Economics 101

This 40-Year-Old Book Can Help Us Address the Dwindling Rate of Population Growth

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Concerns that there will soon be too many people for the planet to support are not new—nor have past versions of the argument proven true. In fact, a 40-year old book written by the economist Julian Simon can provide us with the encouragement we need to have families as large as we want, not as small as society thinks they should be.

Taking On the Population Doomsayers

When Simon published the first edition of his magnum opus, The Ultimate Resource, in 1981, the general perspective on the world’s economic future was grim thanks to the rise of anti-population doomsayers and “neo-Malthusianism.” The neo-Malthusians drew their name from Thomas Malthus, a famous economist who argued at the turn of the 19th century that population growth would outstrip the world’s food supply. The neo-Malthusians of Simon’s day were motivated by additional resource concerns, but their arguments were essentially the same as Malthus’.

In the decade before Simon’s book, a number of key neo-Malthusian publications and scholars had garnered worldwide attention and were impacting global policy:

  • The Club of Rome published their influential “Limits to Growth” report, which badly predicted future catastrophe caused by population and had a role in inspiring China’s infamous one-child policy
  • The United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) began its operations to assist countries with lowering their populations. UNFPA would later give an award to China and India for the “success” of their coercive population programs (causing Nobel prize-winning economist Theodore Schultz to resign from the advisory board). 
  • The doomsaying had leaked into the popular culture as well, such as when Paul Ehrlich, author of the infamous book The Population Bomb, which argued that the human population would outstrip the food supply and resources available, appeared on Johnny Carson. 

God’s command in Genesis 1:28 to be fruitful and multiply was out of the question as far as the popular culture was concerned.

Simon Pushes Back 

Simon challenged that grim outlook with two simple points in The Ultimate Resource. First, as human population grows and creates problems like shortages, there will also be more creative minds to solve said problems, leaving humanity better off. 

Second, Simon gathered significant evidence that historically this had already occurred. Resource scarcity, as measured by prices, had been decreasing—even for “non-renewable” resources such as copper. Pollution was decreasing. People were getting healthier. 

In short, Simon argued, human creative capacity was the ultimate resource and the true engine of resource creation, and there was no reason to expect the engine to stop. Things were getting better all the time.

Although the doomsayers seem to always be with us, it’s clear that Simon’s argument was effective. This was likely due, in part, to the fact that his worldview bore out. Hundreds of millions did not die of starvation yearly in the 1970s and society did not collapse as Ehrlich predicted. Humanity did not run out of oil. In fact, people got richer and healthier, as Simon predicted. Perhaps the best visualization of this was the fact that Simon literally won a bet against Ehrlich on this topic.

Unfortunately, just three years after the second edition of The Ultimate Resource was published in 1996, Julian Simon passed away unexpectedly at the young age of 65. But Simon’s work and its importance live on.

The Importance of Simon’s Legacy

Despite the decline of the neo-Malthusians, Simon’s contribution remains very important for several reasons. 

First, after a year like 2020, we badly need Simon’s optimism. While the recent pandemic has surely been a negative shock for humanity, it’s important to remember one of Simon’s key insights: Things can get worse in the short term but, in the long run, the story of humanity has been a story of success more than failure in terms of improvements in health and wealth. We’re even seeing the fruits of human ingenuity (somewhat slowed by regulation) taking on our newest challenge. Despite our troubles, humanity still has its ultimate resource.

Simon’s work is also important due to new calls for population control. Recently, over 11,000 scientists threw their support behind population control to curb potential climate catastrophes. Like their intellectual predecessor, Paul Ehrlich, these scientists could use a reminder of Simon’s work so they don’t make the same mistake of stepping outside of their field of expertise. Likewise, economists focused on climate externality models—which assume people are homogenous labor blobs rather than creative entrepreneurs—could stand to read Simon.

Refocusing on how humans are boons to one another may also help with the recent problem of shrinking population occurring throughout the developed world. As previously mentioned, the most recent census data shows that the U.S. had its slowest population growth rate in its history during the 2010s. Though Simon did not necessarily encourage people to have more children, as he believed they knew best about their own lives, he worried about the negative impacts of experts and central planners trying to convince them to have fewer children. 

Perhaps introducing Simon back into the cultural zeitgeist will dispel whatever impact doomsayer propaganda has on the fact that American women are having fewer children than they’d like. Or maybe this information will help guide policy-makers to pass less legislation which makes having a family more difficult.

Bright Hope for Tomorrow 

Despite the challenges of today, I’m optimistic for the future. Many modern thinkers have continued or recently started carrying the torch Simon lit. HumanProgress recently started the Julian Simon Project to continue his work. Economists like Don Boudreaux have continued to promote his work popularly and a recent book by Matthew Yglesias promotes the positive aspects of population growth. Bjorn Lomborg, inspired by Simon, continues to promote fact-based environmentalism. The academic journal The Review of Austrian Economics is hosting an issue to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Ultimate Resource. Although gloom and pessimism about human population may be popular, Simon’s work is being carried on.

So take heart. Don’t let your family or friends be worried about the bogeyman of overpopulation. As Simon said, “The ultimate resource is people—especially skilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty—who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefits, and so inevitably they will benefit the rest of us as well.”

I look forward to this year, the 40th anniversary of Simon’s work, to demonstrate its correctness. 

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