by Rod D. Martin
February 27, 2004
Some folks, it seems, just never learn. Especially doom-and-gloomers.
In 1980, the late economist Julian Simon made a bet with Paul Ehrlich, author of the best-selling 1968 book, The Population Bomb.
The bet concerned commodity prices and was intended to illustrate a point. Simon wagered prices would fall; Ehrlich said they would rise. Both men agreed that higher prices would suggest resource scarcity and a poorer world, while falling prices would signal the opposite.
Based on his beliefs about scarcity and population growth, Ehrlich in his book had predicted hundreds of millions of deaths by starvation — in America and elsewhere — by the 1980s.
Erlich, of course, lost his bet. In 1990, though, he wrote another book.
Its title? The Population Explosion, predicting massive famines on the horizon.
From Thomas Malthus to the present, the population doomers have never stopped scaring people with their ghoulish prognostications. Over two centuries ago, the British economist insisted that though food production rises arithmetically, population growth increases exponentially. In other words, absent wars, mass starvation is inevitable.
But Malthus and his ideological descendents couldn’t be more wrong. Thanks to the cascading miracles of capitalism, science and technology, world food production routinely outstrips population growth.
“Overpopulation” is far from the Doomers’ only failure.
As Greg Easterbrook demonstrates in his new book The Progress Paradox, in every arena, life has improved for nearly everyone.
Take the arena of technology and jobs. In every generation, pessimists bemoan how technology destroys jobs, and indeed that’s true: there are few buggy-building jobs today.
But technology creates a higher standard of living by creating far more jobs than it destroys, jobs which typically pay a lot more than the ones lost. Indeed, in the Jan. 24, 2004 issue of Fortune, management guru Peter Drucker points out that while the U.S. is indeed exporting many low wage, low skill jobs, it imports two to three times as many jobs as it exports: better jobs which require high skill, high initiative and high pay. There’s a reason why Japanese and European car plants are proliferating across the South.
And what about the economy and the environment? Doesn’t economic growth mean environmental degradation? Certainly not. The same technology that makes growth possible creates cleaner pathways to growth, and the money to clean things up. In fact, while American manufacturing output has doubled in the past ten years, America has become the cleanest country in the industrialized world.
How about technology and health? To hear the doomsdayers talk, we should all be dropping like flies from ingesting the “poisons” of modern pharmaceuticals and the “chemicals” in our food. Yet infant mortality rates are plunging, life expectancy is double that of a century ago, and each generation is growing up stronger and healthier than the one before.
How about “the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer”? Nonsense. As Easterbrook points out, even adjusted for inflation, per capita income has doubled since 1960, while the poverty rate has been nearly halved, from 22% to 11.7% as of 2001. Surely Donald Trump gets a bigger piece of the pie, but so do the rest of us. Why? Because we keep expanding the pie.
But surely, say the doomers, our culture is unraveling. And once that surely seemed true. In The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, Bill Bennett catalogued the huge rise in crime, illegal drug use, divorce, abortion, sexual promiscuity, unwed motherhood, and other pathologies from the 1960s, well into the 1970s and into part of the 1980s. Yet as Bennett himself has noted, these trends are now reversing. Yes, decadence still pushes the envelope on TV and the movie screen, but in real life, these pathologies have been plummeting for well over a decade.
Clearly, the pessimists are flat-out wrong.
Why is that so? Time and again, they underestimate the vast God-given potential of individuals in free societies to literally change the world.
Why was Malthus wrong? He saw people as liabilities, not assets. He saw every child born as a consumer but not as a producer, let alone a potential inventor of new and better ways to produce. He saw them as users of resources, rather than being themselves the greatest resource of all. He saw the source of wealth as residing in the ground, rather than inside each of us.
And so it is with pessimists everywhere. From the economy to the environment, from foreign policy to our culture, they make the same mistake. Secular pessimists think we’re just two-legged animals. Religious pessimists stress that our moral depravity dooms our every endeavor. Both ignore the Biblical doctrine of imago deo — that in spite of our fallenness, we each bear the image of God and can achieve the extraordinary when given the chance. Take any person, put them in a free society which rewards ingenuity and creativity, and that person will likely thrive.
So pessimists, take heed. When people are free, when society rewards their strivings to achieve, you will be consistently proven wrong. And you have been for centuries.