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June 25, 2010

Richard D. North asks, where is The Rational Optimist's back story: The Rational Optimist: How prosperity evolves - Matt Ridley

Posted by Richard D. North

The Rational Optimist: How prosperity evolves
by Matt Ridley
Pp. 438. London: 4th Estate, 2010
Hardback, £20

The good news about this book
This is an invaluable book. It is just the tome to romp (to skip) through, hanging on to bits for regurgitation at dinner parties or in the social kitchen. It is an up-to-date account of why in general things have always got better, are getting better now and are likely to stay getting better. And not just for westerners, but for nearly everyone. Our capacity to adjust to the planet's needs seems to be improving too. The book seems factually accurate, and to that extent trustworthy.

Every decade needs such a book, and in recent years there has been a succession of them, as Matt Ridley sort of notes. In very much Mr Ridley's vein, there have been John Maddox (1970s), Julian Simon and Herman Kahn (1980s and - in the case of the former - 1990s), Ronald Bailey (since the 1990s), Richard D North (and that's almost a sad story from the 1990s), Gregg Easterbrook (the 1990s), and Bjørn Lomborg (the 2000s). These authors all showed the good evidence that most green pessimism is wrong and some of it is the very reverse of the truth.

Matt Ridley is trebly useful because more than most of the other authors he develops an inter-locking pro-market argument. He also importantly develops an argument as to why mankind uniquely discovered the ability to collaborate.

And now the weaknesses
Probe a little deeper, and the book has some important failings. Its biggest claims to novelty - some bold, some more implicit than out there - are weak. And it is a little ungenerous.

Do ideas really "have sex"?
Matt Ridley's first big theme is that mankind's brand of innovation - the species' progress - arises because it has ideas which "have sex". He claims that they evolve, as his subtitle implies. He quotes Richard Dawkins' ideas about "memes" in order to nest his notions about progress into a Darwinian framework of natural selection. The trouble is that in the real world lots of the worst (useless, dangerous) ideas don't get weeded out as a matter of adaptive failure, and certainly not in any genetic sense. Such bad ideas get defeated if at all, over and over again, generation by generation. Besides, ideas transmute constantly as new generations find new meanings in them.

Mr Ridley's book then claims that man flourished because he developed a "collective mind" and that in large part this came about because he was trading goods and services in markets which pulled in varied stuff from huge distances. Competition turned out to be cooperation. Since the first Big Idea I really loved was Teilhard de Chardin's notion of a "noosphere" (a sort of collective conscious) I have a soft spot for this sort of stuff. But whilst it has always been attractive to apply sexual ideas to the "marrying" of ideas, and to think of this as a fertile collaboration, I don't see how any of this is a matter of natural selection.

Evolution is a good old sensible word to describe this sort of process, and it was presumably picked up by Darwinists because they could apply it to their hero's brilliant idea about species. But Darwinism isn't useful in discussing how ideas propagate (there we go again) just because it's invaluable in understanding speciation. Mr Ridley jives between the two uses all the time. (I am no biologist, so you may like to read Steve Jones in the Guardian on this part of Matt Ridley's work.)

All this comes with quite heavy doses of evolutionary psychology. I am quite sceptical that we have much of a handle as to how our evolutionary hard wiring contributed to our social and cultural development. But then I am scorched by having been a fan of Konrad Lorenz (and his On Aggression) in the 1960s: the experience made me shy of the anthropomorphism of discussing the evolution of human instincts as being on a par with that of animal instincts, especially since the latter is not all that plain to us.

Is the market really all there is?
Matt Ridley also goes far too far in another trick. Having decided that the market, exchange, and trade were and are important in human development he then repeatedly suggests that wherever governments or large firms get involved, ossification and stasis soon step in.

Though they may start out full of entrepreneurial zeal, once they grow large, they become risk-averse to the point of Luddism,
is a typical remark. This has elements of a nuanced truth, but is far from all of it. For a zillion rather obvious reasons it's a bit silly of Mr Ridley to ignore the great good that these problematic institutions have done and may yet do.

