The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves


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They are books that may have influenced Ridley and certainly work in the same tradition. They also come off as sophisticated works of scholarship. I would also recommend the writing of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His writing can come off as obnoxious and preachy at times too. I recommend his work anyway because it is a more evolved version of Ridley's book. It is a book influenced by libertarian thinking without being doctrinaire.

It is libertarian writing without the "ism". I can't stress enough how important this is because if libertarians hate monopolies so much, they should be suspicious of the way "-isms" try to harden ideas, indoctrinate converts, and block off evolution and competition. Taleb might say, in their hardened states, "isms" are hyper-fragile. So much of libertarianism comes off as anti-government fever-talk. Worst, in its dogmatism, it is unscientific.

Where is the proof the government is responsible for these evils? Government, after all, not only did not censor Ridley's book, but through various programs such as public education and subsidies for research and higher education has actually helped produce it. Matt Ridley -- your book is partially a product of liberal, but not libertarian government!

Ridley might actually have this sophisticated approach to government. There are hints of it in his book, but this level of sophistication only comes across occasionally. In his use of words like "parasites" to describe "bureaucrats, warriors, and chiefs," Mr. Ridley does not come across as sophisticated; he comes across as crude.

James Scott, in a book that is almost exclusively about the folly of governments "Seeing Like a State" , does not. Anyone broadly aware of liberal theories of trade will understand the main points without much trouble. Trade helps create specialization, and through specialization humanity becomes wealthier and progresses. Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant A question must be asked how the reader benefits from an understanding that trade might have been a key feature of human development? The point seems to elevate trade to a "natural human" characteristic perhaps Ridley wants it to be "the" natural human element , whereas things like jealousy, competition, and violence are merely traits shared with other species.

Should that change our understanding of trade and its relationship to other human motives -- fear and esteem see Ned Lebow's "Cultural Theory of International Relations"? Maybe, but I don't think so. Just because these traits are shared with other species doesn't make them any less human.

I certainly don't think it makes trade more human. Finally, I would like to say something about the difference between "Rational Optimists" and "Paranoid Optimists". Because the paranoid optimists work for a better future like the barn is on fire. If you look at anytime the world was grappling with a problem, whether it be slavery, great power warfare, nuclear proliferation, gender inequality, a lack of protection for the poor, etc And it takes people like these to wake others unfortunately people like me from their apathy.

So, I'm glad Bill Gates is fighting global poverty Because their "paranoia" is as much a public good as their "optimism". Efficient markets and coal might have ended slavery, but there was also that gloomy bit about the effort of abolitionists and the personal risks they took Either way, a few years here and there adds up to a lot of human misery added and subtracted.

So, rationality is fine and optimism can give your life meaning and happiness, but don't be afraid to be passionate about other things besides trade and commerce.

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Social and political entrepreneurs also make the world a better place. Or, as Richard Branson once said, "Business is everything that concerns us. If you care about something enough to do something about it, you're in business. View all 9 comments. Oct 06, Daniel Lemire rated it it was amazing Shelves: I just finished Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. Because I am an overly pessimistic individual, I expected to hate the book.

I loved the book. I should point out where I read the book, because context is important in this case. I was in Berlin.

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley

My hotel room was about 50 meters away from Checkpoint Charlie the central point of the cold war. I was within 2 minutes the remains of a train station where thousands of Jews were sent to their death. I was near the remains of the Berlin wall built to prevent people from escaping communists. Berlin could easily be the mecca of pessimists.

Ridley is a very specific optimist: Food and energy shortages? We will invent new ways to produce more food and energy than we need. Effectively, human beings have become better at almost everything: But he is also a pessimist: We must constantly out-innovate our problems. We will soon run out of food, energy and breathable air if we keep doing the same thing at a greater scale.

Only by inventing drastically better technologies and organizations can we hope to prosper. Innovation is required for our survival. Civilizations eventually collapse, when they become unable to innovate around their problems. But where does innovation comes from? Ridley believes it comes from trade, taken in the broadest sense of the term.

Traders are people who carry ideas from people to people. They are like bees in that they allow ideas to have sex… Traders allow people to specialize and to focus on perfecting ideas. Without trade, we would all need to be self-sufficient. Condemned to self-sufficiency, we would not have time to improve our methods nor share our ideas. Interdependency makes human beings better. How do you get more innovation? Governments cannot create innovation. Instead, they should limit the wealth they extract from the economy by remaining small. Other institutions like banks should also be kept in check.

In effect, central planning, wherever it comes from, should be avoided as it stops innovation in its tracks. Hence, civilization comes in as a result of trade, because it can siphon the newly generated wealth. With their various enterprises, they were the source of much of the wealth that the state was extracting. They were not the parasites. Ridley does not have much faith in science as a source of innovation. Most innovations comes through tinkering and trading ideas. Science and law come after the fact to codify what was learned.

In effect, science may support innovations and inventions, but it is not the causal agent. What you want is trade and the freedom it brings. I share his vision. After all, Russians had top-notch scientists, but they were still unable to innovate in most fields.

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He sees a cycle, where innovation creates value which is then captured and killed by bureaucrats or obsolete corporations. But innovation always reappears elsewhere. He believes that the best place to be right now is on the Web. One day, governments and corporations will kill Web-based innovations, but by then, a new frontier will have opened. Ridley predicts the fall of corporations and the rise of bottom-up economics where individuals freely assemble to create value.

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Apple, Google and Facebook will soon collapse, faster than comparable companies a century ago. This book also explains why Germany is at least marginally richer than the United Kingdom even though the United Kingdom won the two last great wars and Germany lost. Wealth cannot be put into boxes and piled up.

Had you confiscated all the computers from s, you would hold a collection hardly more valuable than a single iPad. Original text on my blog: Ridley makes the obvious point that life is now better than it has been at any point in humanity's past by virtually any metric, even metrics not designed specifically to make this point like GDP , for basically everyone. Having done this for a few dozen pages during which he is guilty of only a few instances of exaggeration, cherry picking, or intentional omission of information; his thesis really is largely true , he realises he can never fill a book with it, so he goes off into surprisingly Ridley makes the obvious point that life is now better than it has been at any point in humanity's past by virtually any metric, even metrics not designed specifically to make this point like GDP , for basically everyone.

Having done this for a few dozen pages during which he is guilty of only a few instances of exaggeration, cherry picking, or intentional omission of information; his thesis really is largely true , he realises he can never fill a book with it, so he goes off into surprisingly shameless historical revisionism in support of unfettered free enterprise and against any kind of government regulation, and irrelevant anthropological stories which are sometimes interesting, often incredibly dodgy or internally contradictory, but never strictly meaningful.

The book makes a lot more sense when you realise there's a reason the review quotes on the front cover are by Dominic Lawson who seems to think it's an indictment of the Left and Boris Johnson: The Rational Optimist is a book from one brand of conservative the cheerfully-oblivious-but-occasionally-nastily-ignorant Boris Johnson type to another the Daily Mail-reading ornery pessimist , calling on them to exchange one kind of ignorance for another.

It works well as that kind of book, but it's not likely I would hope to appeal to anyone else. After the first few chapters, I was ready to give this book three stars, because while its main point was obvious, at least it was still pretty much true. After a few more, I decided on two, because no matter how deeply he had his head up his own ass, at least he wasn't as bad as Ayn Rand or some of the other people I feel define the absolute worst in writing.

In the end, only one will do. By the last pages, more than just being annoyed at Ridley for the glass on the cover apparently being half-full of right-wing Kool-Aid, I was genuinely questioning his sanity. The alternative — that his reasoning is merely breath-takingly disingenuous and that he thinks his readers are the sort of undereducated sheep who would buy it — would worry me more, because that kind of conservatism isn't supposed to exist on this side of the Atlantic. Either way, The Rational Optimist is an embarrassment, and someone with more interest than me could fill a book thrice its length with line-by-line rebuttals.

