The Reverend Doctor John K. Williams has been a teacher and currently does free-lance writing and lecturing from his base in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Most of us as children listened to and delighted in the Greek myth of Pandora’s box. The story really begins with the god Prometheus, who defied Zeus by giving humanity the gift of fire, a gift which enabled human beings to become creators, refining metals and transforming the face of earth. To punish Prometheus and to restore human beings to their appropriate place in the scheme of things, Zeus instructed his son Hephaestus, god of fire and thus a particularly skilled craftsman, to make a woman whose name, Pandora, signified her nature. The name means “all gifts,” and to ensure that she did possess all possible beauties and charms, Hephaestus called upon all the gods to assist him in her creation. Her creation completed, Pandora took her place upon earth with other human beings. She possessed, however, a box which the gods had given her. In no circumstances was she to open that box. Needless to say, Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her, and she opened it. Out from the box leapt all the evils that, ever since, have tormented and frustrated humanity. Pandora slammed down the lid, but it was too late, the box’s inhabitants having been unleashed and being beyond recall. All, that is, save one. A small, plaintive voice pleaded with Pandora to open the box once more and to free this solitary, remaining occupant. Pandora relented. She opened the box and out stepped the final occupant. And the name of this occupant was Hope. As a child, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. It was exciting, magical, and—from the viewpoint of a little boy with three sisters—desirably sexist. I particularly enjoyed the happy ending: evils abounded, but Hope also walked the world. Strengthened by Hope, human beings could do battle with ignorance and folly and create a better world. And that goes to show that what we get from a story depends in no small part upon what we bring to a story. I brought to the story a presupposition deriving from the religion of Israel and of Jesus. The presupposition, shared by many people who claim to have severed all their links to the Judaeo-Christian heritage, is that hope is a virtue to be admired and an attitude to be cultivated. Given that presupposition, the intended meaning of the ancient myth is almost certainly missed. Pandora is, if you like, the original dizzy blond. She may possess all charms and beauties, but she’s not very bright. She opens the box. Disaster results. Disease, earthquake, and suffering of all forms become part of human existence. But does Pandora learn? Not at all! All it takes to make her open the box again is a wistful little voice asking her to do so. The silly girl thus releases the last occupant of the box, the final evil named Hope. The ancient Greeks were essentially a life-affirming, life-loving people. One cannot miss this in the comedies of Aristophanes: bawdy, down-to-earth plays displaying sheer delight in the world. One cannot miss the enthusiasm and joy in creativity that expressed itself in Greek architecture and sculpture. Yet accompanying this love of life and enjoyment of the fair earth, went a sad and somber melody. The Golden Age lies in the past. Human history is the story of a slow but inexorable decline from the heights. The end of the story, fixed and unalterable, is the destruction of civilization and the victory of barbarism. This terrible future must be accepted with resignation. The danger that human beings might escape their fate by exercising the creativity Prometheus gave them, has been averted by Zeus through Pandora’s releasing all manner of evil on earth. The Final Evil And the last evil, the final evil, is hope. This is the evil people cling to, the most difficult evil to conquer. Hope is the desperate attempt to deny the inevitable. It is a delusion veiling the grim truth, an opiate dulling a mind that cannot face the worst, a fantasy hiding reality. People afflicted by hope exercise their creativity not for the right reason, which is to express in the present a waning capacity that in the future will cease to be, but as a futile attempt to improve the world and fashion a better future. I underscore that it would be unjust to depict the ancient Greeks as morose pessimists. They enjoyed the present, and created works of literature and philosophy and art that the world has ever since admired. Yet a sad song accompanied their deeds. Perhaps that song finds its most obvious expression in the final words of Sophocles’ immortal tragedy, Oedipus Rex:
Most of us as children listened to and delighted in the Greek myth of Pandora’s box. The story really begins with the god Prometheus, who defied Zeus by giving humanity the gift of fire, a gift which enabled human beings to become creators, refining metals and transforming the face of earth. To punish Prometheus and to restore human beings to their appropriate place in the scheme of things, Zeus instructed his son Hephaestus, god of fire and thus a particularly skilled craftsman, to make a woman whose name, Pandora, signified her nature. The name means “all gifts,” and to ensure that she did possess all possible beauties and charms, Hephaestus called upon all the gods to assist him in her creation.