Indeed, he doesn't address, let alone overturn, the received wisdom that the genius of western (protestant, Reformation, Enlightenment) development might well have been the creation of corporations and other institutions under a legal framework of permissive control set up by government. What's more, lots of lovely exchange and development of ideas happens outside markets and because of governments or philanthropy or human creative idleness. All in all, I'd far rather read David Landes or the late Angus Maddison (both quoted approvingly by Matt Ridley), or that splendid old lefty Christopher Hill or A G Hopkins and the Globalization In World History he edited in 2001/2 or the late, great Roy Porter on how we got where we are.

Matt Ridley bigs-up and loudly deploys Friedrich Hayek's idea of "catallaxy", to explain how collective thought overcomes the inherent problem of our imperfect market knowledge and results in spontaneous economic order. By this account, wisdom is more likely to be found in free exchange amongst many people in the market than, say, in a state planning board. I admire Hayek's boldness in describing markets. I quite like the idea of catallaxy being re-used to cover the spontaneously collaborative nature of free societies, but I'm not sure it's a sense that Hayek meant.

I'm very far from sure that Hayek was quite the libertarian hero the likes of Mr Ridley seem to want to make him. I haven't done the reading that would make me confident either way on that. I am much more sure that Hayek was importantly wrong on some matters: Britain's Welfare State has been a disaster but didn't lead to totalitarianism.

Oh, and another thing on this use of "catallaxy". Matt Ridley seems much too enthusiastic about Googledom and the wisdom of the crowd which is going to be found in the Cloud. His idea that

large corporations, political parties and government will crumble and fragment as central planning agencies did before them
is an important half-truth. I do not share his faith in "bottom-up" progress. Large is sometimes necessary and even beautiful and cultural and political leadership (and elitism) are likely to remain valuable.

So this book has these important flaws of mis-statement and over-statement.

This book has a pre-history, so let's have it
And then there is the problem of acknowledgement. Mostly - not always - one can track the sources of Matt Ridley's evidence by use of his pretty thorough (though occasionally patchy) references. But our author fails, I think, to show the back-story of his ways of thinking in quite the way he should.

Each of his propositions stands on the shoulders of the work of other authors, and most of those authors stand on the shoulders of yet others. True, one of Matt Ridley's chapters is a thrilling recapitulation of the matching traditions of pessimism and optimism, but even that doesn't quite catch the flavour of the optimism school. Similarly, the histories of the growth of capitalism, and of the interlocking of trade and culture, are nodded at here, but not with the generosity they deserve. A cynic might suggest that Matt Ridley is keen to prove that there is good evidence to back what he says but much less keen to note that he adds rather little to it. In more modest mood, Mr Ridley would have given us a wide-ranging, fast-paced narrative about the work of others.

Even his style is surprisingly commonplace amongst futurologists. Mr Ridley is a one-time Economist writer, and he will know well the giddy data-bombing developed there in the 1970s and 1980s by Norman Macrae, who died on the 11th of June. Macrae's approach was to undermine pessimistic shibboleths by making statistics aphoristic. Elements of this approach are to be found in the 1980s work of Alvin Toffler (of Future Shock and The Third Wave), Gifford Pinchot lll (with his "intrapreneur" idea) and (from a different school) Kirkpatrick Sale and our modern Malcolm Gladwell. All were exponents of what Patrick Wright called "the explosive anecdote".

So what? Well, after years of this technique's use, a subtler writer might have realised that it ought to be used sparingly. Matt Ridley has written an indispensable guide to the reasons to be cheerful, but it is a tad long and relentless. He rather makes one pine for Roger Scruton on the joys of pessimism to which I hope shortly to turn.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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Those interested in Ridley's book might also wish to know about my own book, THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a rather broader range of subject areas, and, indeed, addresses some of the key points for which the above review faults Ridley. See

Posted by: Frank Robinson at June 26, 2010 12:22 AM
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