Julian Simon was an optimist whose enormous contributions we remember and recognize every year with CEI’s Julian L. Simon Memorial Award. We also recognize the spirit of his work with CEI’s Human Achievement Hour. Simon believed in the unlimited potential of human beings to improve their own lives through innovation. In The Ultimate Resource, he writes “it is people, skilled, spirited and hopeful people who will exert their will and imaginations for their own benefit, and so, inevitably for the benefit of us all.”
As HumanProgress.org shows, in almost every sphere of life, and for almost all people on earth, life is better, more prosperous, healthier, and more peaceful than at any time in history. The gains, however, are not evenly distributed, with the citizens of some countries racing ahead, while those in others, such as Venezuela, hurtle backwards. The evidence from around the globe and over many decades shows unequivocally that life for ordinary people, particularly the poor, is vastly better in freer countries than in less-free countries. When it comes to human progress, it turns out policies and the institutions of a free society matter a great deal.
Growing up in South Africa during the 1970s and 80s, as I did, gave me insights into what happens when people are unable to exert their will and imaginations for their own benefit. The Apartheid South African government was anti-Communist, and so many presume that it was in favor of free markets. This is far from true. Although South Africa’s Apartheid economy was free for some, it was heavily regulated by the state and most of the population was not allowed to own property or businesses and the government dictated where they could live, where they could eat, whom they could marry, and where they could travel.
Thankfully those pernicious race-based laws were ended in the late 1980s and 90s, automatically improving South Africa’s economic freedom and in so doing lifting the fortunes of millions of people. These gains, however, have been eroded as South Africa’s government has steadily grown over the past twenty years, inserting itself into all areas of public and private life, dampening growth and stunting the aspirations of all people. With unemployment officially around 25 percent, there are children growing up in South Africa whose parents have never had a job and have no prospect of ever being productively employed. In response to the rising anger that comes from frustrated ambitions, South Africa’s leftist ruling party, the African National Congress, could have liberalized and lifted the dead hand of government from the economy. Regrettably, it has chosen to double down and recently voted to expropriate land without compensation.
No sane person believes trashing property rights will improve the lives of South Africa’s neediest. Just to the north, the government of Zimbabwe tried the same experiment and destroyed the economy, leading to an exodus of that country’s most skilled and dynamic people. Given these developments, it is enormously gratifying that this year’s winner of the Julian Simon Award is Hernando de Soto (pictured above), whose work around the world to define, allocate, and defend property rights has lifted millions out of poverty. Human flourishing is almost impossible without property rights and the rule of law, and so before millions of poor people around the world are able to realize Julian Simon’s optimistic vision, they need Hernando de Soto to defend their rights. De Soto has been one of the most eloquent and effective defenders of the institutions that make human achievement possible, and there are few more deserving people worthy of the Julian Simon Award.
Richard Tren is the 2009 Julian L. Simon Memorial Awardee and co-founder of Africa Fighting Malaria.