by Russ Roberts on September 17, 2009

in Population

Bryan Caplan quotes Herman Daly who was reviewing Julian Simon:

A further reason adduced by Simon for population growth is the “genius argument.” With 4,000 births there is a better chance of getting an Einstein or a Mozart than with only 40 births. Inept as this argument is in ignoring the unique combination of nature and nurture underlying genius, it should at least have occurred to Simon that the chances of getting another Hitler or Caligula likewise increase.

Bryan has a lot of interesting things to say in response to Daly but I think he missed an important point. The expected impact of an evil genius is often smaller than the expected impact of a wonderful genius. There are lots of would-be mass murderers and the bigger the population, the bigger the absolute number. But their ability to murder lots of people is limited by the fact that most people try to stop them. Yes, in some systems (Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union), a mass murderer is able to enlist lots of people to help him. But that is rare. Most of the time, people try to stop them, and in some systems it is especially difficult to kill lots of people over any long period of time.

But lots of people work to expand the scope of Mozart. Steve Jobs and Tom Hulce come to mind. I’ll say it another way. In top-down systems, there is the potential for great evil. In decentralized systems, the scope for great evil is limited while the scope for great good is enhanced.

Technology can reverse this argument. A single evil person can, if there really is such a thing as a siutcase nuke, do damage that was unimaginable a century ago.

UPDATE AND APOLOGY: Vidyohs points out that Bryan did make the point:

1. The existence of human civilization shows that on average, human beings’ capacity for creation exceeds their capacity for destruction. History’s Hitlers and Caligulas have taken big bites out of progress, but look around. The non-monsters have created far more than the monsters have destroyed. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here to ponder this question.

I read this too quickly. Bryan is saying what I’m saying but he doesn’t mention the mechanism, merely that Daly is wrong empirically. I was thinking about the mechanism, the “why” of the empirical result.


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