Her creation completed, Pandora took her place upon earth with other human beings. She possessed, however, a box which the gods had given her. In no circumstances was she to open that box. Needless to say, Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her, and she opened it. Out from the box leapt all the evils that, ever since, have tormented and frustrated humanity. Pandora slammed down the lid, but it was too late, the box’s inhabitants having been unleashed and being beyond recall. All, that is, save one. A small, plaintive voice pleaded with Pandora to open the box once more and to free this solitary, remaining occupant. Pandora relented. She opened the box and out stepped the final occupant. And the name of this occupant was Hope.
As a child, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. It was exciting, magical, and—from the viewpoint of a little boy with three sisters—desirably sexist. I particularly enjoyed the happy ending: evils abounded, but Hope also walked the world. Strengthened by Hope, human beings could do battle with ignorance and folly and create a better world.
And that goes to show that what we get from a story depends in no small part upon what we bring to a story. I brought to the story a presupposition deriving from the religion of Israel and of Jesus. The presupposition, shared by many people who claim to have severed all their links to the Judaeo-Christian heritage, is that hope is a virtue to be admired and an attitude to be cultivated. Given that presupposition, the intended meaning of the ancient myth is almost certainly missed. Pandora is, if you like, the original dizzy blond. She may possess all charms and beauties, but she’s not very bright. She opens the box. Disaster results. Disease, earthquake, and suffering of all forms become part of human existence. But does Pandora learn? Not at all! All it takes to make her open the box again is a wistful little voice asking her to do so. The silly girl thus releases the last occupant of the box, the final evil named Hope.
The ancient Greeks were essentially a life-affirming, life-loving people. One cannot miss this in the comedies of Aristophanes: bawdy, down-to-earth plays displaying sheer delight in the world. One cannot miss the enthusiasm and joy in creativity that expressed itself in Greek architecture and sculpture. Yet accompanying this love of life and enjoyment of the fair earth, went a sad and somber melody. The Golden Age lies in the past. Human history is the story of a slow but inexorable decline from the heights. The end of the story, fixed and unalterable, is the destruction of civilization and the victory of barbarism. This terrible future must be accepted with resignation. The danger that human beings might escape their fate by exercising the creativity Prometheus gave them, has been averted by Zeus through Pandora’s releasing all manner of evil on earth.
The Final Evil
And the last evil, the final evil, is hope. This is the evil people cling to, the most difficult evil to conquer. Hope is the desperate attempt to deny the inevitable. It is a delusion veiling the grim truth, an opiate dulling a mind that cannot face the worst, a fantasy hiding reality. People afflicted by hope exercise their creativity not for the right reason, which is to express in the present a waning capacity that in the future will cease to be, but as a futile attempt to improve the world and fashion a better future.
I underscore that it would be unjust to depict the ancient Greeks as morose pessimists. They enjoyed the present, and created works of literature and philosophy and art that the world has ever since admired. Yet a sad song accompanied their deeds. Perhaps that song finds its most obvious expression in the final words of Sophocles’ immortal tragedy, Oedipus Rex:
Sons and daughters of Thebes, behold: this was Oedipus,
Greatest of men; he held the key to the deepest mysteries;
Was envied by all his fellow-men for his great prosperity;
Behold, what a full tide of misfortune swept over his head.
Then learn that mortal man must always look to his ending,
And none can be called happy until that day when he carries
His happiness down to the grave in peace.
That is one view of hope: The final evil which only the wisest of human beings avoid.
Another Point of View
There is, however, another view of hope, a view affirming that it is entirely appropriate that men and women should look ahead not with resignation but with joyous anticipation. The future is not inexorably fixed—indeed, there is no such thing as the future. Rather, there is, in the words of Eric Trost, a range of possible futures. “Which of the possibilities will be realized depends not a little on the choices we make—which, in turn, depend on our values—and also on our taking an active rather than a passive role. The paradox is that, because the future is not determined, one has to make choices.”
