Natural Resources

In Memoriam: Julian Simon

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Julian Simon, professor of business administration at the University of Maryland, died February 8 of a heart attack at age 65. Simon was an energetic scholar and booster of a pro-human, pro-technology, pro-progress vision of the future, based firmly on the best data of the past. In his many books, from his account of How to Start and Operate a Mail Order Business to the scholarly Theory of Population and Economic Growth, Simon sold optimism–an optimism backed not by airy wishes and hopes but by facts, and those facts backed by a theory. That theory is best expressed in the title of his 1981 magnum opus and its 1996 sequel/update: The Ultimate Resource. The ultimate resource, Simon said, is human beings. Not only aren't there too many of us; there aren't nearly enough.

"The main fuel to speed the world's progress," wrote Simon in the introduction to the 1995 collection The State of Humanity, "is our stock of knowledge; the brakes are our lack of imagination and unsound social regulations of these activities. 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 benefit, and so inevitably they will benefit the rest of us as well."

The mass of data he accumulated told the story: It showed infant mortality falling, life expectancy rising, agricultural prices falling, arable land rising, the number of people fated to agricultural toil falling, air quality improving. There can and will be temporary and local bumps, but the long-term universal trends are positive.

In a world where doomsayers make bestsellers out of predictions of manmade horror that always proved untrue, this was a courageous and lonely stance. But Simon was not afraid to put his money where his mouth was. He made a famous bet with archdoomsayer Paul Ehrlich that a cohort of five natural resources of Ehrlich's choosing would be cheaper in inflation-adjusted terms at the end of the '80s than at the beginning. Simon won the bet. Ehrlich won the MacArthur "genius grant."

Simon was himself a great resource–not natural, but manmade. He struggled with debilitating depression for part of his life, but through his respect for data and for human accomplishment, he turned himself into a beacon of cheer for those not afraid to look at the future, a beacon that illuminated a worthwhile and eminently livable world, as long as people were free to use their ingenuity. Simon shone for abundant life and freedom. He showed how they mattered, how they made things better for us all.

I once edited a piece he had written for Regulation magazine on his key role in instituting the system whereby airlines offer incentives to get people off overbooked flights. I wrote to thank him both for that achievement and for the fine article. He wrote back thanking me for thanking him, saying that "it matters, very much." He enclosed, in a typically charming Simon touch, a lovely fall leaf from his backyard. Julian Simon's life and accomplishments mattered, very much.