Rousseau, Malthus, and Thanos Were Wrong

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“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 that when it comes to plastic surgery or cosmetic surgery, they are growing at a superabundant rate. Everything is becoming cheaper when the market is allowed to function.

What is the Maginot Line that you are crossing between abundance and “superabundance”?

Tupy: The Maginot Line is the rate of growth of population. Ehrlich was claiming that as the population grew, everything would become more expensive and therefore abundance would be declining. What we found is that everything is actually growing in abundance, at least the things that we have measured. But abundance can be growing at two different speeds. It can be growing at a lower rate than population growth or a higher rate than population growth. And what we found was that it almost invariably grows at a higher rate than population growth. So if you have population growth of 2 percent, but abundance is increasing by 3 or 4 percent, that’s superabundance. The gap between population growth and superabundance, that tells you that human beings create this new knowledge which is capable of increasing standards of living.

Why is Thanos, the supervillain from the Avengers franchise, invoked in your book as the “anti–Julian Simon”?

Pooley: Thanos illustrates this ideology of scarcity. He makes a statement: The universe is finite and its resources are finite. He’s correct on the first part. We do live on a planet with a fixed number of physical atoms. But the second part of his statement’s wrong, because resources aren’t a function of atoms. Atoms are important, but resources are really a function of knowledge.

When you take the material world—atoms—and you organize them and you add knowledge to them: That’s when they become resources. And that knowledge is really what creates their value.

Can you describe the best indicators of how we are doing so much better in ways that surprise and stun people?

Tupy: We looked at resources relative to blue-collar worker wages. And we found, for example, that in terms of time prices, rice has declined by 99 percent in terms of how much time you have to work in order to buy a pound of rice. And that means that now you get 112 pounds of rice for the same amount of work that would’ve bought you one pound of rice in 1850.

So in comparing 1850 to 2018, what we found was a number of different commodities—sugar, nickel, rice, tea, rye, palm oil, pork, cotton, wheat, cocoa—have fallen by 99 percent. On average, it’s about 98 percent. So if you had to work for something for 100 minutes to buy it in 1850, you now have to work 2 minutes to buy it.

How has time scarcity diminished throughout history?

Pooley: The time abundance is what we’re really enjoying as well. We get this time abundance and we get a choice abundance.

If we go back to 1960 and look at somebody living in India and assume they spent eight hours a day—and a lot of these guys were—they’re making $90 a year GDP [gross domestic product] per capita. So they spend their whole day working to earn enough rice to subsist on. Today, the price of rice falls by 80 or 90 percent. They only have to spend an hour a day. So they end up with six more hours a day that they can now devote to something else: to learning, to earning the money to buy a bicycle. They get to move out of that time scarcity into this more time-abundant zone where now they’re much more similar to someone in the U.S.

When you give 2 billion people between China and India their freedom to have five or six or seven more hours a day to devote [to other pursuits], they then become creators to grow and discover new knowledge.

Is income inequality still a problem around the world?

Tupy: The cool thing about studying economic development and the workings of capitalism in the post–World War II era, but especially since globalization about 40 years ago, is to see the different kinds of inequalities which have just collapsed.

The left continues to obsess about income inequality, but look at the gap between infants dying in the Third World and in the West, how much it has shrunk. Maternal mortality, time inequality, calorie inequality—there are hundreds of different inequalities which are shrinking around the world as a result of economic development. So even though income inequality may still be increasing in some countries, income inequality across the world has shrunk.

How do we get more superabundance?

Pooley: We believe that abundance is a function of population and the freedom to innovate. You can have an increase in population, but if they’re not free to innovate, you really don’t have this increase in abundance. But if you add a small measure of freedom—for example, the China situation—you suddenly see people begin to escape poverty because of this freedom to innovate, which is really the freedom to go out and discover and activate valuable new knowledge.

What role does the size of the population play in creating more abundance?

Pooley: Innovation is a function of invention and invention is a function of ideas and ideas are a function of human beings. So you’ve got to have human beings to be able to have this idea creation and discovery process, and then they have to have the freedom to act on those ideas.

Is population growth absolutely necessary for long-term economic growth?

Tupy: Yes, it’s an interaction between population growth and the growth of human freedom. For example, you could imagine a situation around 2060 or after where the global population starts declining but suddenly the entire world becomes free. Libertarian paradise, where you can say anything, you can invest anywhere. You could offset the decline in population by having a greater share of humanity living in freedom, being able to fully participate in the global economy and innovation.

But if the future around 2060 is one where the population stabilizes and then starts declining, and at the same time freedom starts disappearing from the world, or it’s going to be restricted to only a few countries, then of course you would expect to see lower economic growth.