This viewpoint, affirming that humanity’s earthly existence is not tied to a fixed and fated future, is essentially derived from the Judaeo-Christian religious heritage. It finds expression in these words from the book of Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore, choose life, that you and your children may live.” Which of many possible earthly futures shall be depends upon the decisions men and women make. Pessimism is precluded: people can “choose life.” Optimism, however, is also precluded: people can choose death.
Later writers elaborated the theme. Should human beings “choose life” a great and glorious possible earthly future could become a reality. Seers dreamed of a day when “every man shall sit . . . under his own fig tree, and none shall make them afraid,” a day when “the wilderness and the solitary place shall be made glad, and the desert shall rejoice; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice even with joy and singing.” Human existence is pregnant with possibilities either for good or for evil. People can choose the way of life and of blessing. An earthly future that is better than the present can be realized. Hope is therefore justified.
I have long enjoyed a love affair with the glory that was Greece. Yet to the question, “Is hope an evil to be fought or a good to be embraced?” I side with Jerusalem, not with Athens. To be sure, there are illusory hopes that will and must die, but hope itself is to be embraced and af firmed. A better world—a world more prosperous and more deeply committed to liberty than is the present world—is possible. Not inevitable, but possible. And whether that possibility becomes reality depends, in part, upon the “choices we make . . . and our taking an active rather than a passive role.”
A Hopeful Beginning
The history of your nation began with people who hoped. Your forefathers set out, like Abraham of old, not really knowing “whither [they] went,” but the possibility of a better world was there, and in the hope of it brave souls ventured. So they went on, sometimes faltering, sometimes obstructed, often disappointed, often frustrated, but they went on. Their hope was in a possibility, and in their own deeds and their power to do them. Thanks to them, and the hope that burned in them, a new nation was born, a nation “conceived in liberty.” In very truth, the desert began to “blossom abundantly,” and hitherto unimagined prosperity graced the earth.
A story is told of a mischievous boy who sought to make a fool out of an old man highly regarded for his wisdom. The boy devised a plan. He would capture a small bird, cup it in his hands, and ask the old man whether the bird was alive or dead. If the old man said that the bird was dead, the boy would open his hands and let the bird flutter to its freedom. If the old man said that the bird was alive, the boy would squeeze all life from the tiny creature and open his hands to reveal the poor dead thing he held. So he caught a small bird and held it in his cupped hands and asked his question of the old man. “Old man, they say you are wise. So tell me: in my hands is a bird—is it alive or is it dead?” The old man looked at the boy in silence for what seemed an eternity. Finally, he spoke. “My child,” he said, “the life of that bird is in your hands.”
Our Civilization Can Be Conserved and Enriched
So, I believe, with the many possible futures for this planet. They are not totally in our hands and subject to our choices, no, but they are very largely so. Which one of them becomes reality depends in no small part upon us. The liberties we cherish can be preserved and extended. The prosperity we enjoy can be consolidated and increased. The civilization we know can be conserved and enriched, and passed on to our children and our children’s children. Or so I believe.
That belief is modest. It is not optimism, for I believe not in the inevitability of progress but merely in the possibility of progress. Yet neither is it pessimism, asserting that hope for a better world is folly. Liberty, prosperity, and civilization can be victoriously defended against their enemies and, indeed, strengthened and increased. Can be. That is all, but it is enough. Hope is justified.
Incidentally, do you know the definition of optimism and pessimism? James Branch Cabell informs us that “the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist fears this is true.” I suppose that if I had to choose between the philosophy of the optimist and that of the pessimist, I’d choose optimism—after all, as has been pointed out, many an optimist has become rich simply by buying out a pessimist! Fortunately, however, I do not have to choose. A third option is available: the modest option of hope. It is that option that I advocate.
