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Julian Simon: A Pathbreaking, Heroic Scholar Remembered

By -- February 12, 2013

“The world’s problem is not too many people, but a lack of political and economic freedom.”

– Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton, N.Y.: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 11.

“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.”

– Julian Simon, “Introduction,” in Simon, ed., The State of Humanity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995), p. 27.

Julian Simon (1932-1998) was born February 12th, eighty-one years ago today. MasterResource, which is named in his honor, applies Simon’s ultimate resource insight to the master resource of energy and to related environmental issues (see Appendix A).

This week, MasterResource will publish the remarks of three former Julian L. Simon Memorial Award winners: Matt Ridley, Robert Bradley, and Robert J. Smith. (The 12 recipients of the award to date are listed in Appendix B.)

There have been many tributes to and recognitions of Simon, both before and after his untimely death. Don Boudreaux, for example, former chairman of the department of economics at George Mason University, wrote:

The three scholars who have had the the greatest impact on my own thinking are F. A. Hayek, James Buchanan, and Julian Simon…. [Simon’s] vital idea of “the ultimate resource” … is one of the most profound—and least understood—in all of the social sciences.

F. A. Hayek wrote to Simon upon reading Economics of Population Growth (1977):

I have never before written a fan letter to a professional colleague, but to discover that you have in your Economics of Population Growth provided the empirical evidence for what with me is the result of a life-time of theoretical speculation, is too exciting an experience not to share it with you.

Population growth, Hayek explained in the letter, evolved from good practices of “learned rules” by groups within an orbit of natural liberty.

Hayek wrote a second letter to Simon declaring his “enthusiastic agreement” with The Ultimate Resource (1981), which provided new empirical support for Hayek’s work on spontaneous, undesigned order.

Three tributes to Simon at the time of his death are also noteworthy. One was published in the Wall Street Journal by Simon’s close friend Ben Wattenberg; one by Simon’s former pupil, Stephen Moore; and one by Thomas Sowell. Excerpts from each follow.

Ben Wattenberg

Wattenberg in Malthus, Watch Out (Wall Street Journal, February 11, 1998) wrote:

Julian Simon, who waged intellectual war on environmentalists and Malthusians, died suddenly on Sunday. He would have been 66 tomorrow, the day of his funeral.

Simon could sometimes glow like an exposed wire, crackling with nervous intellectual intensity. Privately, he had a soul of purest honey. But by force of will, fueled by his sizzling energy, Simon helped push a generation of Americans to rethink their views on population, resources and the environment. By now it is clear that in this task he was largely successful. As the years roll on he will be more successful yet, his work studied, and picked at, by regiments of graduate students.

His keystone work was The Ultimate Resource, published in 1981 and updated in 1996 as The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton University Press). Its central point is clear: Supplies of natural resources are not finite in any serious way; they are created by the intellect of man, an always renewable resource. Coal, oil and uranium were not resources at all until mixed well with human intellect.

The notion drove some environmentalists crazy. If it were true, poof!–there went so many of the crises that justified their existence….

If the real resource was the human intellect, Simon reasoned, and the amount of human intellect was increasing, both quantitatively through population growth and qualitatively through education, then the supply of resources would grow, outrunning demand, pushing prices down and giving people more access to what they wanted, with more than enough left over to deal with pollution and congestion. In short, mankind faced the very opposite of a crisis.

Simon rarely presented a sentence not supported by facts–facts arranged in serried ranks to confront the opposition; facts about forests and food, pollution and poverty, nuclear power and nonrenewable resources; facts used as foot soldiers to strike blows for accuracy….

If Thomas Malthus is in heaven, he’s in for an argument, laced with facts, facts, facts.

Stephen Moore

Stephen Moore’s tribute, Julian Simon Remembered: It’s A Wonderful Life, was published in the Cato Policy Report (March/April 1998):

I first met “doom-slayer” Julian L. Simon at the University of Illinois in the spring of 1980—at just the time when the environmental doomsday industry had reached the height of its influence and everyone knew the earth was headed to hell in a hand basket….

The Club of Rome had just released its primal scream, Limits to Growth…. The Carter administration published in 1980 its multiagency assessment of the earth’s future, titled Global 2000…. Malthusianism was now the official position of the U.S. government.

It was all so damned depressing. And, thanks to iconoclast Julian Simon, we now know that it was all so wrong….

Simon’s dozens of books and his more than 200 academic articles always brought to bear a vast arsenal of compelling data on and analysis of how life on earth was getting better, not worse. Simon argued that we were not running out of food, water, oil, trees, clean air, or any other natural resource because throughout the course of human history the price of natural resources had been declining.

