Stephen Davies writes:
We commonly read or hear reports to the effect that “If trend X continues, the result will be disaster.” The subject can be almost anything, but the pattern of these stories is identical. These reports take a current trend and extrapolate it into the future as the basis for their gloomy prognostications. The conclusion is, to quote a character from a famous British sitcom, “We’re doomed, I tell you. We’re doomed!” Unless, that is, we mend our ways according to the author’s prescription. This almost invariably involves restrictions on personal liberty.
These prophets of doom rely on one thing—that their audience will not check the record of such predictions. In fact, the history of prophecy is one of failure and oversight. Many predictions (usually of doom) have not come to pass, while other things have happened that nobody foresaw.
For a couple of decades were were told we had reached peak oil. Then fracking occured and suddenly we’re right for another 100+ years.
The fundamental problem with most predictions of this kind, and particularly the gloomy ones, is that they make a critical, false assumption: that things will go on as they are. This assumption in turn comes from overlooking one of the basic insights of economics: that people respond to incentives. In a system of free exchange, people receive all kinds of signals that lead them to solve problems. The prophets of doom come to their despondent conclusions because in their world, nobody has any kind of creativity or independence of thought—except for themselves of course.
Forecasting five years out is hard enough, let alone 100 years. Imagine it is WWI and you are predicting what are the problems the world will face in 2017? You’d be wrong on pretty much everything.
A classic example of this is a problem that was getting steadily worse about a hundred years ago, so much so that it drove most observers to despair. This was the great horse-manure crisis.
Nineteenth-century cities depended on thousands of horses for their daily functioning. All transport, whether of goods or people, was drawn by horses. London in 1900 had 11,000 cabs, all horse-powered. There were also several thousand buses, each of which required 12 horses per day, a total of more than 50,000 horses. In addition, there were countless carts, drays, and wains, all working constantly to deliver the goods needed by the rapidly growing population of what was then the largest city in the world. Similar figures could be produced for any great city of the time.*
The problem of course was that all these horses produced huge amounts of manure. A horse will on average produce between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day. Consequently, the streets of nineteenth-century cities were covered by horse manure. This in turn attracted huge numbers of flies, and the dried and ground-up manure was blown everywhere. In New York in 1900, the population of 100,000 horses produced 2.5 million pounds of horse manure per day, which all had to be swept up and disposed of. (See Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999]).
In 1898 the first international urban-planning conference convened in New York. It was abandoned after three days, instead of the scheduled ten, because none of the delegates could see any solution to the growing crisis posed by urban horses and their output.
The problem did indeed seem intractable. The larger and richer that cities became, the more horses they needed to function. The more horses, the more manure. Writing in the Times of London in 1894, one writer estimated that in 50 years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure. Moreover, all these horses had to be stabled, which used up ever-larger areas of increasingly valuable land. And as the number of horses grew, ever-more land had to be devoted to producing hay to feed them (rather than producing food for people), and this had to be brought into cities and distributed—by horse-drawn vehicles. It seemed that urban civilization was doomed.
And the car wasn’t invented to solve the manure crisis. That just happened to be a beneficial side effect. Somethings the solutions are accidental.
The great crisis vanished when millions of horses were replaced by motor vehicles. This was possible because of the ingenuity of inventors and entrepreneurs such as Gottlieb Daimler and Henry Ford, and a system that gave them the freedom to put their ideas into practice. Even more important, however, was the existence of the price mechanism. The problems described earlier meant that the price of horse-drawn transport rose steadily as the cost of feeding and housing horses increased. This created strong incentives for people to find alternatives.
Price signals are very important.