, better fed, better clothed, better housed, healthier and longer lived than Malthus's contemporaries.
With tiny - and rare, the last was more than half a century ago - interruptions, the World has grown more wealthy every year for hundreds of years.
But, though the facts speak for themselves, many were simply not listening. And so Julian Simon dedicated his life to reiterating their message.
In remembering Simon we should not forget that he was prepared to back his arguments with hard cash. In a famous bet he took from Paul Ehrlich the price of a ten thousand dollar basket of commodities, offering to pay back in ten years the real terms price of the same basket. Ehrlich, believing that resources were growing scarcer, thought the price would rise. Simon knew that it would fall. No-one ever took up Simon's subsequent bet of 100,000 dollars.
It would be irresponsible not to mention that Simon's arguments have been used by those opposed to letting women have access to birth control - and that Simon himself did not seem to mind his arguments being put to that purpose.
But this seems to me to be right. The argument that women should have access to birth control is a moral one, and needs to be put in moral terms. It is a dangerous concession to allow it degenerate to a utilitarian debate, especially when the Malthusian arguments used to back it up are demonstrably flawed. Why rely on the broken shield of Malthus when you are armed with the simple sword of truth?
Copyright © Quentin Langley 14 February 1998