Medical Tuesday Blog
Hoodwinking the Nation
By Julian Simon
Fact and Fiction about Environment, Resources, and Population, 1999, Published Posthumously
Most people in the US believe that our environment is getting dirtier, we are running out of natural resources, and population growth in the world is a burden and a threat. Why do the media report so much false bad news? Why do we believe it?
Julian Simon feels this is the work of, and goes after the, media-academic complex that he believed purposefully, organically, structurally, and ideologically purveys “false bad news,” specifically about the environment, resources, and population.
Hoodwinking the Nation is a devastating critique, suffused with the outrage that so often served as Julian Simon’s trademark. The reader will find it lively and informative, sometimes startling—unless the reader in question is Albert Gore. Suffice it to say that the vice president, the author of Earth in the Balance, whom Simon calls “the Hoodwinker-in-Chief,” does not come off well in this volume according to Ben J Wattenberg of the American Enterprise Institute.
The first chapter describes the facts about population growth, natural resources, and the environment and then present survey evidence on the nature of beliefs held by the public on the same topic. The Discrepancy between the facts and the public beliefs sets up the puzzle that the remaining chapters in the book explain.
The Vanishing Farmland Scam
In 1980 typical headlines announced the existence of a farmland crisis: such as The Vanishing Farmlands and Farmland Losses Could End U.S. Food Exports. Simon calls the Vanishing Farmland scam as a crystal-clear example of concerted false scaremongering, in which the perverse roles of the federal government, environmental organizations, and the press and television are undeniable and inarguable. Even the original purveyors of the false facts now agree that the widely reported scare was without foundation. This was based on the urbanization-of-farmland from less than one million acres per year in the 1960s to three million acres per year in the 1970s. Simon thinks this scam was created by the Department of Agriculture and members of Congress under the guise of concern about food production for the starving world. When all the new data was obtained, the amount of farmland had increased significant despite the urbanization that was occurring.
More People Create More Knowledge.
One source of misunderstanding is the common belief that new technical knowledge usually arises spontaneously without connection to social needs. But there is ample evidence that increased output and investment in a given industry induce more inventions to be made and applied. This “demand-side effect,” as economists’ call it can be seen in systematic studies of learning by doing where time required to complete an airplane or ship decreases as more units are made.
The “demand-side-effect” can also be seen in comparative productivity in the large industries in the United Kingdom that are relatively small compared to the same industries in the United States. In the case of electricity, “The barrier, or rather the absence of stimulus to advance, was economic. Electricity developed quickly when it paid, not a moment before.” A large population size and density imply higher total demand, which is why Edison’s first street lighting was in New York City rather than in Montana. Once electric distribution on a large scale was proved feasible and immensely profitable, then came a demand for large efficient power sources leading to the development of turbines.
Differences in Conceptions of Human Nature
Differences in conceptions of human nature are at the root of much disagreement about economic issues, and evidence about the validity of these different views is relevant to decisions about the economic issues themselves. For example, the doomsayers who desire more government intervention in the production and consumption of natural resources and the optimists who argue for nonintervention of the government in resource markets differ in their views of how individuals and private enterprise behave in the face of economic opportunity; they also differ in their views of the performance of government personnel and agencies entrusted with economic tasks.
Given the opportunity, private enterprises will supply more ventures than doomsayers expect, more quickly, and at less cost to the public partly because individuals rather than taxpayers bear the costs of the failing ventures.
Another difference in views of human nature concerns it changeability. Reformers, starting perhaps most vividly with William Godwin (to whose writing Malthus’s Essay on population was a response) usually believe that human nature is quite malleable—for example, that self-interested behavior can be rechanneled by the proper social environment. This belief is very important in Marxism; it implies that one can design a social system that has particular desired properties, and then expect people to be molded to fit that system. In contrast, the Scottish, moralists—David Hume, Adam Smith, and their teachers and friends—tended to see their teachers and friends—tended to see human nature as relatively immutable, which implies choosing a social and economic system that produces the best results given that fix human nature.
Centralized Control of Important Activities
Hayek (1952) thought that the belief in centralized control of economic activity in society is a misplaced analogy to the way engineers plan a dam or bridge and he traced socialist theory back to the creation of the great engineering schools in France at the turn of the 19th century. Many people believe that without planning and controls, the system just cannot work well. For example, in a debate over whether Champaign Country, Illinois, should permit rezoning of farmland for industry, people were heard to say, “I’m for growth, but for controlled growth, of course.” When you ask them why growth must be controlled by a planner or an agency, they look at you blankly, as if you are lacking in elementary intelligence. . .
Many seem to fear that anarchy is the inevitable result of lack of centralized control. Hayek argued that this belief in the need for control is related to a lack of understanding of how a large group of people, acting without any prearrangement, can develop an orderly structure of production and exchange based on individual desires and perceptions of other’s desires and intentions. He also mention the common failure to understand the difficulty of organizing an economy nearly as well by central planning, even with the aid of unlimited computing capacity and the most detailed information-gathering imaginable, as with a market. These are subtle ideas not easy to grasp. It is not surprising that even well-educated laypersons often have not thought them through and do not understand them. . .
Humanity has necessarily evolved so that we have more of the nature of creators than of destroyers—or else the species would have died out long ago. People seek to improve their conditions, and therefore on balance people build more than they tear down and produce more than they consume. Hence each generation leaves the world a bit better in most respects than it begins with. . .
Julian L Simon was a professor of business administration at the University of Maryland and Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Cato institute.
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