*The Rational Optimist* (link fixed) - Macleans.ca

*The Rational Optimist* (link fixed)


A few weeks ago I had the chance to interview science writer Matt Ridley for Canadian Business about his new book The Rational Optimist. I really like his writing on evolutionary biology (especially Genome), and from the reviews, the argument of RO looked like it would dovetail nicely with the conclusion of my book The Authenticity Hoax, about the virtues of progress.

His book has received fairly polarized reviews. An early piece by John Tierney was very positive (and contained this great line: “Predicting that the world will not end is also pretty good insurance against a prolonged stay on the best-seller list”). George Monbiot, on the other hand, has been trashing the book, largely on the grounds that Ridley is supposedly a hypocrite for writing endless state-bashing columns for the Telegraph while having the “chutzpah” to take public bailout money when he was chairman of Northern Rock. He dismisses Ridley as a “cornutopian” (cornutopians are people who envisage a utopia of limitless abundance).

I don’t think the book is nearly as bad as Monbiot says, though it is true I didn’t get that much out of it. It’s  Guns, Germs, and Steel as told by Adam Smith. So instead of environment being the primary factor in human development, Ridley says that it is trade. I hate the phrase he uses (“when ideas have sex”) but it does highlight the way Ridley is essentially adapting the mechanism of sexual selection and applying it to economic and technological evolution. That’s not a super-new idea; what is somewhat novel about Ridley’s thesis is the deeply teleological element to his analysis: As he sees it, when you have a critical mass of humans who are free to exchange, innovation happens almost as a matter of course — It’s like Wisdom of Crowds meets The Selfish Gene.

The one aspect that Monbiot is right about is the off-putting anti-government snarkiness that runs through the book. Ridley’s account of history is one long tale of energetic and insightful entrepreneurs having the fruits of their labours appropriated by lazy and jealous governors and bureaucats. I asked him about it, and he replied:

But you’ve nailed me right, there’s not a lot about government in my book. But I don’t regard myself as anti-government; I’m inherently skeptical of the power of monopolies of any kind to pick winners. And looking back at history, the past 200 years and indeed the last 2000 years, the threat of too much government is greater than the threat of too little government. It is hard for me to even think of an example of a country that suffers from too little government today.

Even beyond this, though, Ridley’s account suffers from what is sometimes referred to “catallactic bias” — the privileging of gains from trade as the primary mechanism of cooperative benefit, which tends to relegate the state and other institutions to the status of mere redistributors of wealth. If you’re interested in a corrective to that position, Joe Heath’s paper “The Benefits of Cooperation” is a good place to start.

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*The Rational Optimist* (link fixed)

  1. I got about halfway through it, and then had to set it aside for more pressing matters. I'm anxious to get back to it as it had started to bog and I'd like to see how it plays out.

    I'm not sure it will appeal to either of our supposed 'wings'. It's very big on free trade which the left hates, but it equates 'self-sufficiency' with poverty…so the right, which seems to cherish a dream of 'living free' in a cabin in the woods, won't like it either.

    I can think of several countries with too little govt, and I'm sure the author could as well if he looked at Africa.

    It's also true that gloom and doom sell, and both wings love gloom and doom. They just attribute it to different causes. However this book lives up to it's title and is relentlessly optimistic.

  2. "It is hard for me to even think of an example of a country that suffers from too little government today."

    Many states in sub-Sahara Africa (or South Central and Latin America, South East Asia), for example, have little to no government capacity outside major urban centres. And they offer minimal services compared to what one expects in the West. In many cases the military seems to exist more to plunder the local population, then to protect it (like in Europe for much of its history, see Martin Van Creveld's book on logistics in War). As a result, quality of life indicators in Sub-Sahara Africa (infant mortality, life expectancy, poverty, nutrition, disease rates) are among the worst in the world. This is especially true when compared to state-centric Western countries.

    People in countries with strong states, in all their variety, (Canada, France, Australia, Cuba, etc …) watch fewer of their babies die than countries with minimal or non-existent state institutions (Uganda, Nigeria, the Unites States).

    • Are you seriously lumping the United States with Uganda and Nigeria on infant mortality rates? Let me put it differently: do you expect to be taken seriously with such a ridiculous statement, or could you not resist an obligatory poke at the U.S., no matter what it does to your argument?

      Careful on the African stats: countries on the continent with relatively strong governments share these same problems. (South Africa comes to mind). Theodore Dalrymple makes an interesting case for this, and it's a point worth considering: the primacy and inherent demands of intricate social obligations, central to African societies, inevitably mire government, strong or weak, in a situation where the primary affinity of most bureaucrats is to kin networks, not the interests of the State per se…in such situations, more government capacity means more of the same: more government does not equal more services in such an equation, just more corruption, and the consequent stubborn persistence of poor quality of life indicators.

      • Are you seriously lumping the United States with Uganda and Nigeria on infant mortality rates?

        Take a look at the stats. America's infant mortality rate is appalling; I believe it's higher than Cuba's. As for the health of America's state institutions (and their impact on quality-of-life indicators), I think we all took valuable instruction from Hurricane Katrina and the Wall Street meltdown, the one devastating for the American Gulf and the other devastating for the world.

        • Uganda: 192 on the infant mortality index. US: 33. You don't think that lumping two countries together that are 159 places apart is a bit strange?

          • The collocation of the U.S. with Uganda and Nigeria was unfortunate hyperbole on the writer's part. The overall point was valid.

        • Cuba has a better infant mortality rate than Canada. Despite being a desperately poor country.

          Cuba has many failings. However, it has a better than decent health care system. And because Cuba's health care workers are constantly working to make the island's health care system better, in some respects, like maternal health and infant mortality, Cuba does a better job than Canada and a much better job than the United States.