The Attack on Hope
The option of hope is today under fire. The sad melody that haunted ancient Greece has become, in our world, a cacophony of sound. Shrill voices noisily proclaim the death of hope. Our planet is on the verge of running out of resources and room. The vision of a world of plenty must be supplanted by a blueprint for a world of enforced austerity. Human liberty is a luxury humanity can ill afford. The free market in a free society has had its day. The only choice people have is a choice between this gloomy future or no future whatsoever. Or so the contemporary prophets of pessimism assert.
Adding insult to injury, those who would rob us of hope for a better future are joined by men and women who would take away any pride we may have in our past. There is, they assert, nothing in our Western heritage meriting admiration or worthy of praise. Developed nations enjoy the prosperity that is theirs simply because they have ruthlessly exploited and still exploit developing nations. Hopelessness and guilt are thus the appropriate attitudes for the children of Western nations to adopt.
A Gloomy Future
There can be no doubt that many young people are profoundly affected by this philosophy of hopelessness and guilt. A recent study of Australian school-children’s attitude to the future revealed that the majority of these children envisage their future in terms of “devastation and doom,” or of a return to “primitive lifestyles.” The author of the report, Noel Wilson, turns at the end of his study from figures and charts, and becomes almost a poet. “My little girl,” he writes, “is six years old. She builds a castle of wooden blocks, and smiles. She knocks them down. And laughs.” In a foreword to Herbert London’s Why Are They Lying to Our Children? Herman Kahn asks, in all seriousness, whether the dramatic rise in the teenage suicide rate in developed nations during recent years, might be in no small part a function of the hopelessness and guilt the purveyors of pessimism advocate.
It is, I submit, difficult to overstate the seriousness of the situation. If it be true, in the words of Eric Trost previously cited, that which of the many possible futures for humanity is realized depends upon present choices made and the decision to take “an active rather than a passive role,” present attitudes and beliefs play a crucial role in the creation of future history. It may well be that a vision of inevitable doom and gloom will itself lead to the very apocalypse it depicts. If liberty is destined to die, why cherish and seek to further it? If prosperity can be no more, why at tempt to act in ways which create prosperity? Why resist what is fated to be?
Two crucial tasks thus face the lover of liberty. Two questions must be asked and answered. First, do those who assert that the only possible future for this planet is one of enforced austerity make out their case? Is their evidence adequate and their argumentation valid? Second, if their evidence and their arguments do not justify the conclusions they reach, then how is their influence to be curbed and their vision to be challenged? I can think of few more important questions those of us who hold to hope and are committed to liberty can consider.
The Limits to Growth
In 1968 a best-selling book penned by Paul R. Ehrlich numbed a sadly uncritical world. In 1971 this volume, The Population Bomb, was joined by Jay W. Forrester’s influential World Dynamics. Then came a plethora of books elaborating the theme played by Ehrlich and Forres- ter, the most significant of these being the Club of Rome’s report, The Limits to Growth and the three volume Global 2000 Report to the President. The message proclaimed was clear. Economic growth, once hailed as humanity’s benefactor, has become a monster threatening human survival. Resources are on the brink of utter depletion. An already overcrowded planet is moving, like the fated hero of a Greek tragedy, toward utter disaster, too many people desperately attempting to occupy and wrest a living from too little space.
The authors of books and reports enshrining this point of view enjoy at least three advantages over their critics. First, human beings not infrequently display a perverse liking for bad news. A story is told of an elderly lady who attended one Sunday an unfamiliar church. The preacher spoke of the goodness and the mercy of God, and of the hope God proffers the human spirit. After the service, the lady tearfully berated the preacher. “You,” she said, “have taken away my total depravity and taken away my eternal dam nation, so what have I left to bring me joy?” Precisely what this propensity to welcome bad news indicates I leave for psychologists to determine. Maybe more people are characterized by a masochistic streak that says “No” to joy and to delight than most of us realize.
Second, the purveyors of pessimism enjoy the advantage that, unlike their critics, they cannot be accused of wishful thinking. Inasmuch as no rational person would want to believe what the advocates of limits to growth do believe, these people must have utterly compelling grounds for their convictions. Their critics, clearly, are faint-hearted souls unable to face grim reality.
