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The Great Breakthrough and its Cause

Author(s):Simon, Julian
Reviewer(s):Hohenberg, Paul M.

Published by EH.NET (May 2001)

Julian Simon, The Great Breakthrough and its Cause. Ann Arbor,

University of Michigan Press, 2000. x + 214 pp. $39.50 (cloth), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Paul Hohenberg, Department of Economics, Rensselaer

Polytechnic Institute.

Julian Simon, who died in 1998 just before finishing the manuscript that

became the book under review, was a forceful and prolific exponent of the

anti-Malthusian thesis that population growth has positive economic effects.

It goes without saying that “Malthusian” is used here — and indeed by Simon

– in its more common sense, in the same way that “Keynesian” or “Marxist” do

not typically imply close attention to the actual writings. The argument is

applied to economic history, notably to what the author calls Sudden Modern

Progress, the widespread increase in material well-being that began to spread

in the late eighteenth century. As the title makes clear, the book advances

one true or underlying cause for this epochal transformation and that is the

increase in human population.

Nil nisi bonum aside, this reader finds the book frustrating, to the point

where my review may not give all it contains of interest its due. One example

among many: a cunning graph on page 20 looks at world population over the last

million years with log scales for numbers and years before 2500CE. Aside from

the fact that the text on the same page flatly contradicts the diagram, the

successive surges of population it shows are clearly labeled as “resulting

from” successive technological breakthroughs. Yet the entire argument is

precisely that population growth antedates and indeed brings about the growth

of knowledge. If one ignores the legend and looks only at the curves, then the

long lags between successive growth surges casts doubt on a positive feedback

mechanism that would proceed from growth of human numbers to the development

of knowledge to further growth in numbers.

There are further difficulties with the argument, which is not so much

developed as restated with variations. Sometimes the crucial quantity is the

population of the world, sometimes of the nation or region. Nor is it clear

whether what really matters is total numbers or population concentration, in

the form of density or urbanization. I fear that behind much of the ambiguity

is the awkward fact that the largest concentrations of people, whose forebears

had fashioned the great civilizations of India and China, took virtually no

part in the breakthrough on which Simon focuses. While an entire chapter is

devoted to this issue, I, at least, emerge from it no wiser. One school Simon

will not join: you will hear nothing here of imperialism, that is, of the idea

that Western growth resulted from exploitation of what came to be the


Such frustrations are a pity, since the book’s basic thesis is well worth

pondering, as the sympathetic foreword by Richard Easterlin points out. There

is no question that output and population numbers have grown together. Current

theories of economic growth stress human capital, knowledge, and institutions

rather than natural resources or the accumulation of physical capital, and

this shift is very much in the direction that Julian Simon worked hard to pull

us. Well-functioning markets do demand as well as foster a larger scale of

both production and consumption. Cities facilitate the exchange of knowledge

and foster specialization in its production. I am, however, not persuaded that

large numbers, overall or in a single political or cultural unit,

monotonically generate more and better ideas. That sort of “gold-bearingore”

model of human creativity seems to me ahistorical. A much more promising

approach would be to focus on the conditions that will allow creativity to

flourish. I will not endeavor to do that here, save to point out that

prosperity and freedom may not, helas, offer the best milieu. The best wines

are made from grapes grown in stony soil.

Julian Simon (who was Professor of Business Administration at the University

of Maryland, College Park) gained fame, perhaps notoriety, by casting scorn on

earlier prophecies of catastrophic shortages of raw materials. And indeed, it

is hard to imagine the world economy running down for want of tungsten. In

this book, natural resources get little play, and pollution, including global

warming, apparently none (there is no index to serve as a check on my memory).

A similar lack of shading marks the discussion of progress in longevity and

health, on which Simon lays considerable stress. The triumphs over mortality

and disease, and their links to medical knowledge and sanitary institutions,

are rightly highlighted, but there is no mention, for example, of

drug-resistant agents. Perhaps in the longer perspective he is right.

Certainly neither wars nor obscurantism nor plagues have derailed the

juggernaut of progress so far. Will nuclear weapons, the genome, AIDS, and

carbon dioxide also prove to be minor incidents on the road upward from

poverty? Yet even if they turn out to matter little on a global and

multisecular scale, if one thinks back to China in 1400 or Spain in 1600, to

say nothing of earlier (or later) climacterics, the consequences of taking the

wrong road can last many lifetimes. To be fair to Julian Simon, these and

other miscues did not originate in Malthusian diminishing returns.

Paul Hohenberg is Professor of Economics Emeritus and currently Acting Chair

of the Department of Economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He has

served as editor of the Journal of Economic History and has written on

European economic and urban history.

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative