Review of “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley

Since I consider myself a anti-rational pessimist, I expected to disagree with most of what was in Mr Ridley’s book. The book is actually not a defense of what I would consider to be "rationalism" or "optimism."

As far as rationalism goes, Ridley specifically opposes the rationalist way of governing described by Michael Oakeshott. Ridley doesn’t define or discuss "rationalism" at all in the book, so I don’t really know what he means by describing himself as a rationalist. Maybe he just likes the word.

Moving on to optimism, Ridley only takes on left-pessimists. He correctly points out that technological innovation is capable of solving lots of problems. For example, he devotes most of the time he spends criticizing pessimists to criticizing the environmentalist movement. Technological innovation will almost certainly solve environmental problems. (The formalists will also enjoy his discussion of Africa. He holds up Botswana as an example of a good country in Africa. He doesn’t mention that it’s basically a corporate monarchy).

If I could re-title Ridley’s book, I’d call it "A Critique of Progressive Pessimism." Or perhaps "The Glories of Trade."

Most of the book is actually an attempt to analyze all of human history. The book therefore fits in with other books like: Guns, Germs and Steel; Understanding Human History; The 10,000 Year Explosion; and others.

Instead of crediting geography. for example, with the rise of certain civilizations, Ridley credits trade (and only trade). Thus, Ridley explains the technological inferiority of Australian aborigines by the fact that they were so isolated. They regressed because they couldn’t trade. Ridley thus rejects the idea that the aborigines were technologically inferior because they have an average IQ somewhere in the 60s. I find this example to be incredibly poor. He couldn’t have found a group with a lower average IQ. If this is the best example to bolster his case, his case must be pretty weak. (He actually seems to deny that the average IQ among aborigines is low, "It was not that they were ‘primitive’ or that they had mentally regressed." Really?)

I should say that I agree that trade is a powerful force for good. Adding trade to the mix is helpful in understanding the rise of civilizations, but trade Ridley goes way too far by insisting that trade alone explains all variation in human populations.

His story also seems to be way to politically correct. He makes several statements like, "Can there be any doubt that it was woman, the diligent gatherer, rather than man, the dilettante hunter, who first had the idea of sowing grain?" Civilization is thus "undoubtedly" the creation of woman. No doubt soon after she pushed for the end of slavery. Why is man a dilettante? Why is woman diligent? When "scientists" write shit like this, I assume that they’re full of shit.

Ridley does not answer conservative or reactionary pessimists. One can imagine a hypothetical meeting between Ridley and Don Colacho. Don Colacho would say something awesome like, "In the society that is starting to take shape, not even the enthusiastic collaboration of the sodomite and the lesbian will save us from boredom." Ridely would respond by saying something like, "but the iPhone 7 will be really sweet."

For Ridley, progress is one-dimensional – technological.

He correctly criticizes the leftist for ignoring technological change, "It is a common trick to forecast the future on the assumption of no technological change, and find it dire. This is not wrong. The future would indeed be dire if invention and discovery ceased." However he does not recognize that he is ignoring all other dimensions, particularly the moral and the political.

He admits that, "Empires, indeed governments generally, tend to be good things at first and bad things the longer they last." Ours has been around a long time. Technological innovations seem to be coupled with declining quality in governance.

Innovation also seem to be coupled with declining morality. Which innovations have bolstered marriage? I can’t think of any. Ridley doesn’t seem to care.

Ridley is correct that the future will be filled with incredible new technologies that make everyone’s life better. This is progress – if all other dimensions are held constant. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that all other dimensions will be held constant. We are in need of innovations that make women less slutty, that strengthen families and marriages, and that improve governance. Unfortunately, in these areas, we seem to be regressing as technology improves. Is this a coincidence? Probably not.


11 Responses to Review of “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley

  1. RS says:

    > Can there be any doubt that it was woman, the diligent gatherer, rather than man, the dilettante hunter

    Here we have the emetic of omega – abjection and frippery combined. Next time try for lower beta, Mattey. Fake it til you make it.

  2. RS says:

    > “It is a common trick to forecast the future on the assumption of no technological change, and find it dire. This is not wrong. The future would indeed be dire if invention and discovery ceased.”

    Would it be, indeed?

    This might be a rather strange statement by him. If our government were merely in decline in some normal way (rather than a fall-of-Rome way), and in need some sort of difficult or costly, but normal, renewal… would that be a ‘dire’ future? Why, exactly, – concretely – would it be dire?

  3. sconzey says:

    Which innovations have bolstered marriage?

    Hmmm. Internet dating is a great facilitator of affairs; but I’d argue it also facilitates those who want to have a relationship to find similar, even if most other people are interested in hooking up.

    Unfortunately, in [government, morality], we seem to be regressing as technology improves. Is this a coincidence? Probably not.

    I actually disagree here. It’s a feature of technological growth that it’s the most resilient of all the forms of growth. I don’t think it’s that governance and morality is declining because technology has improved; I think technology is improving despite the decline in governance and morality.

  4. Tschafer says:

    Yet another reason not to take “economics is everything” libertarians seriously. Ridley and Bryan Caplan ought to get together and start a vaudeville act, or a sketch comedy show – it would be hilarious.

  5. Buckethead says:

    I’m still working my way through the book – and while I noticed his unwavering focus on trade, that doesn’t necessarily make it useless. Guns, Germs and Steel had the same issue with geography taking the place of trade.

    I’m also reading 10,000 year explosion – I should pull out GGS and read it again too. If you mash all three together, you get, I think, a real explanation: geography, trade and culture, genetics and evolution. The only thing you’re missing is climate changes over the last few millennia, and I think the Long Summer by Fagan will fill that in when I read it next.

  6. aretae says:

    As to trade…it is not hard to argue that Trade drove genetics as per A Farewell to Alms (those who trade get wealthy, those who don’t get wealthy die off, proportionally)…and that geography impacted trade.

    • Foseti says:

      Agreed. That would have been a great argument and in this context the book is useful. Instead Ridley wanted to argue that trade drove 100% of seemingly everything.

  7. aretae says:

    Response (to RS mostly, but it impacts the whole discussion) chez moi.

  8. Bruce Charlton says:

    All the branches of science I know are going backwards – and not slowly. Each computer program I update to is a bit worse. My new car is worse than the previous one. New public buldings leak. I can’t read properly because the light bulbs are rubbish. The recent snow was never ploughed nor were the streets salted – in a month.


  9. David Banda says:

    Dear Foseti

    I was enjoying this piece, and basically agreed with your take on the Rational Optimist… until I read this line:

    “We are in need of innovations that make women less slutty”

    Are you kidding? If your point is that the world would be better if people were less promiscuous, you may have a point, but why is the burden on women? Perhaps you’d like to rephrase…

    • Foseti says:

      That might have been stated a little harshly . . . but I still think it’s true.

      Regardless of whether the burden is on men or women, we still need the same result.

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