Saturday, 10 December 2011

"The Rational Optimist" - my paperback of the year

If you haven’t already read Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist - and want cheering up this Christmas – demand it as a present. You’ll no doubt have seen it stacked high in Waterstone’s with a “3 for 2” sticker plastered on it. I bought it as one of those third choice items that takes longer to pick than the two you actually meant to buy, and then, in time-honoured fashion, left it to gather dust for several months.

But now I’ve read it – and it is the perfect antidote to the foul-smelling Idiot Wind produced by Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne, Vince Cable, Barack Obama,  the BBC, the Guardian, CNN, the whole of the EU, et al. (Actually, al comes as a relief after that lot.)

Ridley’s central themes are not original – mainly Adam Smith, Hayek and Milton Friedman-style thinking delivered with a blizzard of facts and a sub-Boris Johnson breeziness – but he pulls them all together coherently and entertainingly.

The propensity to trade - and the division of labour which creates the surpluses that make trade possible – is what distinguishes Man from animals. The more we trade, the greater the interchange of ideas between individuals and cultures, the bigger the collective human brain becomes, and the more able we are to solve the world’s problems.

The recipe for decent, generous, healthy societies is small nation states in fierce economic competition with each other. That’s why Europeans bossed the world for so long – the Dutch showed us how to do it in the 17th Century, then Britain went the same way, then America. Now, of course, the Chinese have followed suite – which is interesting, because (as we're forever being reminded) they and the Arabs were ahead of Europe on all counts for several centuries. But in both cases key rulers turned their back on international trade – and all aspects of their societies stagnated as a result.

The more power is exercised centrally, the less competitive countries become. The more limits you place on free trade, the more your economy will suffer. Opening up markets to poor countries helps them – power-hosing aid at them makes everything worse. The more governments get in the way, the worse everything becomes.

All apocalyptic predictions  – disease, climate change, overpopulation, mass starvation, running out of naturasl resources – ignore the simple fact that, since about 1830 or so, technological breakthroughs have solved every physical problem threatening the survival of mankind. Every time some humanity-loathing lefty issues a sensationalistic, best-selling warning that we’re all about to die, a technological solution has usually already been devised.

Certainly, Ridley leaves aside spiritual questions - the feelings of alienation and accidie that afflict many people living in a society dominated by the exchange of goods and services and the culture of constant change that often results don't get a look-in. Neither does God. But even those of us who hanker after a settled, traditional rural idyll know that that sort of life has gone for ever, and that we’d better reach an accommodation with things as they are, while remaining thankful for the freedoms which free trade has brought in its wake (which makes China the most fascinating country on the planet at the moment – the gulf between economic and personal freedom means something’s got to give: you cannot square a circle).  

Of course, not every argument in the book is convincing – but it has certainly pushed me a little further down the political path I’ve been on for most of my life. I’ve always had problems reconciling an utter lack of interest in business and businessmen with a belief in free markets. I’m not there yet, but The Rational Optimist has helped with the process of squaring that particular circle.

When I read Ridley’s confession that he’d been a non-executive director at Northern Rock before we all had to chip in to save it, I almost hurled the book across the room. I’m glad I didn’t. Just because you've got some things wrong in your life doesn't automatically mean your ideas are rubbish.

When it comes to judging the worth of a proposition, Karl Popper recommended framing the opposite case as strongly as possible as the best way of stress-testing it. I’m far too lazy to do that, so, instead, I tend to dip into critics’ objections. I’ve just  read George Monbiot’s 2010 review of Ridley’s book. Apparently Ridley is deliberately lying on behalf of the business community:

“When someone explains an inconvenient truth about politics that the business elite reviles, it is immediately taken up and echoed in hundreds of blogs and articles. When, as I have found many times before, you explain an inconvenient truth about neoliberal or anti-environmental ideas, it is met with silence. The media simply looks the other way. There is a massive rightwing echo chamber. Nothing comparable exists on the left.”

When a critic has to create a fantasy world in order to attack a set of ideas you can be pretty sure they’re solid! The idea that tree-huggers and AGW fanatics don’t get a fair hearing, while their critics are never off the air is so deranged – so cosmically silly – that one has to assume that Ridley’s book gave Moonbat a panic attack.

Good enough for me!

As an infinitesimally tiny component in the “massive right-wing echo chamber”, I can’t recommend The Rational Optimist strongly enough. – I guarantee it will cheer you up! (Unless, of course, you’re left-wing, in which case you deserve to remain miserable.)

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