Down with the doom-mongers!

With its positive approach to the future, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist is a breath of fresh air in today’s smog of misanthropy.

Rob Lyons

Topics Books

This article is republished from the June 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

To be optimistic is to be an idiot. That seems to be the mood of the times. The end is nigh, we are endlessly told, so we’d better get used to it.

The trouble is that the end is very clearly not nigh. By any sensible measure – life expectancy, wealth, literacy rates, food supply, social freedoms, even the general state of the environment – we live in an era that far surpasses any previous one. Our best days are – or at least should be – ahead of us. Yet books that have had the temerity to point out these simple facts – like Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist or Indur Goklany’s The Improving State of the World – are routinely pilloried by liberal-left and green commentators.

Into this debate comes Matt Ridley, a science writer who has provided us with a series of clearly written, thought-provoking books, including Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human (2003) and Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code (2006). Ridley is also famous – we might as well mention it now, since his critics are so keen to do so – for being the non-executive chairman of Northern Rock, the building society turned bank that the UK government was forced to bail out in 2007, a full year before the full ramifications of the credit crunch became clear. As he makes clear in the opening comments to his new book The Rational Optimist, the experience has left him ‘mistrustful of markets in capital and assets, yet passionately in favour of markets in goods and services’.

Ridley’s take on the world is different to Lomborg’s or Goklany’s, reflecting his interest in evolutionary science. While Ridley is keen to restate that the world is better-off than ever before, what he really wants to examine is why. In the process, he puts forward a theory not merely about the present state of the world but about what makes human beings unique, too. In a nutshell, for Ridley the driving force of history is exchange – first of goods, then of ideas.

First, it is worth summarising just how much the state of things has improved for the vast majority of people. Ridley notes: ‘Since 1800, the population of the world has multiplied six times, yet life expectancy has more than doubled and real income has risen more than nine times. Taking a shorter perspective, in 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one third as many of her children and could expect to live one third longer.’

These achievements do not merely reflect good times in the developed world and continued misery for the rest. ‘Over that half-century, real income per head ended a little lower in only six countries (Afghanistan, Haiti, Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia), life expectancy in three (Russia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe), and infant survival in none. In the rest, they have rocketed upward’, notes Ridley. It is no surprise that the countries that have lagged behind have been riven by war or wrecked by dictatorship.

Even what is meant by poverty has changed considerably. ‘Today, of Americans officially designated as “poor”, 99 per cent have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator; 95 per cent have a television, 88 per cent a telephone, 71 per cent a car and 70 per cent air conditioning.’ As Ridley points out, just a hundred years ago the very wealthiest people on Earth would have had few of these luxuries, commonplace among even the poor today. From personal experience, growing up in the English industrial city of Birmingham in the 1970s, we didn’t have a refrigerator, telephone or car and the television was black-and-white – and we were by no means, back then, a poor family.

That is not to say that there are no problems today, Ridley says. Eighteen per cent of the world’s population still lives in absolute poverty – but that is half of what it was 50 years ago. ‘The United Nations estimates that poverty was reduced more in the last 50 years than in the previous 500’, Ridley writes. Africa has, overall, made depressingly little progress compared with other parts of the world. People in poverty still waste their lives in a brutal battle for mere survival, and often lose that battle to problems – like a lack of clean water, insufficient food or infectious diseases – that should have been conquered for all of humanity long ago. Nonetheless, for the majority of people life has got markedly better and looks likely to continue getting better, even in spite of recent economic problems.

So why do we find it so difficult to celebrate these facts? Ridley points out that developed societies seem to live in constant fear of things coming to an end: what he calls ‘turning-point-itis’. From fears of nuclear armageddon, an epidemic of pesticide-induced cancers and global starvation in the Sixties and Seventies, to panics about pandemics and climate change today, the defining worldview is of things getting worse and worse with the root cause of the impending disaster being humanity itself. The collapse of the old left and the rise of the greens is built on the assumption that the world is going to hell. Indeed, there are distinct echoes of apocalyptic religion in environmentalist discourse today. The facts of an improving world jar with such a sense of doom, which helps to explain the vitriolic reaction to Lomborg and Ridley from many commentators.