I don't know what happened to Ridley in the intervening years. Maybe he's always been this way, but I never noticed because The Red Queen doesn't deal with things Tories have opinions on. Mar 18, Andrew rated it it was amazing Shelves: Every so often you come across a book that causes you to reevaluate the way you view the world. The Rational Optimist is definitely one of those books.

Personally, I think this may be one of the most important books of the last 10 years. In many ways I am an optimist, but when it comes to the bigger picture of the world I would have to admit I have been a pessimist for some time. While I certainly am pessimistic about the short-term in America, we are going to have to feel some pain at some poin Every so often you come across a book that causes you to reevaluate the way you view the world.

While I certainly am pessimistic about the short-term in America, we are going to have to feel some pain at some point to wake people up; I am certainly an optimist now about the future of the human race and where we are headed. This is the author's purpose in this page romp through human history. It is a bottom-up force. It is not dictated by government or intellectual fiat. The author undeniably proves this point throughout his book. The book is set-up rather brilliantly.

Ridley starts out by introducing his argument in chapter 1. Innovation changes the world but only because it aids the elaboration of the division of labour [sic] and encourages the division of time. Forget wars, religions, famines and poems for the moment. This is history's greatest theme: The rational optimist invites you to stand back and look at your species differently, to see the grand enterprise of humanity that has progressed - with frequent set-backs - for , years.

And then, when you have seen that, consider whether that enterprise is finished or if, as the optimist claims, it still has centuries and millennia to run. His argument is brilliant and something I have often played with in my mind. Human beings started to do something to and with each other that in effect began to build a collective intelligence The effect of this was to cause specialisation [sic], which in turn caused technological innovation, which in turn encouraged more specialisation [sic], which led to more exchange - and 'progress' was born, by which I mean technology and habits changing faster than anatomy And it calls forth innovation.

The manufacture of virtue: Ridley takes a look at how trust has evolved and why it's such a fundamental part of human society. In no other species can two individuals that have never before me exchange goods or services to the benefit of each other, as happens routinely each time you visit a shop or a restaurant or a website.

In market societies, if you get a reputation for unfairness, people will not deal with you. Ever bought something on eBay? How do you know you will get your product? Simple, you trust in the free-market that exists. You know that bad operators are expelled from the community of traders because other traders rat them out through seller reviews and ratings.

Hey, look ma, no government regulation! The traders on eBay simply want to make money, they want to financially enrich their lives. At their core they are fundamentally expressing what the free-market capitalism system is supposed to be about: Ridley goes on to further demonstrate the moral nature of the free-market. The fundamental problem is Americans are so poorly read on economics, the end result is the current political reality that we have.

Ignorance is not bliss. The feeding of the nine billion: Ridley's basic point here is that trade actually proceeded farming and that you can't have farming on the scale we need in the world without trade. The most important thing Ridley does in this chapter is point out the danger that the organic food craze actually proposes to our future growth. The triumph of cities: In a word, trade. They are places where people come to divide their labour [sic], to specialise [sic] and exchange.

There is an important discussion on the intersection between government, cities, and trade in this chapter. It's something so many Americans don't seem to grasp, " The chief reason is surely that strong governments are, by definition, monopolies and monopolies always grow complacent, stagnant and self-serving. Monarchs love monopolies because where they cannot keep them to themselves, they can sell them, grant them to favourites [sic] and tax them.

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They also fall for the perpetual fallacy that they can make business work more efficiently if they plan it rather than allow and encourage it to evolve. Because it is a monopoly, government brings inefficiency and stagnation to most things it runs; government agencies pursue the inflation of their budgets rather than the service of their customers.

There is not a single example of a country opening up its borders to trade and ending up poorer. The important thing to understand is that a Malthusian crisis is a result of decreasing specialisation [sic]. Ridley destroys the pessimists argument that the world is headed toward overpopulation. I used to somewhat subscribe to this what appears to be utter nonsense. The argument goes something like if we don't do something to control population then we will not be able to feed the mouths in the world and calamity will result.

