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Rational optimism

Last week, I attended a lecture by geneticist Matt Ridley, hosted by the Irish Skeptics Society. I have before read his books The Red Queen and The Origins of Virtue, explaining the genetic origins of human instincts and society. Politically, he is a proponent of free trade and small government, having written for The Economist from 1984 to 1992, and he served as non-executive chairman of Northern Rock from 2004 to 2007. His understanding of science and human nature leaves him open to the accusation of an attempt to justify his politics, but it is not with Ridley that we’ve first seen a convergence in views on the market and evolution. Charles Darwin saw the parallels between the simplicity of natural selection and Adam Smith’s invisible hand, while Friedrich Hayek saw the same processes of emergent order in nature as in many human endeavours such as the market, language or societal customs, none of which were ever formally instituted.

Ridley’s thesis is that what makes homo sapiens fundamentally different from all other species is our capacity to trade. Recent studies in the genome code have shown that even our closest relatives, homo neanderthalensis, probably had language, and excavations have shown that they had burial customs, but no neanderthal tool has been found more than two hours from where it was made. Of course, even if we have been trading as a species for 120,000 years, the acceleration of the benefits of trade only began to take off in the relative recent past, some time in the mid-eighteenth century. As a sign of the improvements to the common man from trade in those years, Ridley compared the situation of Louis XIV of France, who had nearly 500 people to prepare food for him, to any of us today, who have hundreds of people working for us, if we want to think of like that. Once we pay them for what we want, what difference is it to us that they’re also working hundreds of other people too?

Not only is life better than it was in the eighteenth century, it’s getting better all the time. Not on every scale and measurement, not in every country all the time, and of course, not at a constant consistently smooth rate. But on average, we should expect the future to be brighter.

Of course Ridley knows that between those forecasting ecological disaster and the demise of the capitalist system, it’s a claim that gets little attention, but it’s always been thus. He quotes the nineteenth-century liberal historian and politician Thomas Macaulay, who asked, “On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us ?” Ridley shows that at current trends of the deceleration of population growth, the world’s human population should stabilize near 9 billion around 2060. In  the meantime, through the use of intensive farming and genetic modification, we will be able to use increasingly less land to match the increasing demands from the growing wealth of the new middle-class across the world. Because even over the last decade, the proportion of those in developing countries living on less than a dollar a day is noticeably declining, as is the rate of infant mortality. Aid agencies fear that highlighting this progress will lead to decreased funding. Rather, they should focus on how and why it has been working so effectively and seek continued resources in these directions.

He uses the analogy of natural biological development to explain the increasing development of technology. When animals reproduce, they can carry the good genes from the two mates to the next generation. Innovation is usually the product of two ides merged to from a better one. With the advent of the internet, the speed at which innovation takes place is greatly enhanced. The very fact that he has had to update the recent text, Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil”, is a sign of the change in the past few decades. In Ridley’s version, he contrasts a stone-age rock tool, made by one hand, to a computer mouse, which no one person can make, given the oil needed for the plastic, the rubber for some of the coating, the fiber coating, the software, and the manufacture, countless people were involved in its production. Fitting again that the mouse is itself becoming obsolete, as I write this on laptop with a touch-sensitive pad.

Even on the environment, where we most often here from pessimists, Ridley is optimistic. Whatever about the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, oil spills have decreased 90% in the last thirty years. He predicts that by around mid-century, we will have eased off completely our use of fossil fuels, and draws attention to the more optimistic outlook of the consequences of climate change. Yes, temperatures will rise. Perhaps by not as much as claimed, and it will be something which we will probably be able to rise to the challenge of tackling technologically, particularly as average world income continues to rise.

By realizing the extent to which things have been and are improving, we have a better chance of continuing to improve our quality of life. Of course each of his claims should be reviewed critically and skeptically, but his optimism is a breath of fresh air (certainly compared to the likes of Peter Singer, who yesterday asked “Should this be the last generation?”; even though he concludes with an ultimate belief in our abilities, he falls victim to many short-term pessimistic presumptions). Matt Ridley’s writing, with data on global improvements, is definitely worth checking out at rationaloptimism.com.

  1. Edward
    7 June, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    What if increasing productivity is also increasing the probability of extremely harmful events? It’s all very well to say that oil spills are rarer, but, by some estimates, the recent spill is one of the biggest ever. We can say the same thing about greater knowledge of genetic engineering and the risk of a biological super-weapon.

    And would it be tactless to say, given Ridley’s provenance, that financial innovations and the recent financial crisis have been another example of the same principle?

    • William
      7 June, 2010 at 11:26 pm

      The argument is about a general trend, the time since Macaulay’s quote above saw oppressive governments across parts Europe as the norm for parts of twentieth century, so it is a generalization to say that we have seen nothing but improvement behind us. Whatever technological improvements they benefited from, they were certainly not better off then. Of course there are turns against trends, sometimes quite major ones. His slides on the decreasing rates of disease of course showed a spike in AIDS in the past few decades, which is now also decreasing.

      Ridley’s time chairing Northern Rock, which I thought best to mention at the outset, is as good as any an argument for comparative advantage, and why biologists should not necessarily run banks. On the same grounds, I’m not so sure his arguments can be applied to financial innovation. You probably know better than me how economists differ on the question of whether financial integration can be defended on the same grounds as the traditional arguments for free trade. Martin Wolf cited Jagdish Bhagwati recently as someone with fairly standard and similar views as himself on trade but opposing financial integration. A bit of a tangent, but such a financial innovation probably lie outside the realm of entrepreneurial spirit which Ridley is praising here, just are there are many human attributes which he doesn’t highlight as crucial.

  2. rationaloptimist
    8 June, 2010 at 12:19 am

    The point is not whether short term trends or events are positive or negative but, rather, the big picture, which is that there are important, powerful reasons for the progress we have experienced, and those reasons should continue to operate in the future. That is the basic thrust of Ridley’s book.
    Those interested in Ridley’s very good 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. See http://www.fsrcoin.com/k.htm

  1. 8 June, 2010 at 3:33 pm
  2. 24 June, 2010 at 6:38 am

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