Now certainly wishful thinking is a danger against which rational people must be on their guard. Yet the suggestion that the bearers of bad tidings must have carefully checked the grounds upon which they base their beliefs, is false. Human history is littered with the graves of men and women who confidently, albeit sometimes sadly, predicted impending disaster, but who proved to be madly in error, the bases of their gloomy beliefs being without any substance whatsoever.
Third, the authors of the books being considered in some cases communed with a computer when sorting and analyzing their data. That simple fact mightily impresses not a few gullible readers. It would seem that, for many people today, the only more convincing phrase than “surveys have shown” or “studies have indicated” is “a computer has said.”
Such people would do well to meditate upon an acronym widely cited by computer-buffs: GIGO. The acronym signifies simply, “Garbage in—garbage out.” Any person dubious as to whether GIGO explains the computer-based Club of Rome report, would do well to read an admirable essay by Christopher Freeman, “Malthus With a Computer.” Should this essay fail completely to exorcise the demon of misplaced veneration, I recommend the following words of the socialist economist Gunnar Myrdal, who can hardly be accused of wishful thinking generated by enthusiasm for economic liberty. “[The] use of mathematical equations and a huge computer which registers the alternatives of abstractly conceived policies by ‘a world simulation model,’ may impress the innocent general public but has little, if any, scientific validity. That this ‘sort of model is actually a new tool for mankind’ is unfortunately not true. It represents quasi-learnedness of a type that we have, for a long time, had too much of, not least in economics . . . .”
In this context it is appropriate to note that the Club of Rome, after some 4 million copies of The Limits to Growth had been sold, announced that the report was deliberately inaccurate, and that the Club had known all the time what every competent reviewer of the book had said—namely, that the programming of and data fed into their computer grossly distorted reality. Time magazine carried the following report of what, surely, is a quite staggering admission: “The Club’s founder . . . says that Limits was intended to jolt people from the comfortable idea that present growth trends could continue indefinitely. That done, he says, the Club could then seek ways to close the widening gap between rich and poor nations—inequities which, if they continue, could all too easily lead to famine, pollution, and war. The Club’s startling shift, Peccei says, is thus not so much a turnabout as part of an evolving strategy.”
Julian L. Simon is surely justified in thus paraphrasing this extraordinary statement: “In other words, the Club of Rome sponsored and disseminated untruths in an attempt to scare us. Having scared many people with these lies, the club can now tell the real truth.” Lies, albeit processed by a computer, remain lies.
Science and Pseudo-Science
The sad phenomenon of men and women enjoying scientific expertise, yet prostituting that expertise for political or social causes, is not without precedent. The sad story of men and women, trained in the sciences, who by order of Stalin manufactured “evidence” for the utterly erroneous beliefs of the pseudo-geneticist Trofim D. Lysenko is a case in point. Indeed the Soviet dissident Mark Popovsky documents the ongoing tension confronting scientists in the USSR between their disciplines’ demand for truthfulness and their government’s desire for particular conclusions. One hesitates to call men and women enjoying scientific expertise “scientists” when they falsify their data to fit preconceived theories rather than seek out evidence to determine whether or not certain theories hold. They are more appropriately called “ex- scientists” or “pseudo-scientists.”
Now the primary advantage critics of the limits-to-growth movement enjoy over advocates of this position is that the overwhelming consensus of informed, scientific opinion is on the side of the critics. Men and women enjoying scientific expertise who advocate limits to growth are an eccentric, in the literal meaning of that word, minority. Their numbers are few and their conclusions at variance with those reached by the vast majority of trained scientists.
Unfortunately, serious scientists tend to avoid the public arena, their writings almost invariably appearing in professional journals read almost exclusively by their fellow-scientists. As a consequence, the popular writings and public statements of eccentric scientists and “pseudo- scientists” tend to go unchallenged. Lay people assume, trustingly but erroneously, that these conclusions either represent the consensus of informed, scientific opinion or constitute a reputable, albeit controversial, viewpoint keenly debated within informed, scientific circles. Certainly, young people in our schools so believe. It would be surprising if they did not. For their textbooks typically present as incontrovertible fact the highly dubious conclusions of the limits- to-growth movement.
