The Other Rational Optimist

I finally got round to reading Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist. Not only is the title the same as this blog’s — and similar to my own book’s — so is the message.

Ridley’s key theme is the salience of trade — commerce — exchange — in propelling progress. The great point (which too many fail to grasp) is that trade makes both sides better off. (Even, as Ridley notes, if the trade is “unfair”; though a coin trade with an older boy 50+ years ago still rankles.) Ridley draws an analogy to the biological exchange of information, i.e., sex, which propels evolution. Trade, he writes, is akin to ideas having sex with each other.

Ridley’s book and mine both celebrate the human achievement. To lament modernity, to deny that we’ve progressed, even to condemn what we’ve done, while romanticizing a supposedly halcyon past, is pitiably foolish. Ridley does a great job showing just what progress has achieved in quality of life for the average human. He and I share a profound reverence for the titanic human exertions standing behind this. Reading his book on an airplane — a half-day transcontinental trip that for our forebears was arduous, miserable, dangerous, and took months — made me marvel anew at the vast web of contributions by untold thousands of people across the globe and across centuries that made this possible. The same is true of even our simplest modern conveniences, to which most of us give scarcely a thought. Not me; I see them as virtual miracles.

I have been following the reviews and blog commentaries on Ridley’s book. Most have been quite positive. The nastiest was by George Monbiot in Britain’s left-wing Guardian newspaper. One can of course quibble with details of Ridley’s analysis. But to dismiss his basic story, to actually condemn it as villainy, takes a really diseased cynicism, and blinding oneself to what is, well, blindingly obvious. Yet Monbiot and a few like-minded commenters accomplish this. It’s painful to observe. And it’s harmful. Their willful refusal to understand the sources and nature of progress, leading them to actively oppose it, stands in the way of a better world (especially for the downtrodden, about whose plight such pundits constantly whine).

Monbiot et al are intolerant guardians of a narrow orthodoxy. They portray Ridley’s book as fanatically pro-capitalist and anti-government. It is not, and only a fanatic would see it so. Their critiques reveal more about the critics than about the book.

Bravo to Ridley for his breath of fresh air and clear thinking. That his message is widely labeled “radical” is ironic — the reaction really should be, “Duh! Tell us something we don’t know.” Yet Ridley is indeed telling us something that, sadly, most people don’t know.

My own book, The Case for Rational Optimism (Transaction, Rutgers University, 2009), does make many points and arguments similar to Ridley’s, but is far broader in scope, covering not only such topics as the economy, war and peace, technology, democracy, etc., but also the evolutionary background and the philosophical and psychological issues involved with optimism versus pessimism. I think it’s pretty good too.

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2 Responses to “The Other Rational Optimist”

  1. Gregory Kipp Says:

    If it’s true, as I believe, that the purpose of life is to create “Purpose,” then progress in inevitable. We define our Purpose by the progress we make in understanding the world around us and why we are here.

  2. Even in Africa | The Rational Optimist Says:

    […] William Easterly reviewed Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, he called “disturbing” Ridley’s use of the word “even” regarding Africa, as in saying […]

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