A few weeks ago I wrote an initial reaction to Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. Ridley’s thesis is that the key to prosperity lies in economic growth, and that economic growth is caused primarily by innovation fueled by the exchange and mating of ideas. As long as ideas are allowed to move freely they will inevitably mate, mutate, and produce innovations that will drive economic growth and improve the quality of life:
The perpetual innovation machine that drives the modern economy owes its existence not mainly to science (which is its beneficiary more than its benefactor); nor to money (which is not always a limiting factor); nor to patents (which often get in the way); nor to government (which is bad at innovation). It is not a top-down process at all. Instead, I am going to try now to persuade you that one word will suffice to explain this conundrum: exchange. It is the ever-increasing exchange of ideas that causes the ever-increasing rate of innovation in the modern world.
Why is Ridley a “rational optimist”? Because, in his words, he has “arrived at optimism not through temperament or instinct, but by looking at the evidence”. As Ridley sees it, throughout history, when the free exchange of ideas has been hampered by natural disasters, disease, war, wrong-headed government policy and monopolistic business practices, the result has been a reverse in development and a regression of health and happiness. Despite these periods of regression, Ridley remains optimistic that the world will continue to get better as long as we ensure that society remains open. Recent developments in communication technology have only accelerated what Ridley sees as an already robust atmosphere for ideational mating. This, combined with the progress already achieved in medicine, agriculture, and human rights gives him more hope than not that as a global society we will avoid the many catastrophic predictions making the rounds.
Overall, the book was quite enjoyable. Ridley spares no sacred cows and marshalls logical and empirical evidence to make his point–whether he is eviscerating the organic farming and climate change movements or patent rights. He traces over 200,000 years of human history to make the case that we are, on balance, far better today than we have ever been. This isn’t to gloss over the many problems that persist. Rather, Ridley freely admits the issues we face while arguing that the past should give us confidence that these issues will also be overcome. History has shown us that when ideas are allowed to freely move about and reproduce with each other, society is able to drastically improve itself and solve seemingly intractable problems. I would have liked to see more explicit discussion of ideational “mating”, rather than it’s sprinkling through various chapters, but overall the point is well taken. My biggest peave with the book is Ridley’s treatment of government.