Rousseau, Malthus, and Thanos Were Wrong
“This universe is finite. Its resources, finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.” So declares the Marvel supervillain Thanos near the end of Avengers: Infinity War, when he destroys half of humanity with the snap of his fingers.
In Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet, Marian L. Tupy of the Cato Institute and Gale L. Pooley of Brigham Young University–Hawaii note that Thanos was channeling millennia-old critiques of progress and population growth. In the best-known version of this argument, the English political economist Thomas Malthus contended that an increase in the number of people inevitably means famine and starvation.
But Malthus—and Thanos—are wrong. The past 200 years have seen historically huge increases in the number of people living on planet Earth, taking us from 1 billion in 1800 to 8 billion in 2022, but we are flourishing more than ever before and living longer, more productive lives.
In December, Reason‘s Nick Gillespie sat down with Tupy and Pooley. They discussed how the real prices of our most basic necessities—and most of our luxury goods—have declined over time and how free markets and human innovation make our planet infinitely bountiful.
Reason: Who is Julian Simon and why is he so important?
Pooley: Julian Simon actually was this obscure economist. There was a book that was published in 1968 by Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich titled The Population Bomb. And [Ehrlich] makes these claims about how we’re facing this extinction because there are too many people. Julian actually said that when he originally read the book, he thought, well, this theory seems to be reasonable. But as he began to check the facts, what he discovered, to his surprise, is that as the population increased, all these resources became even more abundant.
So he and Ehrlich began to have this quite public dispute about what was going to happen in the future. What is that relationship between population and resources? And it finally ended up in a bet, and Julian said, “Look, pick any nonrenewable resource for any period over a year, and I’ll bet you that it’s going to become more abundant.” And so Ehrlich picked five metals: copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten. They had the bet for a 10-year period from 1980 to 1990. And that’s when Julian really made Ehrlich accountable for what he’d claimed. At the end of that 10-year period, Ehrlich had to write Simon a check for $576.
When did humans start worrying about running out of resources because of population growth?
Tupy: People have been wondering about the relationship between resource abundance and population growth for at least two-and-a-half thousand years. The ancient Greeks thought about it. The ancient Romans thought about it. The Chinese thought about it. The Indians thought about it. But over the last 200 years—specifically since Malthus published his famous essay on population—most people have been generally negative to our population growth. There was an expectation that as the population grew, resources would become more expensive, therefore scarcer, and there would be some kind of calamity.
[But] looking at hundreds of different commodities, fuels, minerals, metals, even finished goods and some services, everything has become cheaper in terms of “time price.” People simply have to work less in order to buy things which are essential goods and commodities in order to survive.
What is the concept of “time price”?
Pooley: We buy things with money, but we really pay for them with time. How much time does it take you to earn the money to buy that thing? So there’s a money price that you can express in dollars and cents, but there’s a time price that you can express in hours and minutes. The time price equation is real simple. It’s just how much it cost you divided by your hourly income.
Time is this universal constant. You can’t inflate it; you can’t counterfeit it. Of the seven fundamental majors in science, six of them go back to time. It’s this fundamental feature. So if you can move economics from thinking of money to thinking in time, I think we then allow that discipline to become more scientific.
We all get 24 hours a day. So if instead of income inequality you can think about time inequality, I think it’s much more informative and revealing in terms of what kind of life we have.
Do we lose something when we just focus on everything as a function of the average wage given to the average laborer in a given period?
Tupy: No measurement is perfect, but there are some very important things for which time price is ideal, especially things which are of greatest importance to the least fortunate among us, be they in America or be they in Ghana. A bag of potatoes is the same today as it was in 1700s Germany. A bag of oranges is the same today as it is in Ghana. We are measuring basic food items and we are always very careful to compare bananas with bananas, oranges with oranges, a pound of beef with a pound of beef. We look at things that people need for their ordinary daily survival. Once you switch over from basic commodities to services things get more complicated.
We did try to estimate one type of service and that is cosmetic surgery. We are conscious of the fact that in America, whilst food and electronics and things like that are becoming cheaper, education and health care are definitely becoming more expensive relative to wages. So what we wanted to see is what would happen to a “medical procedure” if it is subjected to the proper functioning of the market—you pay for it. It’s largely deregulated. And what we found is t
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