A Free-Market Energy Blog

On the History of Resource Thought (Vettese dissertation comments)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- August 31, 2021

“[My] early writing was from a viewpoint that there was an ocean of BTUs beneath our feet, and what was high cost and supplemental today would become low cost and conventional later. I ‘trusted’ human ingenuity. I turned out ‘right’ for the wrong technological reason: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.”

Any intellectual is interested in what is written about him or her, whether it be in the newspaper or an essay, book, or doctoral dissertation. In my case, being of 66 summers, and having a lot of scholarship under my belt, I do not worry much about the momentary ad hominem stuff. But for the record, I am eager to correct with facts and interpretation as needed.

This brings me to a dissertation, “Limits and Cornucopianism: A History of Neo-Liberal Environmental Thought, 1920–2007” (New York University: 2019). Author Troy Vettese, currently a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs, works at the intersections of environmentalism, energy, animal studies, and Marxism. His PhD is in history.

Dr. Vettese and I are quite apart intellectually. But I welcome his attention to Julian Simon, Erich Zimmermann, and myself. It provides a basis for mutual understanding, debate, rebuttal, and improvement.

I offer my comments below on paragraphs from chapter 4, “Canonisation in the Viennese School,” that relate to me. His text is in green, followed by my comments. Note that this excerpt is a very small part of a very broad dissertation surveying literally hundreds of scholars, of which I am but one.

Simon died in 1998, but his framework would continue to guide neo-liberals in their confrontation with the environmentalist movement, especially as climate change came to the fore at the turn of the millennium. In particular, Robert Bradley Jr and George Reisman busied themselves in the 2000s to integrate Simon’s cornucopianism into the canon of the Viennese School.

Comment: We were just two of many. The author might not know about my booklet, Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability (Washington, DC: ALEC, 2000) in this regard.

Bradley was not a prominent neo-liberal, but a Hayekian yeoman who had studied under Murray Rothbard, worked at Enron, and started his own small think tank after Enron’s collapse.

Comment: I was really not a “Hayekian’ but a student of classical liberalism and particularly the Austrian School. Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard were my two major influences in my formative years. Hayek would come later, although I had the privilege of being in his presence for a month in the summer of 1977 at an in-residence seminar.

In 1999, Bradley wrote a short essay for the Foundation of Economic Education (FEE) on ‘the growing abundance of fossil fuels’ due to non-conventionals. ‘Orimulsion [Venezuelan bitumen] and synthesized natural gas, tar sands, shale oil, and various replenishable crops also have great promise,’ he explained. ‘15 trillion barrels of unconventional oil (excluding coal liquefaction) are identifiable today, an estimate that moves the day of reckoning for petroleum centuries into the future.’ Nor was Bradley alone in making this argument, as more and more neo-liberals in the 2000s stressed the importance of non-conventional fossil fuels like the tar sands to ensure an endless supply of petroleum, calming fears of scarcity during a period of rising prices.

Comment: This early writing was from a viewpoint that there was an ocean of BTUs beneath our feet, and what was high cost and supplemental today would become low cost and conventional later. I ‘trusted’ human ingenuity. I turned out ‘right’ for the wrong technological reason: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Julian Simon would have been pleasantly surprised at what perhaps is the last nail in the Peak Oil and Peak Gas supply-side coffin.

Footnote 152: [Bradley’s] biography is an interesting example of how the neo-liberal network is effective in supporting even its marginal members. As a student, Bradley was supported by scholarships from the Institute of Humane Studies (IHS). He dropped out of his PhD programme, regretting that IHS ‘had invested so much in my development.’

Comment: I was certainly a raw talent when IHS began supporting me in college with paid summer seminars (1975, 1976, and 1977). My first academic publications would come in 1979 and 1980. Abandoning the University of Houston economics program was an escape from mathematics more than leaving economics, or what I wanted to specialize in, political economy.

[Fn. 152 cont.] He then finished his doctorate through a correspondence school, International College, a neo-liberal diploma-mill.

Comment: Another interpretation is that International College was ahead of its time and tailor-made for those whose talent was between offered university programs. With a masters in economics and two summer fellowships under my belt, I pursued a PhD in political economy at International College (description here, based in part on a New York Times profile).

My dissertation, which the author does not mention, was a two-volume treatise on the history of U.S. oil and gas intervention, completed in 1985 but not published until 1996, a story told elsewhere (also see here).

