Monday, June 20, 2016

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

There is no doubt that in "The Rational Optimist: How prosperity Evolves" author Matt Ridley presents many ideas and scenarios that are food for thought. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to challenge most of his claims. I know that many consider him a dilettante who provides post-facto justifications for his class (he is English gentry, and is heavily involved in the coal industry).

Ridley does have an annoying propensity to ridicule the people who have ideas which he opuses. At these times in the narrative, he loses his authorial authority. I’m not sure why a writer would wish to do this; after writing a long book, juggling around facts and history with a degree of apparent mastery, he undercuts his text with crankiness.

Ridley has been skewered for his denial of climate change. He doesn’t really deny climate change here, but only our ability to accurately forecast the future. He claims, with some merit, that we are generally gloomy forecasters. Looming disasters like food shortages due to overpopulation and acid rain destroying forests wholesale never came to fruition because forecasters both over estimated the problem, taking instances of local conditions and making it global, and did not factor in the distinctly human propensity to solve problems through technical advances.

Ridley believes life is getting better for all of us. This is probably correct along certain corridors. He measures happiness according to consumption, first and foremost, then health and lifespan. Whether we are happy with our long, hale, gadget filled lives does not concern him. He holds that the marketplace will solve all of our problems, as long as government and religions, which he holds in contempt, stay out of the way.

It is hard to take this premise as wholly true. While unfettered markets can help up solve problems by developing new technologies, they are also the mechanism which accumulates wealth in the hands of the very few. Ridley does not see income inequality as a problem.

Ridley makes one particularly perverse assumption: that the poor today live better Louis the fourteenth, the Sun King. Ridley places poverty on a sliding scale for the entire stretch of humanity. The poor today are better off than the poor a hundred years ago. Perhaps true, but the poor today, I would imagine, take no solace in this. Pain and deprivation are never alleviated comparatively.

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