Simon, Julian

views updated


An economist who brought reams of evidence to bear against the conventional wisdom about the dangers of population growth and resource consumption, Julian Lincoln Simon (1932–1998) was born in Newark, New Jersey, on February 12; he attended Harvard University. After service in the Navy and work in advertising, Simon earned an MBA in 1959 and a Ph.D. in business economics in 1961, both from the University of Chicago. Although initially adopting the conventional Malthusian view that rapid population growth was a primary obstacle to economic prosperity in both the developed and developing worlds, his own research soon convinced him otherwise. Instead, science and technology, products of inexhaustible human ingenuity, have improved human welfare in nearly every measurable way and will continue to do so indefinitely into the future. He served as professor of business administration at the University of Maryland and distinguished senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute until his death from a heart attack in Maryland on February 8.

Against the Doomsayers

Simon had been fairly successful in the business and marketing fields during the mid-1960s. He operated a mail-order firm that was so lucrative he wrote the popular How to Start and Operate a Mail-Order Business (1965). But economic research led him to become critical of the grim Malthusian outlook on resource use and population growth popularized by Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb (1968) and The End of Affluence (1974), which argued that population growth was threatening human and environmental health. Simon replied that data from economists such as Simon Kuznets(1901–1985) and Richard Easterlin (b. 1926) showed there was no general negative correlation between population growth and living standards (Regis 1997).

Simon began his much maligned public crusade against the conventional wisdom "doomsayers" with a 1980 article in Science, which declared that false bad news about resources, population, and the environment was being widely published in the face of contrary evidence. Tellingly, the article was written in the form of a statement followed by facts, because Simon believed that sound science revealed unequivocal facts about the state of the world. As he wrote in the preface to The Ultimate Resource 2 (1996), "Indeed, the facts and my new conclusions about population economics altered my wider set of beliefs, rather than the converse" (p. xxxi). Here he implies that his adversaries are poor scientists because they allow preconceptions to trump empirical evidence. His major books and articles elaborating a positive view of the state of humanity are notoriously crammed with trend data in hopes that the weight of the facts will persuade readers of the doomsayers' errors.

Two trends that he saw as most convincing are declines in infant mortality and rises in life expectancy (see Figures 1 and 2). He also presented data on decreasing pollution, rising agricultural productivity, increasing standards of living, and the declining prices of natural resources and commodities. All of these figures detail the overarching story of human progress and affluence made possible by the ultimate resource, the human mind. Indeed, his central premise was that human ingenuity is boundless, creating unlimited resources to "free humanity from the bonds in which nature has kept us shackled" (Simon 1995, p. 23).

The Dialectic of Scarcity and Abundance

For Simon, the problems of scarcity and the achievements of abundance are not so much fundamental opposites as they are different moments in an ongoing process.

The process goes like this: More people and increased income cause problems in the short run. These problems present opportunity, and prompt the search for solutions. In a free society, solutions are eventually found, though many people fail along the way at cost to themselves. In the long run the new developments leave us better off than if the problems had not arisen. [Indeed, human beings now have in their hands] the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an evergrowing population for the next seven billion years. (Myers and Simon 1994, p. 65).

The evident hyperbole of this rhetoric should not be used to portray Simon as a Pollyanna. Problems do arise, people are harmed, and people often fail in trying to solve them. But the larger perspective reveals that the process produces ultimate benefits for human welfare, which Simon insists are best measured by long-run trends. There is a sense of theodicy in Simon's vision.

With regard to long-run measurements, absolute trends comparing present and past states of affairs are more important than relative trends comparing two contemporary variables. Simon also argues that broad aggregate measures should emphasize effects on people rather than phenomena themselves. For example, he measures life expectancy rather than occurrences of AIDS, or agricultural productivity rather than global warming.

Moreover, the dialectic between scarcity prediction and abundance production highlights Simon's core belief that liberty is the most important precondition for progress. Free markets, free institutions, and even the free flow of immigrants are necessary for long-term material progress. Most centrally, people ought to be free to have as many children as they desire, in part because children, through their own inventiveness, will add to human welfare. A better future does not happen automatically, but requires free and well-informed decisions.

Finally, warnings about scarcities have a role to play in human welfare production. Unlike his opponents, who find his position detrimental, Simon actually grants critics an important if limited role in progressive developments. Simon's worldview partially depends on doomsayers to spark the impetus that steers humanity toward a better future.

Nonetheless, Simon believed that the "false bad news" of doomsayers is often overstated and can become counterproductive if not shamelessly self-promotional. With Herman Kahn (1922–1983) he co-edited The Resourceful Earth (1984) to discredit one such pessimistic volume, the Global 2000 Report to the President issued by the Global 2000 Study in 1980. More famously, Simon engaged in a highly publicized bet with Paul Ehrlich (b. 1932) in 1980. Ehrlich wagered that at least five of ten non-renewable resources (of his choosing) would be more expensive ten years later. Simon won the bet. In 1990, every one of the resources had declined in price by an average of forty percent. (When offered an opportunity to renew the wager for the next ten-year period, Ehrlich declined.)

