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The Ultimate Economic Resource

Friends of liberty lost a staunch ally earlier this year when Julian Simon passed away on February 8, just shy of his sixty-fifth birthday. He was infamous for his principled and fact-driven defense of the free society and its ability to unleash the creative force of the human person. In contradistinction to the neo-Malthusians and anti-natalists who monopolized the conversation about population growth and resource use, Simon pointed out that, according to the data, the condition of the human family was, in fact, improving year by year--especially in countries with political freedom and market institutions.

Perhaps the most archetypal of Simon's stratagems was his celebrated wager with Paul Ehrlich, ecological doomsayer. Ehrlich, you will remember, in the late 1960s and early 1970s helped found the flowering cottage industry of apocalyptic prophesizing with his grim visions of a future marked by population growth outstripping the natural resources needed to sustain it. In 1980, Simon dissented in the pages of Science, disproving each of Ehrlich's predictions in a tightly argued article backed up by reams of statistics, charts, and graphs. Ehrlich countered with new predictions of future scarcity. Simon, appropriately goaded, challenged Ehrlich to put his money where his mouth was. If it was true that certain resources were becoming more and more scarce, Simon reasoned, then it would follow that, according to the principles of economics, their prices would rise; if not, their prices would stay the same or decrease. Thus his “public offer to stake us $10,000 ... on my belief that the cost of non-government-controlled raw materials (including grain and oil) will not rise in the long run.”

Ehrlich, with his colleagues John P. Holden and John Harte, dutifully stepped up to the challenge; they selected five metals they predicted would become more scarce--chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. On paper, they purchased $200 dollars of each using 29 September 1980 prices as an index for a total wager of $1000. If, ten years later, the inflation-adjusted prices of this basket of resources rose, Simon would pay Ehrlich the difference. If they fell, Ehrlich, et al., would pay Simon. And they waited. In the ensuing decade, the world's population grew by more than 800 million. In that ten years, the prices for each of the five resources fell. Chromium dropped from $3.90 per pound to $3.70. Tin plummeted from $8.72 to $3.88. And Paul Ehrlich sent Julian Simon a check for $576.07.

There could have been no clearer refutation of the notion that population growth is an unbearable drain on the world's resources. In truth, as Simon put it, “It is your mind that matters economically, as much or more than your mouth or hands.” The current fads of population control and ecological catastrophe are rooted in a false view of man. We are not simply mouths that consume; we are hands that work, minds that create, souls that worship. In highlighting this crucial fact about the human person, Simon echoed a dominant theme of the whole tradition of Christian social teaching, most recently articulated by Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus: “Besides the earth, man's principal resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth's productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.”

We have been commissioned stewards of creation and, as such, have a holy responsibility to cultivate creation wisely and for the benefit of all. Further, as bearers of the imago Dei, we have been blessed with the gift of creativity and, so blessed, have a holy responsibility to exercise it in service to God and the human community. Simon reminded us of the great dignity and potential of the human person and the need for an environment of liberty; let us honor his memory by always striving to preserve the dignity of free human persons exercising their creativity in service to the good.