        • Any comparison of mortality rates requires first a comparison of the criteria for live births.

      • Many South Africans also suffer from too little government. Hence lot's of dead babies.

      • Careful on quoting Theodore Dalrymple.

        I thought I'd get a reaction by including the US. The fact is the US has the worst infant mortality of any western nation. That it can be including with countries so far below it in other indicators is a disgrace.

        As a public service for toque I will requote the original jackassery:

        "It is hard for me to even think of an example of a country that suffers from too little government today."

        Here's the take-away. Too little government generally equals too many dead babies.

        • I'm curious: North Korea and China appear to have an abundance of state control; they are "one of its guises". Yet their rates are appalling. Lots of government: lots of dead babies. Are you sure your take-away stands up outside the shop?

          Dalrymple: A man who calls himself such made a compelling argument; it's the compelling argument I'm referring to. Culture rules: who knew? Dalrymple factors in solely as an attribution.

          U.S.: The stats are revealing, and (perhaps) mitigate the disgrace. The District of Columbia exceeds all other states by nearly 6%; Mississippi by 4% or so…together, these skew the average significantly (stats wise) upward. Still high though. The sharp rise in premature births is a big factor . They carry an inherently greater risk. A consequence (primarily) of smoking, obesity (high blood pressure), and teen motherhood (against, I'd presume, a breakdown of family networks that might support such a mother in other countries). I guess you could argue that it's the consequence of poverty born where the state fails; but as you say, Cuba is poor, yet their rate is low. Perhaps it's a function of freedom of choice: there are costs to bad choices, and sometimes those costs are borne by infants. Which is terrible. So your point is clear, at least: greater government regulation and enforcement can forcibly mandate 'positive lifestyle choices', and reduce the rate. I wonder, though, if your average Cuban paisano would, if given the opportunity to choose freely, choose a good birth rate in exchange for an atmosphere of continuous state coercion.

  3. Anyone who gives even a shred of credibility to Monbiot is simply sharing in his delusions.

    Of course, the cop-car burning crowd would probably support him.

    • I think you love Monbiot.

  4. "It's Guns, Germs, and Steel as told by Adam Smith."

    Sounds good, will have to look for Ridley's book. I enjoyed Red Queen and this new book also sounds like something I would enjoy. I thought Diamond's book put too much emphasis on geography and not nearly enough on people. Anglo countries outperforming all other countries is not due solely to physical geography.

    • Well for one thing it didn't say that, and for another anglo countries didn't outperform all other countries.

      Until 1500 CE China had the largest GDP in the world. They hit a rough patch, but they're coming back. We've had a short time in the sun and are now hitting our own rough patch.

  5. It is hard for me to even think of an example of a country that suffers from too little government today.

    Niger, Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone come to mind.

    • Don't forget Somalia.

      • Somalia has pirates.

        Which reminds me what a wasted opportunity Canada has been. Especially for a place like Newfoundland. Think about it. If Newfoundland had been left to stand on its own two feet all those years then maybe it would have cultivated its burgeoning smuggler culture into something a bit more sustainable, like maybe a northern Pirates of the Caribbean type rouge state thing, just featuring more dirt biking. Doubtful pirates would have fished the cod into extinction.

        If it worked in Somalia why not St John's?

        Who would get to play Johnny Depp?

        • "Who would get to play Johnny Depp?"

          Gordon Pinsent, of course.

        • I think Newfoundland would have been better off if it hadn't joined Canada, but not because they would have become pirates. :)

  6. Anglos settling a relatively unpopulated continent and then exploiting that continent's considerable raw resources, while still avoiding the kind of inter-state competition which proved so murderous in Europe, definitely gave new world settler societies an edge.

    The Anglo world's retreat from mercantilist trade policies also helped. But they only abandoned those policies when they no longer made sense.

  7. Regarding infant mortality, be very very careful about statistics, it depends a lot on how you count. The US has a seemingly high number in part because of counting preemies; other countries get their numbers down by not counting them.
    Regarding Cuba — all I can say is Go live there.
    Those interested in Ridley's very good book might also wish to know about another one, 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

    • You write: 'be careful about statistics', and then make an unsubstantiated claim about preemies.

      Does Canada not count preemies? Does France?

      The first issue is not whether Cuba is a better place to live. The issue is whether Cuba does a better job of keeping its babies alive. It does. Better than Canada. Canada is a very wealthy country. We should be ashamed that a communist dicatorship takes better care of its citizens than we do.

      Which brings us to the second point. Ridley's quote implied government can not be a source of good. Comparing different country's infant mortality rates clearly shows government can be a force for good.

      • Frankly, the reason our infant mortality is so high is because of native reserves. The reason native reserves are so screwed up is because they have far more government intervention than anyone else would put up with.

        Though I don't disagree with your point that government can be a source for good. Usually it falls apart when it decides it is a source for good, against what the citizenry thinks are its own best interests.

  8. Having finally read the book, it is clear that Monbiot comes off as a rather obsessed nutter who doesn't let the actual argument get in the way of a good hissy fit: it is extrarodinarily difficult to square Monbiot's review(s) with the actual book, and he leaves most of what Ridley has to say unchallenged…Ridley's argument is compelling, and while it might simply be re-stating a case that's been made before, it is a perspective on human progress that is markedly absent from most discussions in contemporary anthropology; he does excellent service in challenging the take of Sahlins et al. on 'the original affluent society' way of thinking, and furthers this service by having the gall to include sailent bits of the IPCC reports that are usually missing from popular accounts: that the most pessimistic models describe a world of remarkable prosperity.