Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist

With so much negativity in the media, Matt Ridley presents a very solid case for optimism. Playing on many of the same themes as Robert Wright in Non-Zero, Matt Ridley shows us Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” at work in the market forces of trade and in cultural evolution. Through specialization we have been able to get better at doing things. This has provided us with something we never had before: surplus. I mean we used to be just like all other animals – eating what we could and living from year to year. But once we could accumulate surplus things, we could trade them. and once we started trading an upward spiral started that had innovation and trade feeding off each other. The more we innovated, the more surplus we could gather, and the more we could trade. The more we could trade, the more wealth we accumulated, because you only trade when you get a better deal! But the beauty of trade is that both parties get a better deal, because both parties only give up what they have for something they want more. This is the famous “win-win” that people talk about. This is what Robert Wright calls non-zero sum games. It is a winning strategy for evolution.

The one concept that I want to talk briefly about here is Ridley’s metaphor of ideas having sex with each other. Just as plants and animals have sex in hopes of creating a new version of themselves that is slightly better, ideas mix with other ideas to do the same. I have an idea for a new product and I talk with people about it and they can give my feedback that can make the product better. Our ideas had sex. It was not nearly as fun as biological sex, but in many ways it was fun and it could lead to great things for you, just as sex could lead to some great kids.

There is much to be optimistic about, so why are we so pessimistic the whole time? It seems that pessimism was also built into the human psyche. We are more afraid of what could go wrong than we are excited about what could go right. Marketeers and the ill-fitted know this and they try to manipulate and rally against the establishment with cries of doom. Some such cries may be valid, but Ridley is showing that we need to take them all with a good pinch of salt and scrutiny before we let them burst our bubble. There is a lot to be optimistic about in the modern world. Read this book and be convinced.

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (P.S.)

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