Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, is garnering rave reviews. Ridley, science writer and popularizer of evolutionary psychology, shows how it was trade and specialization of labor–and the resulting massive growth in technological sophistication–that hauled humanity from its impoverished past to its comparatively rich present. These trends will continue, he argues, and will solve many of today’s most pressing problems, from the spread of disease to the threat of climate change.
The Cato Institute has now presented three different looks at the book, with a review in the Cato Journal, another in Regulation, and an event at Cato with Matt Ridley himself.
Powell on Ridley
What The Rational Optimist makes clear, in perspicuous prose and enchanting storytelling, is that, just as biological evolution populated the world with the wondrous variety of life, exchange allowed one of those species to achieve a wondrous standard of living that will only improve and become more uniform as we trade and invent.
Powell doesn’t find the book flawless, however. He identifies two problems that weaken Ridley’s argument, the first dealing with the “circular and unconvincing” nature of his claim that trade caused our human ancestors to achieve humanity. The second concern is broader. Powell writes,
It would be easy to get the impression Ridley is Pollyannaish. If nuclear annihilation, super flus, and starvation are nothing to be worried about, what possibly could be? Unfortunately, Ridley’s response to this critique is less convincing than it could be, for he fails to adequately draw a line between when an anticipated disaster is real and when it’s just pessimism writ large.
Henderson on Ridley
David R. Henderson reviews the book in the latest issue of Regulation (pdf). Like Powell, Henderson enthusiastically endorses the style and substance of Ridley’s book, though without identifying the weaknesses highlighted in the former review. His only point of contention with The Rational Optimist is a “jarring misstatement” regarding trade and value. Henderson writes,
Given the important role of trade in Ridley’s theory, and given his obvious understanding of trade, it is surprising that he makes a jarring misstatement: “For barter to work,” he writes, “two individuals do not need to offer things of equal value. Trade is often unequal, but still benefits both sides.” The correct statement is: “For barter or trade to work, individuals must offer things of unequal value.” If I valued what I give up the same as what I get in return, there would be no point in trading. Trading is always an exchange of unequal values.
Henderson goes on to defend Ridley against the negative appraisal his book received in the New York Times. That review, written by famous foreign-aid critic William Easterly, attacked The Rational Optimist for its take on Africa and for failing to “confront honestly all the doubts about the ‘free market.’” “Really?” Henderson responds. “All the doubts? I do not know if such a book could be written with the requisite amount of evidence and have under 3,000 pages.”
Ridley on Ridley
And then, of course, there’s the source himself. In May, Ridley spoke at a Cato Institute book forum about The Rational Optimist. He discussed the core arguments of his book and concluded (optimistically) that technology and trade have now made it possible to stop trying to keep the world from getting worse, and instead focus on making it better.
As with all Cato events, full video and audio are available for download on www.cato.org. Or watch it right here: