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Three Errors Paul Ehrlich Keeps Making

By Vincent Geloso at the American Institute for Economic Research

To kick off the New Year, 60 minutes pulled out a man from yesteryears: Paul Ehrlich.

If you do not know who Ehrlich is, you are probably a young person. If you are above a certain age, you have heard of him, seen him on television, heard him on the radio or heard his ideas second-hand from someone.

This biologist from Stanford University was a media fixture in the 1960s and 1970s for his view (expressed in the best-seller The Population BombI) that overpopulation would lead to resource depletion and, ultimately, civilizational collapse. Ehrlich’s solution was coercive fertility control and rapid population decline to avoid the collapse.

In the 60 minutes segment, not much appeared to have changed to Ehrlich’s message. Doom is still coming. Overpopulation is still the root cause. Population control remains the only solution.

The consistency in messaging is jaw-dropping given how wrong Ehrlich was then and remains now. In fact, the errors and fallacies in Ehrlich’s reasoning have been identified multiple times since The Population Bomb was published. The errors can be identified in three blows that Ehrlich received – two of which were self-inflicted.

The first blow to Ehrlich’s view came from economist Julian Simon. In an article published in Social Science Quarterly, Simon taunted Ehrlich into taking a bet that would go directly at the foundations of their respective views. Unlike Ehrlich, Simon believed that politically and economically free societies could accommodate rapid population growth. In fact, the population growth would actually bring about more innovation, ideas and techniques that would lead to long-term improvements in material and environmental conditions. Relatively free markets would communicate information through price signals about which innovation would be the most socially valued. As such, resource depletion would never become a permanent problem in Simon’s worldview.

The bet consisted in picking the price of five key resources and evaluating their behavior over a decade. If prices increased, Ehrlich’s view would be vindicated because it confirmed that resource depletion (demand outstripping supply). If they decreased or remained stable, Simon would be vindicated as innovative actors responded to scarcity by investing in new technologies, techniques and methods. This behavior would bring prices back down. Simon won the wager, as prices for the five commodities declined in the wager period of 1980 to 1990.

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