Simon vs. Ehrlich at a Funeral
By Bryan Caplan
I recently attended my first funeral. Even though I never met the deceased, I cried. The only good thing to say about death is that it beats severe, chronic pain. I didn’t need a lot of details about her life to be confident that this woman’s death was a tragedy for her, for her family, and for the world.
A week later, I googled my favorite Julian Simon quote to get the page number. Many decades from now, I hope someone reads this at my funeral:
to me the memory of reading a eulogy delivered by a Jewish chaplain over the
dead on the battlefield at Iwo Jima, saying something like, “How many who
would have been a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein have we buried
here?” And then I thought, Have I
gone crazy? What business do I have trying to help arrange it that fewer human
beings will be born, each one of whom might be a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an
Einstein – or simply a joy to his or her family and community, and a person who
will enjoy life?
Guess what else appeared on the first page of hits? Paul Ehrlich‘s rebuttal:
What business does anyone have trying to help arrange it that more human beings will be born, each one of whom might be a Judas, an Attila the Hun, or a Hitler – or simply a burden to his or her family and community and a person who will live a life that is nasty, brutish and short?
Imagine reading this at a funeral! All ideology aside, it’s hard to see Ehrlich’s reply to Simon as anything other than demented hatred. Sure, it’s possible that the person in the coffin lived in misery, burdened his family, and/or would have been the next Hitler. But does Ehrlich really think that these gruesome scenarios are even remotely as likely as Simon’s? If not, what’s his point?
P.S. I believe this is the actual eulogy Simon remembered. I like Simon’s version better, but much the original is still excellent. The key passage:
Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the man who could have
discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses,
or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may now rest a man who was
destined to be a great prophet-to find the way, perhaps, for all to
live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none.