Matt Ridley's “The Rational Optimist,” reviewed by Wray Herbert

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By Wray Herbert
Sunday, July 18, 2010

THE RATIONAL OPTIMIST

How Prosperity Evolves

By Matt Ridley

Harper. 438 pp. $26.99

Early in this sprawling and ambitious volume, futurist Matt Ridley compares a modern computer mouse to a hand axe from the Middle Stone Age. Both artifacts have been designed to fit into a human hand, but there the similarities end. One is the product of a single person's ingenuity and labor -- and of a single substance -- while the other is a complex amalgam of materials and labor and strands of human cleverness. No single person knows how to make a computer mouse from scratch, yet it's as ordinary as that flint axe was half-a-million years ago. Ridley uses this example to illustrate the idea of the collective brain, a core concept in this rosy view of human progress. At some point in human pre-history, Ridley argues, people began to recognize the severe limitations of self-sufficiency. They started specializing their talents and efforts and swapping their services, creating a communal intellect that sparked innovation and progress. Indeed, that simple but profound shift in human sensibility has led to unprecedented prosperity, leisure, peace and liberty -- trends that will only accelerate in the century ahead.

At least that's what Ridley believes, and he bolsters this argument with an impressive tour of evolutionary biology, anthropology, economics, philosophy and world history. His intellectual heroes are Charles Darwin and Adam Smith. He believes that human society has evolved through natural selection -- not of genes but of ideas -- and through free trade in these ideas. Wherever he looks in the past, Ridley finds that unencumbered commerce has sparked innovation and betterment, while bureaucracy and regulation have stifled creativity and led to stagnation. He ranges nimbly from the excesses of the Ming Dynasty to Walmart merchandizing to the business strategies of sardine fishermen of southern India, and each lesson points him to exuberant optimism about where human society is heading.

If Ridley is sanguine about the future, he is equally as contemptuous of the past -- and of anyone who looks back with even a hint of nostalgia. To pick just one of many examples, the author at one point describes a family at the turn of the 19th century. The father is reading from the Bible while the mother prepares the evening's stew. The children are gathered around the hearth of their simple timber-framed house. Here is Ridley commenting on this peaceful scene: "Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fall-out have been found in the cow's milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window." Then Ridley pulls the old switcheroo, snidely mocking the idyllic tableau that he himself has just created. He grimly paints the reality of the earlier time -- the bronchitic coughs and pneumonia and smallpox that will cut short these lives; the foul-tasting water and gray, nutritionally bankrupt diet; the unwanted pregnancies and drunken husbands and hopeless lives of women; the isolated, uncultured lives; and so on and so on.

It's a cheap trick -- setting up a straw man just to tear it down. And it's a trick unworthy of this otherwise cogent and erudite social critic. Other, equally serious critics raise genuine concerns about the state of the planet and the unintended consequences of progress; they shouldn't be so glibly dismissed. And even yearning for a less hectic time is not as simple-minded as Ridley suggests. The urge to simplify is not the same as longing for raw sewage and wife-beating, and to twist it that way is insulting to serious-minded folks who would like a course correction. Ridley's snarkiness diminishes his analysis.

But a diminished masterful work is still a very good book. It's provocative to stake out such a position at this moment in history, with the world economy still reeling from the excesses of unregulated bankers. Ridley -- a former banker himself -- concedes as much, but he confidently predicts that market forces will pull the world out of the current crisis. He also believes these forces will meet any challenges brought about by global climate change. Climate pessimism is based on ignorance of future technologies, he argues. He is convinced that human ingenuity will cause new, planet-saving ideas to bubble up and avert climate disaster.

Maybe, maybe not. This rich analysis shouldn't properly be reviewed until 2110, because only then will we know if Ridley's confidence in human ingenuity is warranted. Futurists don't have a great track record, but let's hope that future generations will review this rose-tinted vision favorably.

Wray Herbert is the author of "On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits," which will be published in September.


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