The fascinating thing that Ridley proves that as a society becomes more specialized birth rates naturally fall. In other words it's a natural evolutionary result, we don't need some intellectual or government agency to figure out how to survive, we just do it. Population growth is slowing even while death rates are falling In reality we will be able to feed the world forever. The release of slaves: In it Ridley argues 'that economic growth only became sustainable when it began to rely on non-renewable, non-green, non-clean power.

They are effectively their own worst enemies, not to mention ours. Chapter 8 The invention of invention: The concept of a steady final state, applied to a dynamic system like the economy, is as wrong as any philosophical abstraction can be. Innovation is an evolutionary concept and governments don't innovate very well. It is not a top-down process at all It is the ever-increasing exchange of ideas that causes the ever-increasing rate of innovation in the modern world. They may win for a little while longer and cause severe damage in the short-term, but the reality is the world and America is changing.

Truth is truth, it cannot be denied, once denied it will rear it's head again with a vengeance. Turning points' pessimism after This was an interesting chapter. Ridley runs through the great pessimism scares of the last century; cancer, nuclear Armageddon, famine, running out of resources, clean air, genes, and plague. He effectively demonstrates how the pessimists were wrong every time. The two great pessimisms of today: Africa and climate after Yet another intriguing chapter.

A. No, never.

Global warming wackos beware, I know exactly who and what you are. The important part of his argument is that he effectively demonstrates how these modern day pessimists are a danger to the future growth of the human race. They are the enemies to progress and growth, and they must be stopped. Multiply those small probabilities together and the probability of a prosperous twenty-first century is therefore by definition large. And yet so many of you call yourselves "progressives. The twenty-first century will be a magnificent time to be alive. Ridley you have convinced me, I am now a rational optimist!

To think, I bought your book as a result of specialization and progress. Jul 26, Andrew rated it did not like it. Ridley's books on genetics and evolution are clear, well-supported books on the topic, so I was looking forward to his newest piece of non-fiction. Instead it is a conflation of economics, anthropology, genetics, gaming and a half-dozen other disciplines that argues "don't worry, be happy" about human progress. Though he's right about human progress over centuries, the book would have been laughed off the market had it appeared in a period like that after World War II, when tens of millions had Ridley's books on genetics and evolution are clear, well-supported books on the topic, so I was looking forward to his newest piece of non-fiction.

Though he's right about human progress over centuries, the book would have been laughed off the market had it appeared in a period like that after World War II, when tens of millions had just been killed in a disastrous war.

Matt Ridley

Perhaps the unique point in the book is arguing that cultural memory was critical in human evolution, especially if we can substantiate that Neanderthal predecessors didn't develop specialization of labor like later humans. But in the midst of it we get essays on Hayek and absurd generalizations like this: You'll find this an interesting window into economics and anthropology but the generalizations about markets, income distributions and other topics are maddening.

View all 3 comments. Apr 20, Ints rated it it was amazing. Jun 16, Steve rated it it was amazing Shelves: Certainly, Ridley can be sarcastic, and I consider that a blemish on his otherwise excellent writing. The dangers of monoculture are so well-known that she need not have explained them in such tedious and inarticulate detail. What is more important is that she sought to equate genetic engineering hereafter, GE with monoculture, when, in fact, they are completely separate issues.

I am bewildered by her attempt to equate the two. The practice of monoculture precedes GE by many decades, and is based on economics, not on biology. Furthermore, humanity is already sadly dependent on a very small number of staple crops. This is an important problem in its own right, but again, it is an issue entirely unrelated to, and long-predating GE.

GE does nothing to compel monoculture, and there is no logical reason that it ought to reduce biodiversity. Furthermore, seed-banking and other methods of conserving a diversity of germ-plasm ought to be part of any wise approach to long-term management of our agricultural heritage. No one with any detailed understanding of biology, certainly not Dr.

