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A Tribute to Julian Simon

Were he still alive, Julian Simon would have turned 76 yesterday.  Unfortunately, he died in 1998 just four days shy of his 66th birthday.  Here’s a tribute that I wrote to Julian, published in today’s edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.  And here are some core paragraphs:

Simon’s most important contribution was to crystallize and explain an
insight that even the best economists before him only glimpsed —
namely, that human beings in free societies are "the ultimate
resource." Nothing — not oil, not land, not gold, not microchips,
nothing — is as valuable to the material well-being of people as is
human creativity and effort.

Indeed, there are no resources without human creativity
to figure out how to use them and human effort actually to do so.
Recognizing the truth of this insight renders silly the familiar term
"natural resources."

No resources are "natural."

Take petroleum. What makes it a "resource"? It’s certainly not a
resource naturally. If it were, American Indians would long ago have
put it to good use. But they didn’t. I suspect that for Pennsylvania’s
native population in, say, the year 1300, the dark, thick, smelly stuff
that bubbled up in watering holes was regarded as a nuisance.

Petroleum didn’t become a resource until human beings creatively
figured out how to use it to satisfy some human desires and other human
beings figured out how to extract it cost-effectively from the ground.

Or take land. For at least 80 percent of Homo sapiens’ time on
earth, land was merely something to trod and hunt upon. Land had no
special value as a resource until about 10,000 years ago when someone
figured out how to cultivate soil and to plant, tend and harvest crops.
Only then did land achieve the kind of status and value that we
associate with a resource.

The same, of course, is true for magnesium, iron ore, bauxite,
feldspar, trees, New York harbor — you name the "natural resource" and
you’ll realize that it is a resource only because human beings
creatively determined how to use it productively.

An important implication of this realization that humans are
"the ultimate resource" is that high and growing population — in
societies with sufficient freedom to allow individuals to experiment
and create — is desirable. If human creativity and effort are not only
resources, but also the ultimate resource, surely it’s foolish to lament large and growing supplies of it.