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In appreciation of Julian Simon


I listened spellbound. Up to this time I had been objecting to Chinas one-child policy on the grounds that it was immoral.

Julian Simon

I first met Julian Simon in 1984. I was visiting Washington, DC, spending my days explaining to incredulous Senators and Congressmen that the government of China was deadly serious about its one-child policy, to the point of dragooning women into poorly equipped health clinics for abortions, sterilizations, and IUD insertions they did not want and which, sometimes, left them dead. What should the US do? they asked. Ban any and all US population funds from being spent on this immoral Chinese policy, was my standard response. The United Nations Population Fund, which receives tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars each year, has been involved in the one-child policy from the beginning. They should withdraw from China or face a funding cut-off.

Julian Simon called and suggested we have lunch together. I accepted immediately, knowing from friends that Simon had written extensively on the relationship between population growth and development, that he was known as a clear thinker, and that he would likely prove an ally in this struggle. However, I was not at the time familiar with his writing.

As we ate, I described the grisly scenes I had witnessed in China, and voiced my opposition to such coercion. The Chinese government may need to reduce the birth rate as a precursor to economic development, I concluded, but in doing so they have run roughshod over the rights of the Chinese people.

In mentioning the economic rationale for population control, I thought I was merely stating the obvious. After all, I had been taught at Stanford University that there are powerful reasons for limiting the numbers of people in developing countries, economic development and environmental protection among them.

To my surprise, Julian took exception. The Chinese government is mistaken, he said. Population growth does not have a statistically negative effect on economic growth. We know that from many years of careful quantitative scientific studies. Because human knowledge allows us to produce more finished products out of fewer raw materials, natural resources are becoming more available, not scarcer. Human beings are the greatest resource. You need more, not fewer, of them for economic development.

I listened spellbound. Up to this time I had been objecting to China's one-child policy on the grounds that it was immoral: It denied Chinese couples their individual liberty in an extremely important area the number of children they will have and it does this in a way that involves blatant coercion and massive violations of human rights. Now I was learning from this brilliant economist that there was a powerful economic rationale against population control as well.

That day I learned from Julian Simon that human beings are a valuable resource and their wanton destruction through population control is not a help, but a hindrance, to economic development. If you rank order countries by population density, I recall him saying, we see that the more densely populated countries, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Holland, Japan, are growing at a faster rate than less densely populated countries, such as those in Africa.

This was, as it were, only a corollary of his central thesis. In his own words, More people and increased income cause problems of increased scarcity of resources in the short run. Heightened scarcity causes prices to rise. The higher prices present opportunity, and prompt inventors and entrepreneurs to search for solutions. Many fail, at cost to themselves. But, in a free society, solutions are eventually found. And in the long run, the new developments leave us better off than if the problem had not arisen. That is, prices end up lower than before the increased scarcity occurred. . . . But as can be seen in the evidence of the increasing availability of natural resources throughout history as measured by their declining prices-especially in food, metals and energy-there apparently is no fixed limit on our resources in the future. There are limits at any moment, but the limits continually expand, and constrain us less with each passing generation. In this, we are quite unlike [the] animals. [1]

In the years following, Julian and I stayed in touch as he wrote book after book on population questions. Such works as The Economics of Population Growth, Population and Development in Poor Countries, and Population Matters never made the bestseller list such success seems to be reserved for environmental scare stories like Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb but they were solid, fact-based contributions to our knowledge about the positive interplay between population growth, development, and the environment. Unlike Ehrlich's screed, which now reads like a third-rate horror story gone awry, Simon's stock will stand the test of time as future generations of scholars build on his contributions.

Simon's views are already widely accepted, especially among his fellow economists, who are trained to understand price as a measure of scarcity. Simon's central insight-that declining prices of food, metals and energy mean that natural resources are becoming increasingly available is for them self-evident. Simon's views are becoming respectable in the world at large as well, putting his ideological opposition increasingly on the defensive.

When challenged on these questions, environmentalists and population controllers of late have taken to responding by mouthing pious nothings about the infinite value of biodiversity or the fabulous benefits of healthy ecosystems. Such assertions are technically irrefutable, since the presumed values and benefits cannot be quantified. They are often nonsensical as well. What in Heaven's name is one to make of the claim that Transforming the earth's biosphere into frivolous commodities cheapens the value of life itself. [2] Is it frivolous to feed, clothe and shelter humanity? Is it frivolous that we transform sand into silicon chips to store and transmit knowledge? Does it cheapen the value of life that wheat must die in order than man may live?

We at the Population Research Institute pledge to continue to put Julian's foundational contribution to human knowledge to good use. We often speak of promoting economic development that respects human dignity. By this we mean not only that couples should be free to decide for themselves the number and spacing of their children, but also that, with Julian Simon, we see people as the ultimate resource.


  1. Julian Simon, Simon Said: Good News! Yomiuri Shimbun, 27 February 1998. Back to text.
  2. Scott Carlin, Letters to the Editor, WSJ, 3 March 98, A19. Back to text.


Mosher, Steven W. In appreciation of Julian Simon. PRI Review (March/April 1998).

The Author

Steven W. Mosher, President of the non-profit Population Research Institute, is widely recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on the population question. Steven Mosher, a convert to Catholicism, is the author of the best-selling A Mother's Ordeal:  One Woman's Fight Against China's One-Child Policy.  Other books authored by Steve include Hegemon:  China's Plan to Dominate Asia and the World, China Attacks, China Misperceived:  American Illusions and Chinese Reality, Journey to the Forbidden China, and Broken Earth:  The Rural Chinese. Articles by Steven Mosher have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, TheNew Republic, National Review, Reason, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Freedom Review, and numerous other publications. Steve Mosher and his wife, Vera, have nine children. They reside in Virginia.

Copyright © 1998 PRI