The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
by Matt Ridley
–Reviewed by Adam Fleisher
In The Rational Optimist, Ridley lays out the case for having faith in human progress and the way we’ve achieved it: free exchange and global interdependence. He argues passionately against the temptation to give up on progress because it has not created a perfect world, and he argues against the “pessimists,” those writers and thinkers who have warned throughout history that, for whatever reason, the world is doomed.
Ridley is not Panglossian. He knows that many around the world face deprivation, poverty and suffering. But many are also richer, taller, healthier, and smarter than previous generations. More of us have “access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz” than at any time in history. On average we live almost twice as long as people did a few hundred years ago, and we live more freely, comfortably, and cheaply. We may be dependent on hydrocarbons, but they have liberated us from dependence on physical exertion. In the early 1800s, life was miserable; just about everybody was starving, bored, exhausted, and living in filth. The lavish existence that so very few enjoyed hundreds of years ago was possible only because of slave labor; today many more people can afford innumerable luxuries and conveniences thanks to energy. To the notion of an idealized pre-industrial existence, Ridley writes, “Oh please!”
Alas, with progress come destruction and change, and that upheaval produces fear of impending doom. Ridley collects relics of once-conventional wisdom about humanity-destroying crises: overpopulation, underproduction of food, cancer epidemics from chemicals like DDT, peak oil, acid rain, and so on. But the actual causes of human suffering and death are fairly banal, and constant: lack of food and clean water, indoor smoke and malaria. And they’re best addressed, Ridley says, with economic development.
Ridley takes apart today’s doomsday scenario of choice, global warming. He argues that we should answer this latest crisis just as we answered past crises and ills, real or imagined: with growth, development, and innovation. What makes pessimism so dangerous-and therefore gets Ridley so worked up – is that it can be based on the correct premise that things cannot continue exactly as they are. It’s virtually axiomatic, for example, that wealthy countries can’t indefinitely consume fossil fuels at their current pace. For The Rational Optimist such realities are not an argument for retrenchment. “The continuing imperfection of the world,” Ridley writes, “places a moral duty on humanity to allow economic evolution to continue.”
An emphasis on sustainable development isn’t the solution for Ridley because the movement tends toward stifling the very interdependence and exchange of ideas that has given us a world in which “life is good.” Though perhaps he presents the movement a bit narrowly, he adamantly rejects the notion that the world can survive only if abandons the goal of economic growth. The basis of his claim is that “the whole point of human progress” is that the world does not stay as it is. The human race is a “collective problem solving machine and it solves problems by changing its ways.” In other words, the threat to the future comes not from more change, but from trying to slow it down. Or, to put it polemically, “the Dark Ages were a massive experiment in the back-to-the-land hippy lifestyle (without the trust fund).” And so Ridley inevitably criticizes what he sees as the narrow and mistaken focus of some sustainability advocates. Why not obsess, he asks, about laptop miles the way we do about “food miles”? “Fruits and vegetables account for more than 20 percent of all exports from poor countries, whereas most laptops come from rich countries,” he writes. Selective localism effectively places a sanctions regime on poor countries.
Looking back from (very) early improvements in ship building to mutual protection agreements for merchant traders all the way through the discovery of how to transmit electricity to a world in which innovations are part of daily life, Ridley weaves together a story about how free trade and the integration of ideas over time creates mutual prosperity while protectionism has caused poverty and stagnation. To him it “seems incredible that anybody ever thinks otherwise.” Of course, it shouldn’t strike him as such: he has just produced 350-plus pages on how common hostility to change has been throughout history. The Rational Optimist is a satisfying book, sort of a Wealth of Nations for our time. Ridley celebrates our world and eloquently argues that denying others the privilege of sharing our wealth is an act of cruelty.
Excerpt: “Modern genetic modification, using single genes, was a technology that came worryingly close to being stifled at birth by irrational fears fanned by pressure groups. First they said the food might be unsafe. A trillion GM meals later, with not a single case of human illness caused by GM food, that argument has gone. Then they argued that it was unnatural for genes to cross the species barrier. Yet wheat, the biggest crop of all, is an unnatural ‘polyploid’ merger of three wild plant species . . . Then they said GM crops were produced and sold for profit, not to help farmers. So are tractors.”
Further Reading: The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress by Virginia I. Postrel and On The Wealth of Nations by P. J. O’Rourke
Adam Fleisher is a law student at the University of Virginia.
*Photo courtesy Grant Kwok.