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Julian Simon Remembered (Would have been 80 today)

“[Julian] Simon found that humanity progressed not only by solving immediate problems within the existing institutional framework but also by creatively improving the framework over time. . . . In the short run, members of society adopt localized technical and contractual fixes. In the medium range, they may explore government regulatory policies. In the longer term, they expand the scope and scale of the liberal institutions. These institutions of economic freedom—private property, binding contracts, and the rule of law—improve incentive structures that foster both economic well-being and environmental stewardship.”

- Fred Smith, “Introduction,” in Robert Bradley, Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability (Washington, D.C.: ALEC, 2000), p. 12.

Julian Simon (1932–98) would have been eighty years old today. MasterResource is inspired by his contributions to energy (what he labeled “the master resource”), as well as his open-ended view of human ingenuity (what he called “the ultimate resource”).

Who can forget Simon’s statement: “It’s reasonable to expect the supply of energy to continue becoming more available and less scarce, forever.” [1] That one got the neo-Malthusians (fixity-depletionists) mad!

Or this: “Discoveries, like resources, may well be infinite: the more we discover, the more we are able to discover.” [2] The cascading effect of human discovery, indeed, the open-endedness of entrepreneurship (and in the mineral world, resourceship), is a very powerful explanatory concept.

And his public policy conclusion: “The world’s problem is not too many people, but a lack of political and economic freedom.” [3] Simon elaborated:

The extent to which the political-social-economic system provides personal freedom from government coercion is a crucial element in the economics of resources and population…. The key elements of such a framework are economic liberty, respect for property, and fair and sensible rules of the market that are enforced equally for all. [4]

The headlines continue to confirm Simon’s worldview about mineral resources. The oil and gas shale boom in the U.S. and around the world have refuted ‘peak oil’ and ‘peak gas’ predictions and worries for the foreseeable future. And how about this: Rare Earth Plant Ready, But in a Glut,” a business headline in the New York Times recently read.

In one of his last works, Hoodwinking the Nation, published the year after his death, Simon spelled out his worldview:

The message about human betterment and economic progress is more general than any individual statements about raw materials, air, water, life expectancy, education, and the like. There is solid theoretical basis for the idea that that all aspects of human welfare should get better, not just as a matter of coincidence but as part of a broad causal mechanism.

Humanity has necessarily evolved so that we have more of the nature of creators than of destroyers—or else the species would have died out long ago. People seek to improve their conditions, and therefore on balance people build more than they tear down and produce more than they consume. Hence each generation leaves the world a bit better in most respects than it begins with. [5]

May the legacy of Julian Simon continue–and may free markets continue to give life to Simon’s optimism.

Appendix: Other Julian Simon Posts at MasterResource

“Happy Earth Day”: Julian Simon’s Silver Anniversary Earth Day Letter (April 22, 2011)

Julian Simon Changed His Mind–Can Others Come to View Humans as the Solution, not the Problem?  (February 15, 2010)

Remembering Julian Simon (1932–1998)  (February 8, 2010)

Julian Simon on the Ultimate Resource (Forget Peak Oil, Worry About Peak Government)  (January 1, 2010)

“The Cheaper the Energy the Better” (Julian Simon in 1993 speaks to us today)    (July 13, 2009)

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[1] Simon. The Ultimate Resource 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996, p. 181.

[2] Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2, p. 82.

[3] Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2, p. 11.

[4] Julian Simon, “Introduction,” in Simon, ed., The State of Humanity (Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1995), p. 26.

[5] Julian Simon, Hoodwinking the Nation (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1999), p. 52.

10 comments

1 Harry Dale Huffman { 02.12.12 at 7:43 am }

Julian Simon is still a man ahead of the times (which are pessimistic to the point of hysteria and open warfare). His strong positive, and well-reasoned, view is greatly needed, particularly by the Malthusians now in the midst of trying to drive the world off a cliff (and in the name of saving it from the same).

2 Lionell Griffith { 02.12.12 at 11:01 am }

Simon examined the past with an objective eye and concluded that the future is something to be embraced rather than feared. He knew the future held many problems to be solved and that he did not have to solve all of them.