Ridley, who holds a doctorate in zoology from Oxford, would advocate that we rely on a hand-full of crops, and let our heritage cultivars disappear. Furthermore, the greater efficiency of GE crops, by increasing yields, would potentially allow us to reduce the number of acres under cultivation, releasing marginal land to return to the wild, and therefore fostering biodiversity.

What kind of caution? What is missing from her advocacy of caution is any admission that excessive caution, is, in itself, dangerous. Yes, we want to be wise in our adoption of new technology. However, to err always on the side of caution is not an example of wisdom. Rather, it is a certain recipe for stasis, at a time when we have billions of people living in desperate poverty, and even outright starvation. I can only say that this reader, at least, found his examples wonderfully illustrative.

To take only one, I loved his describing the cost of an hour of reading light through the ages, quantified, quite handily, in terms of the amount of labor at an average wage needed to purchase this commodity that we take so much for granted. He could have given us some high-tech example, but instead, he chose simple reading light, an essential of every day life.

The profound importance of this example stuck me through the heart, as one who cares deeply about the third-world poor. As I say, we westerners take ubiquitous and inexpensive light for granted, but we should not. Nightfall means bedtime for them. Can you imagine how confining this is? We, in the west, have no conception. If you are a poor, third-world parent, and you achingly yearn for your children to get an education, so as to have a better life, then pray, how is that possible without light?

You cannot afford lamps or candles, much less a solar array. Finally, in her discussion of the Klebsiella planticola issue, Grant took a position that has long been thoroughly discredited. The mere fact that she still referred to the organism in question by its old name, eleven years after its genus was reclassified as Raoultella, is telling. She represented this as a case of a near world-ending biological catastrophe, in which very a dangerous GE organism, Klebsiella planticola, was nearly released commercially. Fortunately, according to anti-GE mythology, a champion arose, one Elaine Ingham, a professor at Oregon State University, a school well-known for its agricultural programs.

She and her graduate student, Michael Holmes, cowrote and published some original research in on the organism in this paper: For this, she was hailed as a heroine by anti-GE activists.

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Some of those political partisans went on to wildly exaggerate the facts, to claim that K. And if a man or woman was discovered to be hoarding or free-loading, your would cease sharing -- Tit-for-Tat. Anyone broadly aware of liberal theories of trade will understand the main points without much trouble. Note how he cherry-picks data that strengthens his argument. Original text on my blog:

Some of those political partisans went on to wildly exaggerate the facts, to claim that K. Ingham, and the Green Party, itself, subsequently issued retractions and apologies to the Royal Commission, admitting that in her conclusions, Ingham had gone well beyond what the data actually showed. She had also cited a paper that did not exist, and had said some things that quite simply were not true.

Specifically, the organism had not cleared regulatory testing, and was not on the verge of being commercially released. Yet, here we are, more than a decade after Ingham admitted that these things were not true, and we still find people such as Grant repeating them as if they are important, damning facts in an ongoing controversy.

Shortly after she issued this written apology, , Ingham resigned from her academic position at OSU. Some sources say that she was forced to do so. They characterize her resignation as something engineered by agribusiness companies, because they say that her truth-telling had threatened their bottom lines.

One can only marvel at the workings of the conspiratorial mind. This skeptical reviewer suspects that there is a far simpler and more believable explanation. That is, the university forced her out because she had brought embarrassment on them as an institution, and she had ruined her professional reputation. In the interest of full disclosure, I do not work in the field of genetic engineering, nor do I have any financial interest in agribusiness.

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There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later. Kindle Edition Verified Purchase. The world is not getting closer to its end. On the contrary, it has been much improved in terms of social and cultural developments in addition to the conditions of human life in general since mankind started recording history of own. This book by Matt Ridley is indeed a fresh breath of air that gives people of the world a beacon of truth. This social collectivism, whether tacitly or unconsciously realized by doers, apperatins to synchronicity, a kind of inter-brain entrainment in which information based on experience is exchanged between individuals, which is also known as collective phenomenon.

