The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

I enjoyed The Rational Optimist. Pessimism is more attention-getting than optimism, but sometimes we need calm, happy stuff.

No charity ever raised money for its cause by saying things are getting better. No journalist ever got the front page by telling his editor that he wanted to write a story about how disaster was now less likely. Good news is no news. (295)

Ridley is a welcome candle in the dark. Hear more about what he has to say below.

What Stood Out in The Rational Optimist

It’s trendy to say the world is going you-know-where in a handbasket, but Ridley says otherwise. We’re prosperous! What’s prosperity? It’s “the increase in the amount of goods or services you can earn with the same amount of work” (22).

Although there’s a whole  book about it, Ridley briefly describes the “Toaster Project” of Thomas Thwaites to make the point that self-sufficiency is self-defeating (34). (The Toaster Project reminds me of the Douglas Adams character who, stuck on an alien planet, bragged to the locals about his world’s technology and was thought a liar when he couldn’t reproduce it.)

We humans are still killing each other, but not as much as we used to (44), partly because we invented mutually beneficial trades (58–59, 87). Since having invented trade, we’ve gotten increasingly good at specialization and exchange (65).

Strange things start to happen when different groups specialize; in particular, they develop comparative advantages that result in paradoxes like David Ricardo’s famous one about English cloth and Portuguese wine (75).

Some specializations are a bit odd:

Some of them make tools, others make clothes, others hunt, others gather. One tiresome bloke insists on prancing around in a deer skull chanting spells and prayers, adding little to the general well-being, but then maybe he is in charge of the lunar calendar so he can tell people when the tides will be lowest for limpet-picking expeditions. (76)

Trade leads to specialization, which leads to technological innovation (79). Watch out, though: If there aren’t enough people, specializations and technologies die (80).

Here’s an interesting definition of farming: It’s “the extension of specialisation and exchange to include other species” (122–23).

Did agriculture cause trade, or did trade cause agriculture? The latter; you wouldn’t bother to grow more food than you could eat unless you knew you could trade it for something better (123). Then you have to defend your farm because it’s valuable (137–38). You also have to develop written records for how much stuff you have.

Late in the Uruk period clay tablets appear with uniform marks on them meticulously accounting for merchants’ stocks and profits. Those dull records, dug into the surfaces of clay tablets, are the ancestors of writing – accountancy was its first application. The messages those tablets tell is that the market came long before the other appurtenances of civilisation. (160)

Speaking of civilization, Ridley is one of those who’d like to “strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest”.

Each empire was the product of trading wealth and was itself the eventual cause of that wealth’s destruction. Merchants and craftsmen make prosperity; chiefs, priests and thieves fritter it away. (161)

When you’re playing the board game Settlers of Catan, trade can turn sheep into bricks. Come to think of it, when you’re not playing Settlers of Catan, trade can turn sheep into bricks—or anything else, really (187).

Population is not a problem; it’s naturally self-limiting (211).

Energy is not a problem; there’s enough fossil fuel to last until we figure out the next thing (216–217, 238). Past use of fossil fuels was necessary and not as injurious as we’re taught to think (218–220, 231–32).

Change is the only constant (249–50). Unfortunately, we mostly don’t like change, even if it’s good change (254).

Why do we always imagine that only problems loom? Why can’t we imagine that solutions loom, too?

The world will not continue as it is. That is the whole point of human progress, the whole message of cultural evolution, the whole import of dynamic change – the whole thrust of this book. The real danger comes from slowing down change. It is my proposition that the human race has become a collective problem-solving machine and it solves problems by changing its ways. It does so through invention driven often by the market: scarcity drives up price; that encourages the development of alternatives and of efficiencies…. The pessimists’ mistake is extrapolationism: assuming that the future is just a bigger version of past. As Herb Stein once said, ‘If something cannot go on forever, then it will not.’ (281)

Don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg; let freedom and commerce continue to create prosperity for humans across the globe.

It is precisely because there is so much poverty, hunger, and illness that the world must be very careful not to get in the way of the things that have bettered so many lives already – the tools of trade, technology and trust, of specialisation and exchange. It is precisely because there is still so much further to go that those who offer counsels of despair or calls to slow down in the face of looming environmental disaster may be not only factually but morally wrong. (353–54)

When and Why I Read The Rational Optimist

Genre: non-fiction (economics)
Date started / date finished:  04-Jun-11 to 16-Jun-11
Length: 359 pages
ISBN: 9780007378906
Originally published in: 2010
Amazon link: The Rational Optimist

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