A Free-Market Energy Blog

Julian Simon Remembered (would have been 86 today)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- February 12, 2018

““If environmental alarmists ever wonder why more people haven’t come around to their way of thinking, it isn’t because people like me occasionally voice doubts in newspaper op-eds. It’s because too many past predictions of imminent disaster didn’t come to pass. That isn’t because every alarm is false — many are all too real — but because our Promethean species has shown the will and the wizardry to master the challenge, at least when it’s been given the means to do so.”

– Bret Stephens, “Apocalpyse Not.” New York Times, February 8, 2018.

“[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-six 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.

In one of his last works, Hoodwinking the Nation, published posthumoulsy, 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 private-property-based free markets continue to give life to Simon’s optimism.

—————————–

[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.

5 Comments


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  3. Kenneth Chilton  

    Rob, thanks for the birthday wishes for Julian Simon. I was very blessed to meet him and have him speak at CSAB back in the day. His Ultimate Resource and Ultimate Resource II should be read by all intro economics students or political science students in this nation. Fat chance.

    Thanks again for taking the time to salute our mutual friend.

    P.S. Do you recall the attempt by Heartland (I think) to honor him by hosting a public conference in Chicago on his birthday that followed his passing? I think we both spoke to his widow and maybe a few folks from Heartland. The monsoon like rainstorm didn’t help but mainly it seemed to be the lack of a real following for his brilliant historic and economic analysis of the nature of resource development and free economies.

    Ken Chilton

    Reply

  4. James Rust  

    Great article. I agree all economic students should be aware of Simon’s writings.

    Reply

  5. John Garrett  

    As one who stumbled upon “The Limits To Growth” as a 20-year old student and, as a result, first became disheartened then wrote a senior thesis rebutting its methodology and conclusions, I have a special fondness for those who believe that human ingenuity is the ultimate resource.

    Reply

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