The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, by Matt Ridley (HarperCollins, 438 pp., $26.99)

Matt Ridley’s new book should probably have been titled The Optimist’s Encyclopedia. Ridley is a great compiler of facts that will delight optimists by demonstrating humanity’s progress. If you want to know, say, how many acres of land it takes to feed the world’s 6.7 billion people, or how much in economic benefits a Philippine household derives when it is hooked into the country’s electrical grid, or how an English farm laborer in the late eighteenth century spent his wages compared with how a rural peasant in Malawi spends his today, The Rational Optimist is your book. Ridley’s capacious knowledge, however, is not enough to make his book convincing, even to readers (like me) who are predisposed to favor his case. Piling on facts is not an argument, and The Rational Optimist leaves large gaps in its reasoning that will almost certainly prompt skeptics to dismiss, or at least question, some of its most significant conclusions.

There are at least two noteworthy problems with the way that Ridley attempts to make his case. First, he never steps back and defines the nature of the problem—that is, humanity’s pessimism, which his book seeks to correct. At best, when he’s deep within a discussion of a subject like global warming, Ridley will zero in on some group or individual whose ideas are overly gloomy or even plain wrongheaded. But it’s a haphazard approach that forces us to ask what constitutes and drives pessimism among human beings. Is it just a few pointy-headed intellectuals who profess and spread dreary assessments of our prospects so that they can rescue us with their ideas? Or is it man’s nature to be pessimistic? Is pessimism a shortsighted response to the conditions we see around us—one that waxes and wanes as life changes—or is it mostly heritable and persistent? One longs for a chapter exploring these questions in an organized manner.

Because he seems to identify pessimism as merely a series of excessively bleak ideas from advocates or intellectuals, Ridley doesn’t understand some of the fundamental objections that his notion of man’s progress engenders in even the average person. You wish that Ridley had tested his ideas in a London pub first; he might have had a clearer idea of what he’s up against. Consider one glaring omission, which we might call the twentieth-century problem—or more precisely, the problem of the years 1914 to roughly 1989. Ridley’s history of humanity’s progress largely stops in the late nineteenth century, though it includes some significant twentieth-century examples of progress, such as the “green revolution” in India that did so much to wipe out hunger there. He then proceeds to dispute what he calls the two contemporary pessimisms: concern about global warming and about lack of progress in Africa.

Yet his book contains only a few generic allusions to the most troubling events of the twentieth century: two world wars that killed some 70 million people; the rise of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Japanese militarism; the Holocaust; and the Cold War, most of it waged under the threat of nuclear annihilation. What is the theory of progress that explains how the very people who were prospering from the Industrial Revolution and the rise of democracy managed, starting in the early twentieth century, to plunge themselves into destructive confrontations that undercut much of what they’d spent a century achieving? Ridley’s brief answer is to point to the quick recovery of the 1950s, but it’s a strange theory of prosperity that ignores the mass killings and wholesale destruction of nations’ industrial might that made recovery necessary in the first place. Had Ridley thought more about the twentieth-century problem, he might have developed a more nuanced idea of how the long arc of human progress includes disturbing cycles of regression in which humanity visits great harm on itself.

The second problem with Ridley’s approach is his tendency to dismiss complex issues with a wave of the hand. In his long section on population, for instance, Ridley suggests that the steep worldwide decline in birthrates is the answer to overpopulation. He mostly ignores the substantial problems that economists and demographers see in birthrates that have fallen rapidly below replacement level, including problems that are before us right now in countries like Japan and Italy—notably, a rapidly aging population, which creates an increasing dependence of pensioners on a shrinking labor force; declining national productivity; and growing social problems related to the increasing isolation of individuals as families shrink. Ridley only briefly addresses these worries by noting that America’s fertility rate plunged in the 1970s but has since bounced back to replacement levels. But that equilibrium is so unusual that most demographers consider the United States a startling exception to worldwide trends.

Despite these shortcomings, there is much to recommend The Rational Optimist, especially its first half, in which Ridley traces the progress of humanity from hunter-gatherer groups through the establishment of agriculture and the gradual growth of modern economies. Along the way, he demolishes some of the most mistaken portraits of early man as living in a kind of prelapsarian state of harmony that we’d all do well to revisit. Ridley’s early history of man’s evolution contains one big and provocative idea: namely, that trade and exchange were what helped human beings make their great leap forward. Exchange “gave the Species an external, collective intelligence far greater than anything it could hold in its admittedly capacious brain,” Ridley writes. “In this way exchange encouraged specialization, which further increased the number of different habits the Species could have.” Exchange helped human culture develop in a much more complex and accumulative way than the rudimentary cultures of species like chimpanzees, which show their young how to use basic tools to gather food.

But trade, Ridley argues, did more than help people pass on knowledge acquired by others. It enhanced our social evolution, as early human beings encountered individuals from different groups and learned to trust them enough to do business with them. That eventually allowed us to start seeing the world from the perspective of others and helped us develop our crucial (but admittedly imperfect) empathic consciousness. From this we derived a sense of right and wrong and ultimately created crucial civilizing institutions, as Adam Smith argued in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Those institutions—courts of law, for example—constitute what some economists call intangible wealth, because they’re the basis of fair and just trade. Societies that have more of that kind of wealth in the form of healthy and reliable institutions, like the United States, have prospered mightily, and today it’s generally recognized that enhancing a country’s intangible wealth is the surest road to a better future.

Ridley’s arguments about trade might have been better received had his book not had the unfortunate timing to appear in the middle of the so-called Great Recession, an economic contraction that has many questioning the worth of capitalism. Our biggest pessimists claim that the last 30 years of economic growth have been largely an illusion based on unsustainable borrowing (itself a quintessential act of optimism). Ridley’s book doesn’t contain much of a response to this skepticism, and it doesn’t place the events of the last few years within the context of the march of prosperity and progress, probably because the crisis was still unfolding as his book went to press. It’s a case he’ll need to address in subsequent editions, though, because the recent past has certainly made the Doctor Dooms of the world more influential—if only for the time being.


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