Our Ultimate Resource Gone
Julian Simon's Death Is a Terrible Loss
APRIL 01, 1998 by SHELDON RICHMAN
On February 8 Julian Simon died. Difficult words to write, those. We have suffered a terrible loss on many levels. He was, first of all, a wonderful human being—ever positive, smiling, encouraging; a joy to be around. After that, he was one of freedom’s great crusaders. (When Don Boudreaux created FEE’s Council of Scholars last fall, Julian became one of its original members.) As our age sunk into the despair of what is called environmentalism, with its agenda of expropriation, restricted consumption, and population control, Julian Simon strode center stage, impish grin on his countenance, to sing his song of scientifically grounded optimism. To those who wailed that things could hardly get worse, Julian Simon replied: do you want to see worse? Read about how people lived a mere one hundred years ago; look at what age and of what they died. Now look at our age through the lens of historical perspective. With all the moaning about our killer environment, people the world over live longer and better than ever before. That is why the population grows. Women aren’t having more babies—actually, they have far fewer than just a short time ago. The population grows because the death rate falls. And a growing population is good.
That point leads to Simon’s landmark contribution to the cause of liberty, his work on the nature of resources. How often do we hear people warn that “we are running out of resources”? Too often, especially since Simon’s magnum opus, The Ultimate Resource, came out in 1981. In that book, and its updated, 1996 edition (see the review this month, p. 250), he asked a simple question: if we are running out of resources, why do their prices fall rather than rise? Everyone agrees that as anything of value becomes more scarce, its price goes up. The law must have been repealed. Or so it seems. As Simon showed, resources were not becoming more scarce at all! They were more plentiful than ever. Simon was confident that the trends of the past would continue—so confident he was willing to bet on it. Environmental alarmist Paul Ehrlich made the mistake of accepting the challenge. Ehrlich picked five metals and bet Simon that ten years later (1990) the price of each would be higher in inflation-adjusted terms.
Ehrlich lost. Even the unadjusted prices were lower. Julian Simon kept his offer to bet open until the end of his life. There were no other takers.
Why was Julian Simon so confident that the benign trends would continue? Because he understood that, strictly speaking, there are no natural resources. Nature provides man with lots of variegated stuff. But stuff is only a potential. To transform it into a resource, a creative person must first stamp it with a human purpose. People create resources. The ultimate resource is human intelligence. If individuals are free to think and create, we will have an unending supply of resources. The more people, the more creators. By the same token, for Simon immigration was a good thing. His work on population prompted F. A. Hayek to write a fan letter to Simon, the only such letter he’d ever written to an economist.
The insight about the ultimate resource is Julian Simon’s inestimable bequest. It will live forever to honor his name.
* * *Cuba has been under the thumb of communist dictatorship for almost 40 years; it is one of the few remaining outposts of that particularly awful idea, Bolshevism. Predictably, the island is poor, but the people are unbowed, writes Marc Olshan.
Cecil Bohanon and T. Norman Van Cott contribute a companion piece in which they contrast Fidel Castro with his contemporary, the late Roberto Goizueta, who fled Cuba and went on to become the fabulously successful head of Coca-Cola.
In the fourth installment in our reprint series commemorating the centenary of the birth of FEE’s founding president, Leonard E. Read, suggests that the way to sell the idea of cutting taxes is to make the moral rather than the materialistic argument for liberty.
We live in an era when wealthy owners of professional sports teams think nothing of having government force the taxpayers to build stadiums and arenas. Ray Keating tells the story of one such owner.
Come now, when a miser socks away his money and refuses to buy or invest, he can’t possibly contribute to the general welfare. You think not? Candace Allen and Dwight Lee will attempt to disabuse you of that notion.
As the digital revolution embodied in the Internet permeates more and more of daily life, some politicians have seen an opportunity to expand the scope of government. Proclaiming the danger from a coming technological underclass—information “have nots”—they call on government to ensure universal access to computers, e-mail, and the Worldwide Web. Gary Dempsey shows that government is not needed to guarantee access.
Besides the words liberty and freedom, the three most used words in libertarian literature may be state, government, and society. How these words are defined can make a huge difference in how the case for liberty is made. Wendy McElroy contributes some thoughts on the subject.
Modern America is not the only place where the government restricted property rights in resources. It happened in merry old England in the days of Robin Hood, writes Daniel Walker, who hopes we might learn from Sherwood Forest and Runnymede.
Are we or are we not experiencing global warming? Would it or would it not be a good thing even if it is happening? Jonathan Adler’s primer on the “greenhouse effect” dispels the fog from this important issue.
Much more predictable than the weather are charges of profiteering during natural disasters. Karen Selick catalogues the benefits of free pricing even during ice storms.
The man who invented the corn flake had to get out from the shadow of an eccentric brother. It wasn’t easy, writes Burt Folsom, but because of this entrepreneur’s determination, he lived to become the better-known Kellogg.
Book reviews this month take up such intriguing subjects as political extortion, prosperity, and teachers unions. Our columnists also get their monthly say: Doug Bandow on the Bureau of Indian Affairs . . . Lawrence Reed on alleged biases against women . . . and Mark Skousen on the financial crisis in Southeast Asia.
We’re also pleased to introduce a new monthly feature: The Pursuit of Happiness. Walter Williams and Charles Baird will be regular contributors, along with various guest commentators. Professor Williams’s first column, “Discrimination and Liberty,” begins on page 255.