The Resourceful Earth
At long last, however, serious scientists have acted to correct a scandalous misrepresentation of the truth. Twenty-eight men and women of standing within the scientific community took it upon themselves to prepare essays representative of the present scientific consensus on the issues discussed by advocates of the limits-to-growth position. Edited by Julian L. Simon and Herman Kahn, the collection of essays, entitled The Resourceful Earth: A Response to “Global 2000”, is “must” reading for all lovers of truth and lovers of liberty.
Consider simply the following statements, taken from the executive summary of the essays contained in the volume:
• “Life expectancy has been rising rapidly throughout the world, a sign of demographic, scientific, and economic success.” An examination of the essays documenting this assertion reveals that no misleading global aggregates have been used. Life expectancy is increasing in de veloping, as well as in developed, nations.
• “The birth rate in less developed countries has been falling substantially during the past two decades, from 2.2 percent yearly in 1964-5 to 1.75 percent in 1982-3.”
• “Many people are still hungry, but the food supply has been improving since at least World War II, as measured by grain prices, production per consumer, and the famine death rate.”
• “Land availability will not increasingly constrain world agriculture in coming decades.”
• “Mineral resources are becoming less scarce rather than more scarce, affront to common sense though that may be.”
These are but five of seventeen conclusions listed as the executive summary of The Resourceful Earth. Each statement is totally at variance with claims made by men and women advocating the limits-to-growth movement. It is underscored that the conclusions reached by the contributors to The Resourceful Earth cannot, in any significant sense, be described as “controversial”: they represent the overwhelming consensus on the issues in question obtaining in informed, scientific circles. Returning to the limits-to-growth literature after studying the essays in this volume is a distressing experience, even overlooking the sleazy confidence-trick perpetrated by the Club of Rome. One moves from a world of measured conclusions, precise data, and logical analysis to a world of shrieked assertions, impressionistic data, and tortuous logic.
Trends Are Improving
“We do not say,” assert the volume’s authors, “that all is well everywhere, and we do not predict that all will be rosy in the future. Children are hungry and sick; people live out lives of physical or intellectual poverty, and lack of opportunity; war or some new pollution may do us in. The Resourceful Earth does show that for most relevant matters we have examined . . . trends are improving rather than deteriorating . . . . [W]e do not say that a better future happens automatically or without effort. It will happen because men and women . . . will address problems with muscle and mind, and will probably overcome, as has been usual throughout history.” Simply, hope is both possible and rational.
The editors further suggest that readers examine for themselves the professional stature of the contributors to the volume, and do the same with the staff of persons listed in Global 2000. To the best of my ability I have done so, and while communing with Who’s Who in American Science simultaneously checked out the credentials of other contributors to the limits-to-growth literature. Suffice to say that so doing made me resent the fact that, some years ago, I took the limits-to-growth movement as a serious, scientifically grounded movement. I now perceive it as an eccentric movement largely drawing its scientific support from pseudo-scientists. I only take it seriously in the sense that advocates of a limits-to-growth mentality are extremely able publicists who have managed to breed despair in young people yearning for hope and entitled to joy.
The purveyors of pessimism mangle language, the most elementary of conceptual distinctions eluding them. Typically, they do not care to note that all economic goods are, by definition, scarce, or distinguish between a good’s scarcity and a shortage of that good.
It is not even clear what supporters of the limits-to-growth movement mean by a resource. Oil once was not a resource at all, being merely a useless black substance. When in biblical days some people discovered it could be used in the manufacture of perfume and ink, it became a marginally useful resource. Only in the nineteenth century did it become an extremely useful resource, human ingenuity having discovered a new use to which oil could be put. Anthracite coal only became a resource when, in 1809, an American discovered how to ignite it.
