Jim Tankersley is the economic policy correspondent for The Washington Post.
On a regular basis, the Gallup organization asks random samples of Americans how much confidence they have in a variety of prominent institutions. For decades, that confidence has been eroding, almost across the board. The last time a majority of Americans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in churches and organized religion was in 2009. For the Supreme Court, it was in 2002. For public schools, 1987. For newspapers, 1979. Not one survey, dating back to 1973, has found a majority confident about “big business,” television news or Congress.
This loss of faith is a defining feature of American politics today. Another defining feature is the rise, across the political spectrum, of what you might call supervillain scapegoating. This is the idea that someone or some group has conspired to hurt the country, with overwhelming success. For the left, the villains are Wall Street bankers and members of the Koch family; for the right, they are immigrants and welfare mooches. There are supporting villains, too: the turncoat rulers of America’s business community and political class, who have allowed the supervillains to trash the country.
Americans, in other words, have lost faith in the men and women who lead the country. But they still believe that those leaders are powerful — and that worries them.
Matt Ridley shares America’s eroding faith in institutions, but he doesn’t much believe in supervillains. He is a true libertarian, to an extreme you rarely see in American public discourse. He doesn’t believe in God, doesn’t have much use for government and argues in his new book, “The Evolution of Everything,” that people generally place far too much stock in the notion that individuals can shape the course of world events — or perhaps even their own lives.
Ridley is the best-selling author of “The Rational Optimist” and a member of the British House of Lords, though his new book often reads like the diatribe of a freshmen who just discovered Ayn Rand. Still, it arrives at an opportune moment in American politics. “The Evolution of Everything” is a preview of what America would sound like if the country were to lose faith entirely — in institutions, in public servants, in the very idea that heroes and villains exist.
In the world Ridley sketches in the book, everything will eventually work itself out for the better, thanks to free markets and survival of the fittest — so no one feels any obligation to try to change things for the good.
The crux of Ridley’s argument is that evolution guides the forward march of human existence, not God or government or individual actors. He begins with a deconstruction of religion and a veneration of evolutionary biology: There is “no need for God” to explain the course of human history, he says near the outset. Life appears to follow a design only if assessed in hindsight. “Bodies and behaviours,” he writes, “teem with apparently purposeful function that was never foreseen or planned.”
In this spirit, Ridley claims that society overrates inventors such as Edison and Pasteur — better to think of an innovation as a foregone conclusion of human progress to that point, as opposed to a burst of genius. He sees morality, family structure and technology as products of long strings of adaptation and not choices made by individual actors along the way, at least not to any meaningful extent. He discounts free will: “The illusion of an individual” with the power to make decisions, he writes, is no more just than the idea that “each person is the sum of their influences,” from genes to school chums to society at large.
He saves his greatest praise for the economic analogue of evolution — the free market — and some of his greatest scorn for government, which he casts as the closest thing he has to a villain; more an annoyance, a sort of swift current crashing against the healing powers of unfettered capitalism, than a conspiracy to work ill in the world. He wants to abolish public schools and central banks. He dislikes patents and believes that if government got out of health care entirely, history shows that doctors would take it upon themselves to ensure that the poor were cared for. He confesses some belief in global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels, but he worries more about countries reacting too strongly rather than too weakly to combat it.
For a man so expertly playing off America’s current political moment — the confluence of distrust from the Occupy left and the tea party right — Ridley seems blind to one of the more damaging features of our current politics: the rush to cherry-pick facts that support a predetermined argument, casting aside — or never searching for — evidence that might challenge that argument. Like a cable-news junkie, he skips past volumes of rigorous scholarship and comes to rest on almost anything that supports his convictions.
This is particularly true in Ridley’s economics chapters. His theory of the 2008 financial crisis — that it was caused mainly by federal government policy — draws largely on the work of one conservative economist, Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute, whose theories are, to put it mildly, not widely shared in the field. In playing down global warming, he does not cite any of the researchers whose work contributes to the overwhelming scientific consensus on the threats posed to humanity by climate change, but he does cite Michael Crichton, the author of “Jurassic Park.” On four separate occasions, he points us to the economic wisdom of former presidential candidate Ron Paul.
It’s unfortunate, because Ridley diagnoses a lot of problems worthy of serious exploration by policymakers. Why is innovation so sluggish in the education system? Can the climate problem best be solved by market forces? Does the patent process enrich the lucky and hurt consumers? Could the nation’s institutions, and particularly its system of governance, evolve to regain the confidence of its people?
Ridley’s answer is to wait for new tools of technology that empower individuals — such as social media — to render institutions irrelevant by allowing people to bypass them. (Who needs government when you have Twitter?) He would then let something evolve to fill the void. “You may think I am listening too credulously to radical libertarian dreamers,” he writes in closing, “and perhaps I am.” But his argument, in the end, isn’t libertarianism, which draws its strength from a faith in the power of individuals. It’s nihilism. To paraphrase a classic American film, to believe that things will magically work out, because of evolution, is to believe in nothing, Lebowski.
No heroes. No villains. And no responsibility if the world goes to hell on our watch.
By Matt Ridley
Harper. 360 pp. $28.99