Obituary: Julian Simon

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The Independent Online
Julian Simon will go down in history as the man who bet Paul Ehrlich, the famous author of The Population Bomb (1968), that the price of a basket of metals would go down between 1980 and 1990, and not up as those he characterised as doom-mongers predicted. He won, and the neo-Malthusians never forgave him. While they were right to point out that the wager hardly measured the condition of mankind, his forthrightness in making it was breathtaking.

Simon had asserted that resources tend not to become scarce through overuse and any threat that they might merely hastens their replacement by better products. Never one to allow a sensible argument to get lonely for the absence of a more outrageous assertion to stand in its support, he supposed that mineral mining on the moon would be in place before prices sky-rocketed. In a voice which rapidly alternated between deepest bass and soaring squeak, he adored displaying the obvious commonsensical basis of an opponent's position, and then knocking it all around his room.

Simon was the Professor of Business Administration at Maryland University outside Washington from 1983. Beyond bird-watching whilst he wrote and read in most weathers outdoors, he had no pretensions to academic experience in biology. What made him unique, valuable and loathed was that he took the battle over population and resources issues line for line, graph for graph, into the opposing camp. He was a statistican who loved to point out that graphs seldom go in one direction for ever and that the new orthodoxies were highly selective in their use of the evidence.

As the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth (1972) spawned the Global 2000 Report to the US President (1980), and the population control movement's old agenda tallied with the new environmental and conservation agendas, it was Simon who produced, not cautionary caveats, but a mirror image to the new visions of scarcity and pollution.

He was well-placed to do so because he understood that the conservationists were mostly working well beyond their real competence and had strayed into an area he understood better than they: numbers. He did not need to be a biologist or a demographer to point to the evidence that helping families become richer was as quick a way to reduce their fertility as any. His work on the subject first appeared with his paper The Effects of Income on Fertility, published in 1974 whilst he was at the University of Illinois.

At Maryland, in the post he held until his death, he developed these lines of argument in The Ultimate Resource (1981, updated in 1996) and they endeared him to the massive figure of Herman Kahn, of the Hudson Institute, with whom he edited a big volume of doom-busting papers by many hands, The Resourceful Earth (1984). The support of Norman Macrae at the Economist helped these ideas get a hearing in the UK, but they remained deeply distrusted by most of the media.

Simon was never content just to point out the weaknesses in the doomsters' number-crunching. But he was saved from a purely contrarian position by his messianic desire to explain how population necessity was the mother of economic and social invention. In pressing this argument to breaking point, he was truly original.

His pronouncements on the ingenuity of mankind in the face of rising human numbers were seldom fresh insights. Peter Bauer, for instance, had been saying much the same sort of thing about resource economics for years. John Maddox had excoriated the Doomsday Syndrome in his book of that title in 1972. The Danish agronomist Esther Boserup had declared in the 1960s that even primitive farmers often respond quickly to the need to feed more people. Simon's importance in this debate was in making his ideas famous at a time when fashion was running all the other way.

He loved to point out how the Low Countries of the 17th century or the Japan of the 20th had grown rich through a combination of a lack of resources and the presence of a well-, but not over-, managed market. Large populations, he said, could only be held back from economic growth by perverse governments. Above all, he propounded tirelessly the view that more babies meant more brains. One of his last pieces of writing was for Wired magazine in January, in which he celebrated what he took to be the vast increase in shared knowledge which information technologies were bringing to the world. One of his last pieces of research insisted that amongst almost every class and type of American, education levels were rising fast. It was a sign that the debate he did so much to energise is becoming more mainstream that Wired wrote an admiring profile of him, and that the makers of last year's lively Channel Four series, Against Nature, found him a valuable source of ideas.

Julian Simon was of a cast of mind not much seen on this side of the Atlantic. He was a free-market man in economics and a Libertarian in politics. His first book, How to Start and Operate a Mail-Order Business (1965) still sells and was based on his own commercial activities in the 1950s. His first degree at Harvard in 1953 was in experimental psychology and his PhD at the University of Chicago was in Business Economics. He was in advertising for several years. He believed that the most fundamental freedom was that of individual choice. So it was natural perhaps, when he turned to larger themes, that whilst he argued that rising populations of humans produced more sources of innovation and wealth than new problems, he disliked the anti-abortion movement as much as he excoriated anything like state compulsion in birth control programmes.

Much the same impulses made him a tireless campaigner in newspapers and magazines on behalf of the human and economic advantages that immigrants bring to any society.

Simon suffered for many years with bouts of depression and he wrote Good Mood: the new psychology of overcoming depression (1993) on his notions about battling against the Black Dog. In the foreword to another book, he described how working on his upbeat themes about the human condition had helped him in recent years.

Julian Simon did not attend synagogue, but he and his family made a point of keeping the Sabbath, during which he did no work. Even a short time spent with him was giddy and uplifting. Although engaged in heated debate, he never publicly slipped into the personal abuse some of his opponents used against him. It is said that he was embittered for being so widely disliked for views he thought at least deserved recognition for being humane, and it is at least odd that his formal academic field should be so different from the Cornucopianism for which his name is likely to be remembered.

Julian Lincoln Simon, economist: born Newark, New Jersey 12 February 1932; Professor of Economics and of Business Administration, University of Illinois 1969-83; Professor of Business Administration, University of Maryland, Washington DC 1983-98; married 1961 (two sons, one daughter); died Chevy Chase, Maryland 8 February 1998.