Most importantly, he discovered that when individuals are left free, they will solve the problems that are important to them to solve. Then, if enough individuals are free, they will solve enough of the problems important to each individually to sustain and advance civilization. Further, he found, that the one shortage that explains all other shortages is a shortage of economic and political freedom. This discovery should be enough to spread freedom around the globe and stop tyranny in its tracks. It isn’t. Why? You have to want to live and live well to do that.

The so called progressives who have taken over the positions of power in government and academia do not want to live nor want you to live. How do I know this? When someone repeatedly advocates and puts into action a process that unfailingly achieves a particular end, he wants that end. This is true no matter what his protestations are to the contrary.

The first time could be an innocent mistake of understanding perhaps worthy of the benefit of doubt. The second time a not so innocent mistake of miscommunication. The third time it is by direct and purposeful intent. We are so far past the third time there should be no question as to malignant intent.

At the very least, we must stop giving them the benefit of the doubt and hold them directly and purposefully accountable for the results they have achieved, are achieving, and will be achieving. No longer can we allow ourselves be bamboozled by their pretty words that it’s not for them, its for the (cause of choice). They do not mean well and we are their targets.

3 Bill Batt { 02.12.12 at 1:32 pm }

There are limits on population size and food production. Limits on available clean water. Compared to two thousand years ago (
Roman Empire and Chinese Empire) those limits have expanded immensely. A hundred times or a thousand times. We must not return to the subsistence farms of 1800. Subsistence as in just barely surviving.

4 Remembering Julian Simon | Bleeding Heart Libertarians { 02.12.12 at 1:58 pm }

[...] speak, of course, of the irreplaceable Julian Simon. Rob Bradley offers a really nice appreciation here.  I will only add that 45 of the most memorable minutes of my life was spent on a boat trip to St. [...]

5 Assorted links — Marginal Revolution { 02.12.12 at 6:16 pm }

[...] 7. Julian Simon would have been 80 today. [...]

6 Lionell Griffith { 02.12.12 at 7:16 pm }

Bill,

Any limits are simply limits on technology which, according to Simon, is much more limited by the lack of economic and political freedom than by lack of identified resources to work with. As you point out, the limits have been expanded by orders of magnitude in the past 100 years with a part free and part politically controlled economy. What would it have been and what could it be without the the political controls?

I suggest that we would not be limited to the materials in the first few kilometers of the surface of the earth. The earth is a solid ball of resources and we have the rest of the solar system waiting for us to exploit. Just because you or I can’t solve all the problems does not mean they cannot or will not be solved.

Simple case in point. A decade ago we were running out of oil and gas. Peak oil has been repeatedly predicted for many decades. Yet more recoverable oil and gas has been discovered over the past five years so that we have multiples of the quantity though available during the peak oil panic. Why, we were free enough to develop the technology to discover and extract all we need for hundreds of years at current usage. This was done in spite of the heavy handed top down prohibition against use of our own energy resources. Imagine, again, what could have been done and would have been done without the despotic rule of the so called ecologists.

According to them there is no problem that can’t be solved by more government, more control, more taxation, and more regulation. The fact is, problems are created wholesale by such things and none are solved. That is unless you hold that free men voluntarily associating and trading the products of the use of THEIR lives is a problem needing solution. I don’t. Government is the problem and freedom is the solution.

7 Assorted links | Bailout and Financial Crisis News { 02.12.12 at 8:01 pm }

[...] 7. Julian Simon would have been 80 today. [...]

8 Oscae B enitez de la Campa { 02.13.12 at 11:03 am }

Julian Simon’s vision was broad. It is ironic that he found little competition in his optimistic stand of using natural resources. He was right by saying that enenrgy is almost infinite. Sun energy, more than half of the chemical elements being radioactive isotopes, some with thousands of years until end of decay, plus recycling, wind power, gravity, spacial inertia, tides and many other sources yet to be discovered. Let’s all be optimistic, be good stewards of natural resources and work together for human well being.

9 Mark Heslep { 02.14.12 at 10:55 pm }

Thanks for that wonderful memorial to a great thinker.

10 Free Markets Are a “Do Something” Solution - American Products. American Power. { 01.22.13 at 4:49 pm }

[...] abstract is straightforward enough; it is yet another example of the sort of thing documented by Julian Simon: Generally speaking, human beings with their wonderful minds, find ways to make life better over [...]

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