Now, if a resource involves a hidden reference to human desires and human technology, attempts to measure a resource face problems. Consider oil. Available reserves of oil were minimal until an American dug the first oil well in 1859. Inasmuch as it is technologically possible to transform tar sand and shale rock to oil, should the actually or possibly obtainable reserves of tar sand and shale rock be included in an attempt to calculate actually or possibly obtainable reserves of oil? Soybeans similarly can be turned into oil. Do they count?
Millennia ago the Iberians declared that the Rio Tinto mines in Spain were exhausted. They could extract no more copper, silver or gold from them. The superior technological skills of the Romans witnessed the reopening of these mines and a great deal of successful mining. When their technological skills had gone as far as they could, the mines yet again were perceived as exhausted. The process was repeated again and again. The discoveries of the “leaching” process, the “roasting” process, and the “flotation” process at different times transformed the exhausted Rio Tinto mines into anything but exhausted mines. Since in this obvious sense attempts to specify “available resources” must refer to available technologies, should not technologies transforming one substance into another similarly be referred to?
More subtly, a resource becomes “less scarce” when a new way to perform a given task is discovered. Vast quantities of copper were once required if the inhabitants of one country were to speak to inhabitants of another country, thousands of miles of cable being needed if such were to be done. Space satellites now serve for this purpose. Economically speaking, copper today is less scarce than it was two decades ago.
Simply, in any humanly significant sense, resources are no more limited than is what Julian L. Simon calls humanity’s “ultimate resource”—the human imagination. Perhaps one should add that resources are similarly no more limited than is people’s liberty to exercise their imaginations.
The Price System of the Free Market
Not surprisingly, the vital role of changing relative money prices in a free market economy in conserving resources and creating resources finds no mention in the limits-to-growth literature.
As, for whatever reason, a given resource becomes relatively scarcer, the price of that resource relative to the price of other resources increases. This in itself conserves the resource. A consumer notes that the price of a particular sort of fish has soared. He purchases and consumes another sort of fish. It is almost as simple as that.
But only “almost.” Fishermen, noting that the price of, say, tuna has increased busily seek out more tuna fish, hoping to improve their situation—i.e., increase their income. They know what to do if they are to improve their situation and have a strong incentive to do just that. Maybe an imaginative entrepreneur devises a way to farm tuna, or creates a powder which makes other forms of fish taste like tuna. In this way, changing relative money prices in a free market, in addition to conserving a resource as its scarcity increases relative to other resources, indicate how people can best employ their efforts so as to increase the availability of the resource.
Again, the free market in a free society, which rests firmly upon precisely defined and efficiently enforced private property rights, encourages the owners of some resource to consider long-term benefits, not simply short-term gains. Suppose I own a farm. I want the land I control to provide me and my chosen successors with a living tomorrow as well as today. I thus have every incentive to avoid practices which improve my situation in the immediate present but jeopardize my future well-being and that of my children. Compare, however, the pressures upon people whose ownership, and hence control, of a farm is politically determined. Shortsighted practices which please the electorate become extremely tempting. Simply, it is the political con troller, anxious to satisfy the desires of voters or the Party, who is likely to ravage and run, not the private owner. Indeed, the private owner is loathe even to cut down the beautiful oak tree his great, great grandfather planted, and diligently seeks out a way to conserve the tree without substantially reducing his income.
In sum, the consensus of informed scientific opinion, a little thought about the nature of resources, and a consideration of the truly wondrous role of the free market in a free society in conserving and creating resources, make nonsense of the claims of the limits-to-growth advocates.
What Are We to Do?
I return, however, to my opening remarks. In the absence of hope—in the absence of a rational belief that the world tomorrow can be more joy-pus, more prosperous, more committed to liberty than is the world today—people are unlikely to make the choices or play the active role which transform a real possibility into an exciting reality. Hopelessness, alas, is endemic, the purveyors of pessimism having carried out their miserable work all too well. Yet, most certainly all is not lost.