Pooley: I’d add one more thought to that. When population declines, you have this other effect of the demographic age: Not only are you not having more people, [but] your average age is getting older. So you end up like Japan, where the average age is much older. Simon highlighted it: Innovation primarily comes from young people, and you have to have more young people to innovate. Even though you’ve got a large population, if the average age is 65, you’re not going to see innovation either.

Japan is the only Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country that has fewer people now than in 2000 and it’s a relatively free economy compared to other parts of the world. What are they doing wrong?

Pooley: We did a little study on Japan, and as their population tends to flatten out and then start to decline, their GDP per capita is also following that same trend. [It] slows down, flattens out, and then it’s going to decline. It’s a good place to live. Their life expectancy is like 88 years in Japan, so it’s a great place to live if you want to live long. But it’s not that great of a place to live if you’re expecting lots of new innovation and growth.

What is Romanticism and how does it continue to influence critics of material progress?

Tupy: I think it starts with [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau. All of the figures of the Enlightenment understood that life was getting better, that people were increasing their income so they could see progress around them. The first progressive century is the 18th century, really, especially toward the end.

But that’s basically where the agreement ended. In comes Rousseau, and he says, “All this new wealth is corrupting us.” The other figures of the Enlightenment were saying, “The more wealth you have, the better the society becomes.” He says that it’s corrupting us, that it’s making us less moral, it’s making us more separated from nature, it’s enslaving us. You see this argument in fascism, in Nazism and communism, all the way to modern environmentalism. Basically, it’s based on this notion of Rousseau’s noble savage.

Where do you see the environmentalist movement going? How do you convince environmentalists to take the superabundance agenda seriously?

Tupy: I always begin when talking about this subject by distinguishing smart and well-meaning environmentalists who care about the planet but whose hierarchy of values has the planet and human flourishing at roughly the same level. People like [author and activist Michael] Shellenberger, people like [cognitive psychologist] Steve Pinker—they care about the environment, they want to clean the environment, they want a safe planet, but at the same time, they understand that there has to be a balance. On the other hand, you’ve got the extreme environmentalists who really see humanity as a cancer on the planet.

There are some positive things happening on the environmental side of things, partly because of the catastrophe that Europe is undergoing right now. The opposition to nuclear power, for example, seems to be losing steam. People are realizing that in order for civilization to continue, you have to have energy.

At the same time, the megaphone is definitely still with the people claiming the coming of the apocalypse. In the last chapter of the book, we point to a number of public opinion polls, both in the United States and in the rest of the world, which show that increasingly women and parents are making their choices about how many babies to have depending on environmental concerns. “We are going to run out of resources. Our children are going to starve.” People tell us that “we are not going to have children because the world is ending.”

How do we know that the world is not running out of resources?

Pooley: On the resource side, look at the prices of things. If we were truly running out of these things, the prices would be increasing dramatically. So the price contains its information about the relative scarcity of things, and then the time price really goes to the next level of saying, well, how much time does it take you to earn the money to buy that thing? And all of these products and services are becoming more and more abundant to us.

What got you interested in superabundance?

Tupy: About 20 years ago, I realized that after the fundamental failure of communism, parts of the green movement became a home for watermelons: people who are green on the outside but red on the inside. If you asked me 10 or 15 years ago what is the ultimate agenda of the green extremists, I wouldn’t give you an answer because it was hammered into me not to impugn other people’s motives. We now thankfully live in a world where the cat is out of the bag. They are explicit. The goal of the extreme environmentalist movement is the destruction of the capitalist system. Some people may find that appealing. I don’t, and I intend to fight against it.

Why do people believe that wealth creation and innovation are inherently destructive?

Pooley: [Karl] Marx felt like the production problem had been solved. His obsession was on distribution. So if you assume the world can produce all of this wealth and abundance and it’s distribution that you need to worry about, then you can become obsessed with that. But we still fundamentally have this production problem. How do things get made?

If you grew up in a very wealthy society, if you never actually have to do things with your hands and you’re in academia, it’s very easy to be kind of caught up in these ideas about how if I was in charge, given my motives and my ethics, I would do it this way. When we allow intellectuals to have that kind of authority and power in a culture that haven’t really dealt with the realities and have never really paid the costs for being wrong, then you’re going to have this attention to that kind of an ideology.

So our pushback once again is: You’ve got to look at the facts. You’ve got to think about the historical perspective of how expensive things used to be and why they are so abundant today. It wasn’t because we came up with a new distribution system. It’s because we’ve been able to continually innovate. And that requires human freedom.

Tupy: Thank God that nobody had the power to stop innovation in 1900. There’s a famous anecdote of somebody who said that we can shut down the patent office in Washington, D.C., because everything that could have been invented was. And that was 24 years before antibiotics came online. It’s incredibly silly to think that we have reached the pinnacle of prosperity.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.

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