The young don't recall the Seventies, and the rest of us try to forget. Saigon fell, and so did Richard Nixon—but not before he had slapped price controls on everything in sight. Soon we were mysteriously running out of all those price-fixed items, especially oil. But the scarcest commodity in those days was optimism. For the first time since the Depression we ended a decade poorer than we had begun it.
When Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, argued that humanity was a menace to the ecosystem, and that only reduced living standards could save civilization, a demoralized country listened. In Ehrlich's best-case scenario the U. S. would soon have to begin rationing food. We would certainly have to kill all our pets and, regrettably, compulsory sterilization would be necessary in poorer countries.
Ehrlich became a national celebrity, appearing 25 times on the Tonight show to peddle his neo-Malthusian theories.
The counter-offensive came from an obscure professor of business economics named Julian Simon (1932-1998). In a series of increasingly bold journal articles he argued that there was no empirical support for Ehrlichism, and in 1981 he published the fruits of his work in his most famous book, The Ultimate Resource.
With cheerful insouciance and a mountain of facts, Simon demonstrated that the ultimate resource is not oil or copper, it is "people—skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so, inevitably, for the benefit of us all," and that "the world's problem is not too many people, but lack of political and economic freedom."
Simon publicly challenged Ehrlich to back his rhetoric with money, offering to wager $1,000 that the cost of any raw material will not rise over any period longer than a year. Ehrlich took up the bet with alacrity, picking five metals and specifying a span of ten years.
World population grew by 800 million, but the price of each of the metals dropped, an outcome that belied Ehrlich's theories. He paid off but carped gracelessly that he had been "goaded" into the wager, or "snookered," or that the decade of the eighties was somehow exceptional. He pointedly refused, however, to again put his money where his mouth was.
Dr. Simon died two years ago, as a revised and expanded version of The Ultimate Resource was being published. By then the climate of opinion had begun to shift perceptibly since the doleful disco days of the 1970s, due in no small part to his pivotal influence. As Ed Regis wrote in Wired in 1997:
"The defect of the Malthusian models, superficially plausible but invariably wrong, is that they leave the human mind out of the equation. 'These models simply do not comprehend key elements of people [said Simon]—the imaginative and creative...Resources come out of people's minds more than out of the ground or air...Human beings create more than they use, on average. It had to be so, or we would be an extinct species."
—by John C. LeGere
Copyright © 2000, The Daily Objectivist - Reprinted with permission of The Daily Objectivist and Davidmbrown.com.
19 Jun 2009