First, at least a person without hope does not entertain illusory hope. Within living memory, the collectivists and statists were overdosing on hope. Read, for example, Paul Hollander’s volume, Political Pilgrims. It tells the amazing story of Western intellectuals who returned from visits to totalitarian, collectivist states with glowing eyes. When Stalin was ruthlessly starving multitudes to death, these gullible “political pilgrims” spoke of radiant faces, joyous harvest songs, and the birth of “real” freedom. Socialism was feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the destitute. IIlusory hope once ran high.
But no more. The tired old routine of exciting reports, mounting evidence, desperate denials, improbable alibis, admissions of error, and discoveries of a new socialist utopia, fails to convince anymore. Many young minds may be devoid of hope. At least, however, barren soil is not choked with weeds that must be cleared before the seeds of liberty can be sown.
Second, the case for the free market in the free society has, so to speak, “novelty value.” It is not that this case has been heard, assessed, and rejected. It hasn’t been heard. Caricatures of economic and political liberty certainly abound, but the true picture does not, shall we say, suffer from overexposure in the media or in our schools. We at least are spared the tired yawns of those who have “heard it all before.”
In parentheses, I note that a major problem in communicating the case for economic and political liberty to the young is, ironically, the very material prosperity these realities have enabled them to enjoy. How does one convince the children of plenty that the vast majority of human beings who have walked this earth have known only destitution, and that the abnormal situation crying out for explanation is not destitution, but prosperity? Certainly, until anyone is convinced that a phenomenon is sufficiently puzzling to warrant investigation, explanations of the phenomenon are unlikely to elicit much interest.
A more serious problem is, of course, the warped syllabuses and texts so endemic in our schools. While I hold firmly to the view that this problem is generated ultimately by state control of schooling, and that the only “solution” to the problem is a separation of school and state that is as sacrosanct as the separation of church and state, advice proffered by Herbert London in the final paragraph of Why Are They Lying To Our Children? merits thoughtful consideration: “We let facile statements substitute for hard analysis, and we let undocumented, inflammatory rhetoric find its way into our [schools'] texts. For these bad judgments we will pay a price in uneducated youths. Because schools are local institutions subject to parental influence, much can be accomplished when there is the will to do so . . . . The application of common sense standards of ‘fair play’ and ‘balanced argument’ will go a long way toward correcting the lies our students are routinely taught.”
The Vision of Greatness
I would go one step further. The philosopher A. N. Whitehead once observed that a primary task of educators is to bring before the growing mind “the habitual vision of greatness.” It is not enough that our young people are not subjected to the pseudo-science, the economic illiteracy, and the pathological self-hatred cursing the purveyors of pessimism. It is not enough that they learn of the solid ground that exists for asserting that humanity’s world tomorrow can be more prosperous, more peaceful, and more committed to liberty than is humanity’s world today. It is not enough that they hear the compelling case that exists for the free market in the free society.
They need also to be inspired by a vision and excited by a dream. They need to sense and feel the greatness of the human species’ long and slow struggle to achieve liberty. They need to sense and feel what liberty is: the power of it, the joy of it, the song of it, the sacredness of it.
And that brings me to my third and final ground for holding that our case is anything but lost. A disoriented minority may, in recent years, have been allowed to call the tune. But the decencies are alive and well in this world and in this nation. Ordinary men and women are growing tired of seeing the light in their children’s eyes fade and witnessing joy and hope and vitality and enthusiasm crushed out of their children. These men and women are ready to hear what the freedom philosophy has to say and, I believe, are anxious to hear it. And there are those—not least the men and women connected with The Foundation for Economic Education—more than able to articulate that philosophy and inspire their hearers by it.
Admittedly, there is no certainty of victory. Yet there is every reason to believe that victory can be ours. Our confidence need never be less than our own willingness to labor and to toil for what we know is right and true.
A willingness to labor on. This we can reach if we care enough, and therein is our victory. The life of humanity is precarious and frail: a handful of dust and a breath of hope. Yet though that dust is of the earth, the hope that burns in the human spirit is of God. And nothing can forever extinguish that spirit and the hope that is within it.