By Dave Andrusko
I mentioned in passing on Tuesday that I had read a book review in the Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition that was exquisitely written—and that although the book’s subject matter begins in the 1960s, its message is (unfortunately) very relevant today.
The book—“The Bet,” written by Paul Sabin—was reviewed by Jonathan V. Last of the Weekly Standard. Some, probably many of you may be familiar with Last’s superb scholarship.
We have written about his reporting/reviews several times, most recently in February with the arrival of his new book, “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.” We also commented on Last’s devastating review of the book “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men,” by journalist Mara Hvistendahl.
This time Last is talking about the friendly wager made by Paul Ehrlich—he of “The Population Bomb” fame—and Julian Simon, a much, much underestimated economist. Before we get into the details, it’s useful to remember that Ehrlich was a biologist who expertise was in butterflies.
However his 1968 best-seller was no mere example of 15 minutes of fame. His basic argument reverberates to this day in many circles. As Last puts it, Ehrlich
“updated the 19th-century projections of Thomas Malthus—people were overbreeding, the supply of food and resources couldn’t possibly keep up—and dialed the calamity to 11. Within a few short years, hundreds of millions of people would starve to death as civilization unraveled. Or so predicted Mr. Ehrlich. ‘The Population Bomb’ was reprinted 22 times in the first three years alone, and its author would appear as Johnny Carson’s guest on ‘The Tonight Show’ at least 20 times, becoming a national figure and an influential player in Democratic politics. Mr. Ehrlich’s ideas attracted a remarkable number of passionate adherents.”
But, as Last notes, “They also attracted the scornful criticism of a little-known economist named Julian Simon.”
Simon was no Pollyanna. Overpopulation was a concern to him when he first explored demographics . However, according to Last,
“[T]he more he studied the subject, the more he became convinced that Mr. Ehrlich’s thesis was fundamentally flawed. Mr. Ehrlich believed that the laws of nature that governed insects also applied to humans, that natural constraints created cycles of population booms and busts. Simon believed that man’s rational powers—and the economies man constructed—made those laws nearly obsolete.”
So the two made a friendly wager which (without going into details) was heavily weighted in Ehrlich’s favor. The gist of it is, “If Mr. Ehrlich’s predictions about overpopulation and the depletion of resources were correct, Simon said, then over the next decade the prices of commodities would rise as they became more scarce.”
That did not happen. The five commodities Ehrlich chose did not grow more scarce—even though “world population had increased by 800 million during the term of the wager”– and “did so for precisely the reasons Simon predicted—technological innovation and conservation spurred on by the market.” In October 1990, “Mr. Ehrlich mailed a check for $576.07 to Mr. Simon.”
Last (in this review) does not go into the brutal coercion that is part and parcel of many of those who share this apocalyptic vision—say the rulers of China, for example, and their One Child Policy built around forced abortion and coerced sterilization. But he does remind us that Ehrlich was a sore loser, the kind who viciously attacked his critics as morons and idiots and who had an open mind toward compulsion. Last writes
“Mr. Sabin’s portrait of Mr. Ehrlich suggests that he is among the more pernicious figures in the last century of American public life. As Mr. Sabin shows, he pushed an authoritarian vision of America, proposing ‘luxury taxes’ on items such as diapers and bottles and refusing to rule out the use of coercive force in order to prevent Americans from having children. … This picture is all the more damning because Mr. Sabin paints it not with malice but with sympathy. A history professor at Yale, Mr. Sabin shares Mr. Ehrlich’s devotion to environmentalism. Yet this affinity doesn’t prevent Mr. Sabin from being clear-eyed.”
But facts have always run a poor second to the over-population hysteria. Last ends his review with this sobering reminder:
“Mr. Ehrlich may have been defeated in the wager, but he has continued to flourish in the public realm. The great mystery left unsolved by ‘The Bet’ is why Paul Ehrlich and his confederates have paid so small a price for their mistakes. And perhaps even been rewarded for them. In 1990, just as Mr. Ehrlich was mailing his check to Simon, the MacArthur Foundation awarded him one of its ‘genius’ grants. And 20 years later his partner in the wager, John Holdren, was appointed by President Obama to be director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.”