NS Book Review by Randy Brich: "The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves" by Matt Ridley

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley

Persuasive, pivotal, prescient prose portraying prosperous people perfectly, Matt Ridley paints a portrait in words describing the human race’s triumphant march toward progress.  Eminently readable, The Rational Optimist presents a macro look at history from the prosperity perspective.  In short, a masterpiece; in long, the next book you absolutely must read.The Rational Optimist

Hefting an early Stone Age hand axe, Ridley marvels at the “fits-in-your-hand” similarity to a computer mouse – both tools used by the same physical entity separated by only a few hundred thousand years. Comparing these two tools, Ridley wonders why and how do things get invented.  What happened about 100,000 years ago that initiated the transformation of humans from mere hunter-gatherers to today’s dominating planetary lifeforce?  Ridley proceeds to answer those questions and more in an eloquent, enthralling essay of inimitable ideas.

Climbing into the virtual time machine that doubles as Matt Ridley’s fertile mind, the reader journeys back to an era where hunter-gatherers barely subsisted in a day-to-day struggle for survival.  Noting the contemporary hype that the days of yore were somehow superior to today’s mass-consumerism existence, Ridley challenges the irrational pessimists on a variety of fronts.  In all but one case, namely China -- which he acknowledges is an experiment in real time -- Ridley finds prosperity closely coupled with free trade, cheap energy and democracy. 

Vary the equation by injecting excessive taxes or restricting freedom through unwarranted regulation and Ridley shows that prosperity declines precipitously and irreversibly, time after time, example after example.  He posits that in keeping taxes and regulations reasonable, prosperity -- through innovation and free trade -- evolves exponentially as the collective knowledge of civilization contributes to the betterment of life, liberty and the environment.  Unfortunately, as Ridley documents, historical ruling classes just couldn’t keep their hands off the public goods and inevitably, as taxes and regulations increased, liberty and innovation decreased, resulting in idleness, decline and eventually displacement by either enemies or climate.

Ridley identifies “chiefs, priests and thieves” as the primary foes of prosperity.   He finds that the top down approach, favored by totalitarian chiefs, fails every time.  This simple fact solidifies the belief that no government can predict the future; let alone dictate it.  Ridley explains, using real world historical examples, how terrible taxes, ridiculous regulations and ubiquitous usurpers negate prosperity by institutionalizing stagnation.  That just about says it all.  In fact, some real time experiments appear to be occurring as I write this review, here and elsewhere in the world.

Ridley explains that, contrary to prevailing popular pessimistic beliefs, only the bottom up approach produces prosperity – similar to the way life evolved on Planet Earth.  Nowhere, Ridley argues, in the history of civilization has prosperity caused the environmental problems that many irrational pessimists insist are just around the corner.  Instead prosperity solves problems. 

Ridley explains how collective ideas rule and as long as unrestricted trade continues and energy costs remain low prosperity will increase and expand around the globe.  As goods are exchanged so are ideas and it is that exchange of ideas, Ridley argues that is essential to prosperity. 

He proceeds to identify the greatest innovation in the free exchange of ideas to ever grace the planet– the Internet!  Like the universe, it allows a finite but unbounded exchange of ideas.  Where will the free exchange of ideas lead?  No one knows and no one can predict but Ridley remains convinced that the free exchange of ideas will lead to innovation which will, in turn, lead to prosperity. 

Finally, Ridley takes a macro look at the issue of anthropogenic climate change.  After acknowledging the fact that the science is far from settled, Ridley analyzes the IPCC scenario.  He finds that the positives associated with the prosperity that would have to transpire in developing countries to cause the postulated increased planetary temperature would result in so many benefits that the negatives of a warmer planet would be miniscule.  It is, he argues, as if instead of only being 9.5 times better off 100 years from now the people would “only” be 8.5 times better off than we are today.

Ridley covers a lot of territory with The Rational Optimist; but, he overlooks the obvious implications of terrorist-delivered nuclear bombs destroying western civilization.  This scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem at first blush; and, had he accepted my offer for an interview he could have elaborated on my questions.

Since retiring in 2004, I’ve read many books; but none come close to claiming the phrase “opened my eyes” as much as The Rational Optimist.  This book not only opened my eyes, but it also made me think optimistically about the future -- something that I haven’t done in a long time.  If you only read one book this week, this month or this year make it The Rational Optimist.  Not only will your eyes be opened, but your mind will be opened as well.

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves Matt Ridley
HarperCollins Publishers, 2010, 438 pp.
ISBN 978-0-06-145205-5

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