This collective intelligence is a vital essence of cultural evolution which results from selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits. It is this element of cumulative culture that makes us singularly different from beasts. Since this social trait is innately preprogrammed in mankind, there is no inevitable end to specialization of efforts and talents that keeps this collective phenomenon going. In fact, more jobs will be produced in more specialized areas contrary to brooding premonition that technology will push out manpower from work.

In sum, Ridley aims to enlighten readers about the necessities of changes as part of cultural evolution for the betterment of mankind and the world itself. In the human history, no other time period has produced the better living conditions and cultural developments than those we have now due to a continued cumulative cultural evolution, which links to the evolution of the origins by natural selection. This book renders me a feeling that how wasteful it would be fretting about the uncertain and dark future that looks darker by popular theories of dysopic economic and social future.

Just as Ridley will remain a steadfast rational optimist, I will continue to perform demands imposed upon daily tasks of life as a contribution to the orderliness and constancy of the world as m ancestors did because I know the world will not fall in calamity. A great work which though maybe seen as over optimistic in our current environment of deep pessimism. It did two things for me. One it showed that things have been even more dire in the past than now and that humankind always finds a way -- as long as exchange of things, services and ideas are allowed to continue.

A great book worth its weight in gold. This is one of the top 2 books I've read about why humanity is at our current point, and what our future is likely to be. This is the perfect companion to Guns Germs and Steel by Diamond.

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Diamond's book lays out the geographical, weather and biological reasons why food and other resources were concentrated enough to build up population density, which led to acceleration of civilization. Ridley's book takes the next step: Why did some countries accelerate more rapidly e. Ridley's answer is innovation and free trade. The most impressive parts of his book are 1 his clearly-stated thesis chapter-by-chapter; and 2 his meticulously-researched fact base to support his conclusions.

These are important insights for political decisions, and I wish every voter would read this book. This book is a beautifully reasoned expalnation of what makes the human race different from the animals, how this leads to continuous innovation, and how, if we don't foul it up, which we surely still can , it can lead to a vastly more prosperous world for all of us particularly the parts that are now poor in the coming century.

Here, briefly, are a few of his central ideas, which are all supported by the evidence he presents. As he sees it, we owe the forward march of humankind to the benefits of barter. Homo erectus had a large brain and probably a rudimentary language. But they never saw the point of making things they could swap. Once we cottoned on to this trick, there was no stopping us.

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The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (P.s.) [Matt Ridley] on Amazon. com. *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. “Ridley writes with panache, wit, and. Editorial Reviews. From Publishers Weekly. Ridley comes to praise innovation's ability to forestall any number of doom and gloom scenarios, everything from.

I am dexterous but weedy. You are strong but clumsy. I make the hooks and you catch the fish — and together we achieve something that neither of us could manage on our own. Ridley makes a strong case for this thesis.

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He takes us from the hunter-gatherers who first ventured out of Africa up to the modern moguls of Silicon Valley, and shows how humanity has built innovation on innovation in its never-ending search for new gizmos that people will want to buy. From this perspective, specialisation is the essence of humanity, and self-sufficiency a misguided myth. If you really had to make everything yourself, you would be back in the stone age, scrabbling around with hand axes.

Far better to work at one thing and let the market supply the rest. Of course the path of economic progress does not always run smooth. Sudden advances are often followed by long periods of stagnation. But Ridley has an answer here, too. Just as trade fosters prosperity, so excessive government stifles it. Great civilisations are built when merchants find new markets, and decline when unproductive bureaucrats strangle their enterprise.

In Ridley's view, things work better when individual economic actors construct solutions from the bottom up. Attempts to control markets from the top down tend only to make things worse. This blanket suspicion of government is less convincing than Ridley's enthusiasm for trade. The book's strength, however, does not lie in its economic analysis.