Why a Julian Simon fan also should be a Malthusian

Let’s say you’ve read and loved Julian Simon, who stressed mankind’s indefatigable power of creation and innovation.  I certainly have.  Simon stressed that the cost of producing real resources likely would fall, thereby spreading wealth across mankind.  The bad news is that probably should make you a Malthusian.

The classical economists understood very well that the wages to labor cannot for very long exceed the cost of production to labor.  And if you are an optimist about the cost of producing copper, tin, and steel, you probably should be an optimist about the cost of bringing more humans into the supply chain for labor.  this could happen through:

1. Developing more and better IT to ease outsourcing.

2. Lowering the costs of raising children, so families choose to have more niños.  Or subsidize births, just for the heck of it.

3. Building human-like robots, or smart software that performs human-like functions.

4. Encouraging current individuals to work more hours or retire later in life, etc., or just taking in more immigrants of the kind who will compete with native workers and lower their wages.

5. Robin Hanson’s Ems.

6. 120 years from now, corporations build artificial wombs and create babies in large numbers in East Timor, for factory work, or military reasons, or to satisfy idiosyncratic philanthropic visions.  Or maybe just as gaming companions.  They will be bred or drugged so as to enjoy their lives, thereby brunting external criticisms, besides how many of you worry about Mauritania as it is?

7. What else?  Chimeras?  Aliens?  Imports from parallel universes?  Of course it is fine to focus on #1-4 and stick with the more commonsensical scenarios.

The Simon fan should not be a pessimist about this broad panoply of alternatives, even if he rejects some of the options as implausible.  Whether you like it or not, they all imply various forms of downward pressure on wages in the wealthier countries.  There is simply no reason for the technological optimist to think the cost of reproducing labor and labor substitutes should remain high forever.  The higher are real wages, the greater the pressures for such innovation!  Just visit Nevada — why should all that land remain empty, Australia all the more so?  Markets will create more surplus, but the best default presumption is that will be eaten up by the numbers, and not by your special privileged position as a natural-born North American, or whatever you may be.

Of course the optimists wish to have it both ways, but I say no, if you are an optimist about the cost of producing non-human resources, apply similar analysis to the cost of producing substitutes for humans.  The classical economists were a lot smarter than they are given credit for these days.

For a useful conversation related to this topic, I thank Bryan Caplan, John Nye, and Robin Hanson, can you guess which one disagreed with me most?


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