As a result of his advocacy, Simon's ideas have won many converts to the idea that the status quo with some modest incremental adjustments will be sufficient for continued improvement in human well-being (e.g., Bailey 1993, Wildavsky 1995). His last major book, The State of Humanity (1995), was written with more than sixty collaborators. But despite the increased respectability accorded to Simon's views, they remain contentious and do not represent the mainstream in resource and population economics.

Science, Values, and the Hermeneutics of Data

From his very first article, Simon has been attacked by those who disagree with his views. Ehrlich called him an "imbecile," others considered his ideas simpleminded and dangerous, while most in the mainstream tried to refute the validity of his statistics (Regis 1997). But if the facts tell an unequivocal story, why is there so much disagreement? And if the facts corroborate Simon's analysis, why were his views so unpopular? Simon often felt that he was being ignored due to "a vast Malthusian population-environment-resources conspiracy of crisis" (1999, p. vii). In the posthumously published Hoodwinking the Nation (1999), he took up the question of why so much "false bad news" persists. He cited academic and media incentives and vested interests, psychological factors, strategies of change based on the assumption that crises mobilize action, racism, the non-intuitive nature of some of Simon's arguments, and widespread misunderstanding of resource creation and population economics. In all cases, he argued that what is at issue is the discrepancy between dominant, misguided beliefs and the facts of the matter.

On this level of psychological and sociological analysis, Simon undoubtedly presents some accurate findings. Yet a deeper level of analysis opens up beyond this limited argument that Simon has the true science and the absolutely correct data while others are just misled or willfully distorting the truth. For example, a graph may demonstrate that forest cover is increasing, but the reason for this may be the rise in forest plantations rather than recovery of more natural systems. Thus, the fact of increased forest cover leaves room for interpretation about its meaning and whether it is a good or a bad sign. Furthermore, some may find fault in Simon's anthropocentric view. They may regard global climate change as a problem even if humans are able to adapt to it, or they may object to his idea that genetic engineering and seed storage are reasonable responses to species extinction (1995, p. 15). Finally, some may argue that his categories miss the most important trends as he substitutes "what can be easily counted" for "what really counts." For example, in The State of Humanity, Simon admits that his trends describe only material and economic welfare but not emotional or spiritual welfare.

Unfortunately the underlying values differences between Simon and his adversaries are not often explicitly addressed. This held true of a similar controversy surrounding one of Simon's protégés, Bjørn Lomborg (b. 1965), author of The Skeptical Environmentalist (1998). Like Simon, Lomborg attacked the conventional wisdom and was in turn rebuked in a passionate series of exchanges with other scientists. Although disputants often claimed to be debating the facts, in reality the issues were much larger.

Despite his often zealous reliance on facts, Simon was perhaps aware of this dynamic to a greater extent than Lomborg. Whereas Lomborg concludes that we need to base decisions "not on fear but on facts" (p. 327), Simon concludes The Ultimate Resource 2 with a section titled "Beyond the Data," including a subsection titled "Ultimately—What Are Your Values?" In this latter section he argued: "Whether population is now too large or too small, or is growing too fast or too slowly, cannot be decided on scientific grounds alone. Such judgments depend upon our values, a matter on which science does not bear" (p. 548). Measuring the real state of humanity or the world involves normative as well as scientific considerations.


SEE ALSO Environmental Ethics;Science Policy.


Bailey, Ronald. (1993). Ecoscam: The False Prophets of the Environmental Apocalypse. New York: St. Martin's Press. Deconstructs the conventional wisdom about resources and population growth in much the same way as Simon.

Ehrlich, Paul R. (1968). The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine.

Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne H. Ehrlich. (1974). The End of Affluence: A Blueprint for Your Future. New York: Ballantine.

Lomborg, Bjørn. (2001). The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. New York: Cambridge University Press. Full of trend data to support Simon's basic position that problems are mostly getting smaller rather than larger.

Myers, Norman, and Julian L. Simon. (1994). Scarcity or Abundance? A Debate on the Environment. New York: Norton.

Simon, Julian. (1965). How to Start and Operate a Mail-Order Business. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Simon, Julian. (1980). "Resource, Population, Environment: An Oversupply of False Bad News." Science 208(4451): 1431–1437.

Simon, Julian. (1996). The Ultimate Resource 2, rev. edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Simon, Julian. (1999). Hoodwinking the Nation. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books. Explains why the false litany of environmental bad news persists despite evidence to the contrary.

Simon, Julian, ed. (1995). The State of Humanity. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Simon, Julian L., and Herman Kahn, eds. (1984). The Resourceful Earth: A Response to Global 2000. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.

Wildavsky, Aaron. (1995). But is it True? A Citizen's Guide to Environmental Health and Safety Issues. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Case studies explore relationships between knowledge and action in environmental policy to argue that informed participation is a possible and necessary part of democratic citizenship. Concludes by rejecting the precautionary principle.


Regis, Ed. (1997). "The Doomslayer." Wired Magazine vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 136-140 and 193-198. Available from Recounts the confrontations between Ehrlich and Simon and clarifies Simon's basic points.