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.