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CEI Annual Dinner 2019: Johan Norberg

It’s been a couple of weeks since the success of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s 35th Anniversary Dinner and Reception, and I’m happy to finally be able to bring everyone the videos and transcripts of all of the evening’s speakers. Below you’ll see the remarks delivered by the 2019 Julian L. Simon Memorial Award recipient Johan Norberg, who spoke about human progress and the importance of optimism.


Wow, what an honor. What an award.

Kent told me earlier that it’s in the shape of a leaf because Julian Simon adored and collected leaves as a symbol of the natural world and what it can contribute to all of us, and the veins are made up of the five metals of famous bet. Obviously when I told my friends at Cato about this award being given to me, they explained to me straightaway that oh, that’s unfortunate because this is the only award we know that will drop in price and value year by year. All the time from now on.

I guess that’s the only disappointment with this prize. I must say, and I don’t know what the alternative would be. Because I guess according to Julian Simon’s theories, the only thing that will keep on increasing in price and value is human ingenuity, the human brain. And that would be an awkward prize. I guess it would fit the “Game of Thrones” theme of this party, but I’ve no idea how I’d get it past Customs so thank you for making it this kind of prize.

 And in the name of Julian Simon, a personal hero of mine. I only met him once during a teleconference in the early days of teleconferencing that made you doubt technological progress in every way. But, I read him, I studied him, I adored the kind of message he gave.

You can say that he was the person who converted me to optimism and the person who put me on the path on which I am now. Because I used to have deep misgivings about science, about technology, about big business, about trade, and all of those things. I used to be one of those who believed that there were “good old days” in the past when we lived in harmony with one another and with nature.

I looked at the pictures of my ancestors in northern Sweden… where they were standing and they were proud after harvest. Nice clothes, and looked like they had a good time. That was what I wanted to go back to. I didn’t want the factories and the workloads and all the pollution and the smokestacks and all those things.

And, had I not read an interview with Julian Simon in Wired in February 1997 – the doomsayer Julian Simon – I might tonight have been somewhere else, on another stage somewhere expressing my gratitude for receiving the Thomas Robert Malthus award or the Paul Ehrlich award for pessimism and misgivings abound.

But, that’s not the case because I read that interview and I thought “Wow, that’s insane. He’s hopeful about the world. Let me look into this and see how far it goes. And it went quite far.” Because Julian Simon helped me realize that the pictures of my ancestors in northern Europe, that was a lie. The picture lied because this was during one of those great seasons when they had a good, decent harvest so that they could afford decent clothes. So that they could afford a photographer to take that picture for their descendants.

But on another day, another year when the weather was bad and the harvest failed, they were starving. They were putting bark from the trees into the bread to make it go further so that fewer of their children would die. That era was not the “good old days.” That was more like “Game of Thrones”. The night was dark and full of terrors, and so was the mornings and the middays and the afternoons. You get the rest. They did not live ecologically, they died ecologically back in those days.

And that taught me to take facts seriously, to take data and statistics seriously because they tell a real story. You can’t just put your conscience into it and turn it something else.

Just like the Iron Bank of Braavos, one of the few institutions that really functions in the world of “Game of Thrones,” tell Stannis Baratheon when he comes there telling them that he’s the rightful heir to the throne and he needs a big bailout for his troops. And they tell him, you know, your books are filled with words like usurper, madman, blood-right. Here, our books are filled with numbers. We prefer the stories they tell, more plain, less open to interpretation. And obviously, you can lie with statistics well, but it’s easier to lie without statistics, so it’s better to have something to check up on those stories.

And when I took a look at those data and I’ve spent more than two decades doing that, I was shocked because looking at the data of human progress is like being beaten over the head by a rainbow all the time. And you realize that the world has never made the kind of progress that it’s making today.

Basically everything happened during these last one hundred years. This is the moment in time when we went from one out of ten people in the world living their life not in extreme poverty to an era when only one of ten people live in extreme poverty. From a period of some ten thousand years when life expectancy was 20 to 30 years to one where we live globally 73 years. Perhaps, it’s the case, as they say in Braavos, that all men must die. But it makes a difference if you die when you’re 20, 30 or five months or when you’re 80, 90 or 100 years old.

Free markets and human ingenuity makes it possible to meet your grand-genuity. That’s what freedom is about.

If you see that story and if you look at the numbers and you realize that that’s the case and understand the connection between that progress and the human liberty, you can never go back. You can never do anything else but that. It’s like watching “Game of Thrones” for the first time, you can’t stop nagging everybody else about this great thing because it’s so amazing. If you understand the potential to abolish human poverty, to eradicate disease, improve human lifespans and human freedoms around the world, you cannot go back.

And unlike “Game of Thrones,” it’s not there even though we don’t care. We have to make it happen. It’s not automatic. Progress doesn’t happen by itself. We live in a Golden Age, but history is littered with golden ages when mankind made amazing progress. But it was ended and destroyed by special interests, by strongmen, by tribalism. So, we have to keep on fighting for it. We have to keep that flame of enlightenment and human freedom alive. We can never rest, and sometimes, that is a little bit exhausting. Sometimes that is a little bit lonely.

One of the more moving things – and I’d like to end on this point – one of the more moving parts of Julian Simon’s ultimate resource two – I don’t know if there ever was an ultimate resource one, guess we’ll never find out. But number two was the one that really impressed me was his preface, where it ended in this very strange way where he exposed his own weaknesses to everybody. Where he said:

 “Because of the fighting words in this preface, I may come through the print to you as feisty or tough and able to take care of myself in this argument. But, I’m not a very feisty person. I have been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to get a hearing for these ideas since 1969 and though times have changed somewhat, the difficulties of espousing this unpopular point of view do get to me. Until recently, they were very near to the point of shutting me up and shutting me down. Some others hold a point of view similar to mine, but there are far too few of us to provide mutual support and comfort. So this is a plea for love, printer’s ink and research grants for our side.”

End of quote. Well, it’s been awhile, and we’ve made even more progress since. And since then, CEI has been instrumental in spreading Simon’s views much, much further. But also, more importantly, building this community of people where we can provide one another with comfort, with support, with ideas that can generate and build this kind of knowledge that Simon thought was so important to the further progress of mankind. So we don’t have to feel like we’re that alone, and this award – I must say – is the finest expression of that I’ve seen so far.

So, thank you for your support, comfort, printer’s ink and love.