Falling long-term prices are prima facie evidence of greater abundance, not increasing scarcity. He showed that, over time, the environment had been getting cleaner, not dirtier. He showed that the “population bomb” was a result of a massive global reduction in infant mortality rates and a stunning increase in life expectancy. “If we place value on human life,” Simon argued, “then those trends are to be celebrated, not lamented.”

Simon’s central premise was that people are the ultimate resource. “Human beings,” he wrote, “are not just more mouths to feed, but are productive and inventive minds that help find creative solutions to man’s problems, thus leaving us better off over the long run.”…

The two trends that Simon believed best captured the long-term improvement in the human condition over the past 200 years were the increase in life expectancy and the decline in infant mortality. Those trends, Simon maintained, were the ultimate sign of man’s victory over death.

Julian Simon loved good news. And the good news of his life is that, today, the great bogeyman of our time, Malthusianism, has, like communism, been relegated to the dustbin of history with the only remaining believers to be found on the faculties of American universities. The tragedy is that it is the Paul Ehrlichs of the world who still write the textbooks that mislead our children with wrongheaded ideas. And it was Paul Ehrlich, not Julian Simon, who won the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius award.” …

Thomas Sowell

A tribute by Thomas Sowell,  “Julian Simon, Combatant in a 200-year War” (February 12, 1998), is excerpted below.

The recent death of Julian Simon was a special loss because he was one of those people who took on the thankless task of talking sense on a subject where nonsense is all the rage….

Ironically, Professor Simon’s death comes during the 200th anniversary of Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population which started the hysteria that is still with us today, despite two centuries of mounting evidence against it. Like so many other theories that can survive tons of contrary evidence, overpopulation theory relies on slippery definitions and a constituency that needs a mission more than it wants facts.

What Malthus said two centuries ago was that human beings have the potential to increase faster than the food needed to feed them. No one doubted this — then or now. From this he made the fatal leap across a chasm of logic to say that there was a real danger that people would in fact grow so fast as to create a problem of feeding them.

The truism that the capacity to produce food limits the size of the sustainable population does not mean that population is anywhere near those limits. No automobile can drive faster than the power of its engine will permit, but you cannot explain the actual speeds of cars on roads and highways by those limits, because only an idiot drives at those limits.

Julian Simon set out to explain what happened to real population in the real world, not what happens in abstract models or popular hysteria. In the real world, as he demonstrated with masses of facts and in-depth analysis, we are nowhere near to running low on food or natural resources….

If we were really running low on these resources, they would be getting progressively more expensive, instead of progressively cheaper. This is elementary supply-and-demand economics. But those addicted to overpopulation hysteria are no more interested in economics than they are in evidence.

What overpopulation theory provides is far more emotionally satisfying than facts, logic or economics. It is one of a whole family of theories which depict other people as so dangerously thoughtless that imposing the superior wisdom and virtue of some anointed social missionaries is all that can save us from disaster.

This vision inspired the eugenics movement in the early decades of this century, the recycling movement today and innumerable other heady crusades in between. Contrary facts mean absolutely nothing to the true believers. Those who insist on talking about those contrary facts encounter only hostility and demonization….


With a full understanding of the opposition and smears he would encounter, Julian Simon nevertheless wrote The Economics of Population Growth, Population Matters, and — his best-known book — The Ultimate Resource. To him, the ultimate resource was human intelligence.

We should also add, in honor of Julian Simon, the courage to use that intelligence

Appendix A: Other Julian Simon Posts at MasterResource

“Happy Earth Day”: Julian Simon’s Silver Anniversary Earth Day Letter (April 20, 2012)

Julian Simon Remembered (February 12, 2012)

Here Comes Ingenuity! Offshore Drilling Will Be Better, Cleaner, Safer in the New Era (August 11, 2010)

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)

Appendix B: CEI Julian L. Simon Memorial Award

In 2001, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) established an award in honor of the late free market economist, Julian L. Simon. The award is traditionally presented at CEI’s annual gala dinner. The award winners to date are:

2012 – Matt Ridley

2011 – Robert J. Smith

2010 – Ross McKitrick and Stephen McIntyre

2009 – Richard Tren

2008 – Václav Klaus

2007 – Indur Goklany

2006 – John Stossel

2005 – Barun Mitra

2004 – There was no Simon award given. Instead, CEI honored Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug with its first Prometheus Award for Human Achievement.

2003 – Bjørn Lomborg

2002 – Robert L. Bradley, Jr.

2001 – Stephen Moore


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