[Fn. 152 cont.] Bradley worked for Enron, but after the company imploded he found work at various neo-liberal think tanks, eventually setting up his own think tank, the Institute for Energy Research.

Comment: Two corrections. I formed IER in 1989 while at Enron, a story told here. After my layoff from Enron, I took IER full time. I did not “work at various neo-liberal think tanks” but did have affiliations with them while working full-time, a common occurrence. (My Enron experience is described here.)

[Fn. 152 cont.] Bradley’s interest in energy dated from the second oil shock in 1979. ‘I went through the gasoline lines personally in Houston in the summer of 1979 with my Torino Cobra, a gas-guzzling muscle car. I cut in line to get enough gas to pick up my Saturday night date. As all free market types, I was on my high horse against price controls that were responsible for all of that chaos.’ [here]

Comment: Guilty as charged: making a U-turn where there was a gap at a crossing street to not run out of gas. This is why the Wall Street Journal‘s “Buffer of Civility” became my favorite op-ed of the 1970s energy crisis.

Bradley’s article, ‘Resourceship: An Austrian theory of mineral resources’ (2007), not only competently reconstructed Simon’s cornucopianism, but helped elevate it into the upper atmosphere of high theory from the realm of political fisticuffs. Simon was less an abstract thinker like Coase or Hayek, but rather fit the mould of Milton Friedman, that is, a brusier in the public sphere.

Comment: My essay did attempt to place Simon in the history of resource thought tradition. But others, and certainly Pierre Desrochers, will get the most credit when all is done.

Bradley might have over-reached in trying to find the intellectual origins of Simon’s thought in Hayek’s capital theory from the 1940s, but this was part of a tendency for later neo-liberals to erase the institutionalist precedents for Simon’s theory.

Comment: Ludwig von Mises gets the most credit–and for saying the most in the fewest words (see here).

Bradley also tried to recast Zimmermann as an honorary member of the Viennese School, which again was not very convincing.156 Nonetheless, Bradley’s essay was a mostly faithful rendition of Simon’s work. Bradley’s neologism of ‘resourceship’ referred to what he considered Simon’s most significant contribution: that nature could be manufactured rather than discovered. The term has become common currency amongst neo-liberals.

Comment: Zimmermann’s “functional theory” of resources was ‘Austrian’ in the sense of being centered on human action, not hypothetical, artificial theories or constructs. It was methodologically subjectivist, which is a hallmark of the Austrian School. But the “Viennese School” is far broader than just mineral resources, having a ‘functional theory’ of monetary theory, capital theory, competition theory, etc. Finally, the term “resourceship” belongs to Stephen McDonald, first and eternally.

Footnote 156 Bradley asked Friedman what he thought of this characterisation (he said no: ‘Mr. Zimmerman’s views are perfectly sensible but I do not see in Mr. Zimmerman’s view an application of subjectivism.’).

Comment: My exchange with Friedman showed how deep a thinker and masterful he was at a very advanced age. He was not ‘Austrian’ in the sense of rejecting formalism for human-purpose causality. Thus subjectivism was not a touchstone to him.

The other attempt to incorporate Simon’s framework within Austrian theory was carried out by George Reisman; this attempt was much odder than Bradley’s…. Reisman’s plagiarism was revealing for what it represented psychologically: the urge to Austrianise Simon’s work so thoroughly as to make non-Austrian influences—especially from institutionalism—invisible.

Comment: Reisman, indeed, is a strange fellow. His later work is marred by a striking lack of humility and poor attribution to others of his insight. His 1979 book, The Government Against the Economy, is important and insightful. His treatise, Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (1996), is marred by errors that could have been avoided by (unsought) peer review. (I found a number of errors regarding energy and could have corrected them prior to publication.)


Again, I welcome Vetesse’s discussion of resource theory. As for my role, only a very few can advance theory, but more of us can study the history of thought to illuminate the masters. To this end, I appreciate Footnote 100 on page 165:

Though he draws the intellectual family tree somewhat differently, credit must go to Robert Bradley Jr. highlighting the influence of Zimmermann on neo-liberal thought. See his essay, ‘Resourceship’. Notably, Bradley, DeGregori, and Zimmermann all studied or worked at Texan universities at some point.

As for Dr. Vetesse’s wider discussion, themes, and conclusions, I will leave that to others to evaluate.

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