Tierney, Simon, and 300 Million Resources

by Don Boudreaux on October 14, 2006

in Current Affairs, Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living

John Tierney, like me, was deeply influenced by the ideas and research of the late Julian Simon.  John’s Simon-esque wisdom is on vivid and important display in his New York Times column today; in it, he discusses the fact that the U.S. population now is 300 million persons.  Here’s a snippet:

“Overpopulation” is history’s oldest environmental crisis, and it’s the
most instructive for making sense of today’s debates about energy and
climate change. It’s a case study of intellectual arrogance, and of the
perils of putting too much faith in a “scientific consensus” of experts
infatuated with their own forecasts.

Four decades ago, scientists were so determined to prevent famines
that they analyzed the feasibility of putting “fertility control
agents” in public drinking water. The physicist William Shockley
suggested using sterilization to impose a national limit on the number
of births.

Planned Parenthood’s policy of relying on voluntary
birth control was called a “tragic ideal” by the ecologist Garrett
Hardin. Writing in the journal Science, Hardin argued that “freedom to
breed will bring ruin to all.” He and others urged America to adopt a
“lifeboat ethic” by denying food aid, even during crises, to countries
with rapidly growing populations.

Those intellectuals didn’t
persuade Americans to adopt their policies, but they had more impact
overseas. Under prodding from Westerners like Robert McNamara, the head
of the World Bank, countries adopted “fertility targets” to achieve
“optimal” population size. When an Indian government official proposed
mandatory sterilization for men with three or more children, Paul
Ehrlich criticized the United States for not rushing to help.

“We
should have volunteered logistic support in the form of helicopters,
vehicles, and surgical instruments,” he wrote, and added: “Coercion?
Perhaps, but coercion in a good cause.”

By the way, this essay on Julian from Wired, appearing one year before Simon’s untimely death in February 1998, remains among my favorites.  And among my favorite passages in this essay is this one:

[R]esources, for the most part, don’t grow on trees. People produce them, they create them, whether it be food, factories, machines, new technologies, or stockpiles of mined, refined, and purified raw materials.

"Resources come out of people’s minds more than out of the ground or
air," says Simon. "Minds matter economically as much as or more than
hands or mouths. Human beings create more than they use, on average. It
had to be so, or we would be an extinct species."

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
- the imaginative and creative."

As for the future, "This is my long-run forecast in brief," says Simon.
"The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most
people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a
century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above
today’s Western living standards.

"I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse."

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{ 8 comments }

k hagen October 15, 2006 at 1:59 am

"Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today's Western living standards.

"I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse."

Brilliant! It's the unfounded belief that things are going to hell, and that we have so do something about it — now!—, that has brought us the many and varied hells we have now on earth. If there's anything to worry about it's the doomsayers getting control.

Praise be the ultimate resource!

Russell Nelson October 15, 2006 at 2:58 am

Uhhhh, actually, Julian got that backwards. He should have speculated on the state of society, and been certain that pessimists would still be loud about their pessimism in spite of all facts. Of the pair of them, the latter is far more certain.

William Tanksley October 15, 2006 at 2:29 pm

The end of this essay referred to the gloom'n'doomers as "Malthusian". From what I've read (I haven't read Mathus' works, but I've read much of Mises, who cited him frequently), Malthus was more of a classical economist, and believed that human behavior would adjust itself to the restrictions, thus preventing a breakdown.

Was Mises taking Malthus out of context? Or perhaps should the adjective be "Ehrlichian" ("the population bomb") rather than "Malthusian"?

-Billy

John Thacker October 16, 2006 at 10:43 am

So, Thomas Malthus believed that periodic shortages and adjustments were an historical inevitability. Basically, he thought that population would inevitably outstrip the growth in food supply, resulting in necessary adjustments. He thought basically that it was more humane for the poor to voluntarily limit their population growth rather than have it limited for them by events. He focused on the poor because he felt that they would suffer from the deprivations anyway (and since the rich, even in his time, were known for having fewer children.)

Of course, his thoughts quickly became used for other purposes, including coercive ones.

The "Malthusian" reference usually refers to his assumption that population growth would increase geometricaly whereas food production only arithmetically. The coercive policy suggestions did not come from him, though.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick October 17, 2006 at 10:56 pm

The Earth's human population cannot grow without limit, therefore it will not grow without limit. Either population ceases to grow when (1) the death rate rises to meet the birth rate or when (2) the birth rate falls to meet the death rate. Either 1 or 2 happens due to (a) deliberate human agency or due to (b) non-human agency. Voluntary programs for population control selectively breed non-compliant individuals. Therefore, if deliberate human agency causes the birth rate to fall to meet the death rate, this human agency will be enforced. This enforement will be (x) democratically agreed-upon or (y) imposed without consent.

Where do you disagree?

Which do you prefer? You have six choices. Seven if you count "bury my head in the sand" as a choice (that's (1,a,y) or (2,b) by default).

Malcolm Kirkpatrick October 17, 2006 at 11:08 pm

Sorry. (2,a,y) or (1,b) by default.

Joseph Hertzlinger October 19, 2006 at 4:36 pm

If there actually is a limit (and we ignore the existence of the rest of the universe), we can expect rents to increase as the population nears the limit. When rents are higher, birth rates decline.

Kevin October 25, 2006 at 4:56 pm

Malcolm,

Let the market figure out Earth's ideal population. Any coercive enforcement would be much less efficient.

And just because enforcement is democratically agreed upon does not necessarily imply consent. x and/or y

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