Ridley’s optimism is not simply built on the idea that we’ve somehow got lucky over the past few decades. Rather, he sees the current state of affairs as the logical outcome – with a few fortuitous coincidences along the way – of a process that has actually been in train for thousands of years. Ridley offers an interesting theory of human history, one that is as engaging as it is ultimately unprovable. Like a lot of evolutionary thought, it is based on educated guesses and plausible story-telling. Ridley refers favourably to Richard Wrangham’s book Catching Fire (reviewed on spiked here), which argued that our ability to cook food provoked an enormous evolutionary leap forward a little under two million years ago. In many respects, The Rational Optimist aims to provide the next step in the story. If cooking gave us smaller guts and bigger brains, while fire allowed us to come down from the trees to live and hunt on the ground, what happened next? How and why did Homo sapiens conquer the world while our near-relations, the Neanderthals, carried on up an evolutionary dead end?

Ridley’s answer is exchange. When human societies started to mix with one another and swap things which they made for things that they needed – which might have been simple trinkets or tools in exchange for surplus food – a whole new way of thinking became possible. Instead of having to do every single thing for themselves, our ancestors could consider specialising in particular kinds of work and then exchanging the fruits of that labour for the other things they needed. Not only would their labour be more efficient if they focused on making just one thing, but they would then have an incentive to improve what they made and how they made it.

Ridley turns to the notion of comparative advantage put forward by the nineteenth-century economist David Ricardo to illustrate how this process could be even more powerful than it might first appear. Ricardo argues that it can make sense for one society to trade with another even when it is more efficient in every respect than its potential trading partner. For example, if village A is very good at making tools and pretty good at growing food, while village B is not quite as good at growing food and pretty terrible at making tools, it would seem at first that country A should just produce all its own tools and food. But in fact, if country A could get more food by selling tools to country B in exchange for food, rather than by growing its own, then both countries could end up better-off. This simple idea is a powerful driver of the division of labour and of development.

In turn, once goods are exchanged, the possibility opens up for the exchange of ideas. It is no accident that the busy trading areas of the Mediterranean and the Middle East became hotbeds of philosophy, science and mathematics. With his evolutionist’s hat on, Ridley argues that development really takes off when ideas ‘mate’. The history of technical and intellectual progress is of the coming together of economic conditions with prior developments in science and technology to enable the next step forward.

One consequence of this outlook is ‘the more people, the merrier’, as long as they are part of the global economy and can therefore become part of the international division of labour. The arrival in recent decades of an extra two billion potential sources of ideas, labour and customers, through the integration of India and China into the global economy, has been of considerable benefit not only to the people in those countries but to the whole world.

Both Ridley’s writing and optimism are wonderfully clear and engaging. But one area where I would differ with him is in relation to aspects of his economic outlook. Getting the deadweight of state interference off people’s backs in order to allow them to live, work and trade freely is certainly an eminently sensible idea. And Ridley’s attack on those who would naturalise social problems, turning the problem of under-development into one of ‘too many people’, is a joy to read. But there are still many real problems in the world, as Ridley recognises, and many of them are to do with the failings of the free market.

Capitalism has certainly had a revolutionising impact on society. But it is also the case that its ability to provide for people has been inconsistent. In the past 40 years, there have been four substantial downturns in the economy in the UK, for example. Given the ever-increasing interconnections between the state and the market in recent decades, it is clear there is no such thing as a ‘free market’ economy anymore. For example, even in the relatively free-market US, state spending rose from 6.8 per cent of gross domestic product in 1906 to around 35 per cent in 2007, even before the spike caused by the financial crisis. Given the rhetoric of recent Republican administrations, that’s a shift driven by circumstances not ideology.

What Ridley’s book does provide, very usefully, is a chance to clear the decks of much of the crud that passes for analysis today. By clearly noting how society has moved forward in recent decades, in some respects in quite unprecedented ways, while providing a critique of doom-laden contemporary culture – for example, noting that richer, more developed societies in the future would be much better placed to deal with climate change than we are today – Ridley helps to re-position the terms of debate. Our problems are not natural or ecological, and the answer lies in more human intervention into the world, not less.

What we therefore need is a debate about politics and economics, about how humans can best shape the world, rather than the moralistic and misanthropic self-loathing that passes for public discussion today. For restating that powerful, human-centred principle – yes, for being rational and optimistic – Ridley is to be warmly congratulated.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, by Matt Ridley is published by Fourth Estate. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the June 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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