Monday, July 05, 2010

Dare to be an optimist!

This is a little embarrassing, but right now, right in front of you, millions of ideas are having sex. They might be having it right inside this blog. I know, freaky, right? According to author Matt Ridley, the secret of humans' success is exchange, and while trade in physical objects is a big part of that, the exchange of ideas is really the thing that has kept this whole civilization thing moving forward for the last 10,000 years or so, and especially in the last 200 years. And when it comes to ideas having sex, the Internet is the ultimate "swingers' club."

Ridley's book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves is quite a bit more serious than that first paragraph makes it sound, but it does describe a key point. He says, "Without trade, innovation just does not happen. Exchange is to technology as sex is to evolution. It stimulates novelty." Another key thing that exchange and trade allow is specialization. Self-sufficiency sounds good in theory (and in practice if you are in a basic survival situation), but when it comes to growth, prosperity, and happiness (all closely linked), specialization means more of everything for everybody. If multiple people in a community have different skills and products, and if exchange is allowed, everyone has the potential to benefit from the knowledge and output of everyone else. Ideas are especially valuable in part because sharing an idea is like lighting a candle for someone else - now you both have a lighted candle (or an idea of how to do something better). When knowledge is shared in a community, it becomes something like a "collective brain." And when the community expands to include the entire world, interconnected by vast transportation networks and with the Internet as its central nervous system, you can have the wild orgy of exchange of ideas, goods, and services that we call the modern world.

Ridley spends most of the book in a chronological journey through the development of civilization, from the first inklings of exchange and specialization some 200,000 years ago (when we really diverged from other species including our close cousins the apes), through expanded barter systems, to the development of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. Of course climate stability had a lot to do with that as well, but an interesting point is that trade is what really made agriculture interesting and worthwhile. There was also the development of energy sources, from human power (including slavery, unfortunately), to animal power, to various forms of "current solar" energy (water power, wind power, burning wood, etc.), to various forms of "stored solar" (coal, oil, natural gas). There are more steps, but it's clear that the modern world is based to a great extent on exchange and specialization, including free trade and the free exchange of ideas. These have in turn produced a wide range of innovations in social systems and technology and led to the astounding prosperity that most (but of course not all) people in the world enjoy today. Ridley points out that while Louis XIV used some 498 servants to prepare his meals, a modern person of average means has many more people working for him or her (mostly indirectly and on a shared basis) to make easily available food, clothing, medicines, transportation, entertainment, and everything else that we take for granted in modern life. In this sense the average person today is richer than a king in the seventeenth century.

But if things are so great and getting better all the time, why are so many people so pessimistic about the present and the future? Ridley doesn't have a good explanation for this, though he knows he's fighting from a minority position (optimists must be naive!), and he shows that it has always been so. People were fretting over "peak coal" in 1830, and convinced that things had improved so much in the previous half century that there could be no place to go but down. But of course the rest of the nineteenth century was in fact a golden age of technological and social development. Things like slavery and child labor declined not so much because people became nicer, but because energy sources and manufacturing methods made them less necessary (or you could say affordable to give up).

The Rational Optimist is not really an ideological work. While there is a strong sense that Ridley believes that markets generally work better than governments (especially corrupt governments like many in Africa), he's not saying that governments are not necessary. He's certainly a strong proponent for free trade and individual rights, which are strongly correlated with a sense of well-being or "happiness." He also believes that things will continue to get better, even for Africa, as long as we keep moving forward in terms of trade and openness. Although anything can happen including terrorism, crazy governments, natural disasters, etc., his optimism is based on considerations of history and of how things really work (and especially on how resourceful people are), not on wishful thinking or on some belief that prosperity is humanity's right or destiny. It's more or less what we do.

I personally tend toward optimism myself, and this book has given me a lot to think about including many reasons for optimism that I hadn't thought about before. I highly recommend this book.


Frank S. Robinson said...

Those interested in Ridley's very good book might also wish to know about my own book, THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a rather broader range of subject areas. See

Unknown said...

Ah, "progress". Does your author conflate "progress" (which should be defined) with "optimism"? I might say, let us start by defining optimism. Is it simply a personal attitude that influences/interacts with one's own behavior, or is it a rational (logical) response to a person's guess at the outcome of future events? If it is the latter, then the extent of rationality of optimism must depend on: the accuracy of one's guess; the scope in time and space of one's guess; the reward for guessing right. For example, I am not optimistic that the Earth or humans will survive when the sun goes supernova in some billions of years from now. That is too far to look ahead, you say? Why? I can step forward, generation by generation, from now to the time when the sun goes supernova, making it seem like it will be our grandchildren's grandchildren's grandchildren, etc. etc. that will be at risk, and therefore draw a pessimistic (emotional-personal) conclusion. Too many generations, you might say? Why? What is the time cutoff for optimism? Similarly, what is the geographic/spatial cutoff? United States? Africa? Mars? Arbitrary. And what about lichen? Or coral reefs? Optimism in terms of time and space is undefined, or better yet, individually defined, hence meaningless outside an individual's own arena. If so then can optimism (or any other attitude) be called "rational"? I think not - "optimism" is based primarily on the things (time/space/objects) we care about, and we draw the extents of our caring arbitrarily.

FlyingSinger said...

I am not the author of the book, but I believe that Ridley is not conflating progress and optimism. I think he takes a rather pragmatic and personal view of optimism, related to a personal sense of well-being. There are various definitions of optimism ranging from the philosophical to the practical. I think the one that best applies to this book is something like "Hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something; a tendency to take a favorable or hopeful view. Contrasted with PESSIMISM."

I believe you are right in saying that optimism has an "effective range" in terms of time, geography, and the things you consider when you say "things are good." Most people look first to themselves, their family members, and their friends. Most people have a time horizon of their own lifetime and perhaps the lifetimes of their children and grandchildren. I would like my descendants to have a nice world to live in and to have a chance for enjoyable, productive, and fulfilling lives. In fact I'd wish that for everyone, but I wish it more for those closest to me. But what do those things mean? And if we make choices that enable those things to happen, what does that mean to the whales, or the lichen? I guess I apply a heavier weight to humans, relatives, and friends in my implicit "merit function" for "goodness of life" though I don't apply a zero weight to others.

You raise a lot of issues but my main impression of your comments is "what's the sense of optimism when we, our children, all of nature, and even the earth itself will all be destroyed anyway?" We could all be miserable waiting for all that to happen, or we could try to look on the bright side, whether rationally or emotionally, at least once in a while. Ridley gives a lot of example of things that are measurably brighter (e.g., it's better to be fed than hungry, better to have some choices than be dictated to, etc.). He shows that over time, more people on earth have gone into those categories than was the case in the past. Is everybody better off? Is everybody happy? No. But there's reason for optimism, IMHO, even though in the long run, we are all dead.

CHC said...

Good conversation! I should probably stop and read Ridley's book before commenting further. But I might add that even discussing this topic implies that "optimism" is a choice, and if it is a choice, then there (must be? may be?) a rationale for making the choice (implying there is a "correct" choice). Optimism may be less a choice than an evolved behavior/attitude that has helped people survive rather than jumping off cliffs. If that's the case, optimism may be "rational" because it helped/helps preserve us -- but I have started to find evolutionary foundations a bit weak for supporting the apparent choices I make. On the third hand, there may or may not be free will to even decide which attitude to take -- after all I'm not sure I even have control over the number of characters I type in this comme