Atlas Rationalizes. A Review of The Rational Optimist

3 minute read

Matt Ridley Offers a Tempting Defense of Libertarianism. Image from the Library of Congress

Matt Ridley loves lists; his book is filled with them. Not simply three- or four-item lists; often, ten examples of goods traded in ancient Samaria are listed with a flourish. Needless-to-say, he’s also a fan of statistics. It’d be a fair estimate that 20% of this book is composed of lists and statistics.

There is a point to this: after all, to argue that economic progress and trade has been a complete blessing to society requires a bit of belaboring the point. His readers may have, at best, mixed feelings: stagnant wages, higher prices, and environmental pollution dampers enthusiasm.

But enthusiastic Ridley is, and his use of data can seem convincing when absorbed in his book. When he argues that economic advancement was the chief reason slave labor stopped existing, citing that the US South simply needed better machinery or the country better trade, the argument holds, if only the reader is not aware that slave labor exists today, in various forms, despite our ever automated society.

Likewise, he eschews most environmental movements as wasteful. Biofuel is a waste of land, for instance, doing more harm than good; government-sponsored social programs are wasteful and inefficient, and often benighted, focusing their efforts on areas that in the end make matters worse.

The reader can have counterpoints, the immense social costs that happen when we rely on economic progress as our guide. He would probably argue, as he does as a sort of last refuge when discussing the loss of jobs in light of Walmart, that it’s natural that there is a bit of “creative destruction” as a result of economic progress; the long arc always points to a better, more freer society.

It can seem rather convincing. In the US we have unparalleled wealth and prosperity, and immeasurable economic choice, which we all benefit from. However, there is wide economic disparity, and one could argue that innovation of products has an equal, if not greater, rival in the innovation of ‘financial instruments’ that simply move wealth around, delaying larger social ramifications (i.e., the mortgage crisis). It’s difficult to live with all that as simply “creative destruction”, and shrug it off.

However, there is also consumer choice, and human choice, and these often chose a sense of rightness over economic advantage; the trend of making socially conscious economic choices, choosing to patronize local businesses, being mindful of the things we use and buy, are not economic choices but rather what we do to keep our society as we want it.

This review doesn’t suggest this book is no good; quite the opposite, for its genre and topic, it is nearly perfect. Some reviews expressed that Ridley is too libertarian, associating it with politics; Ridley is libertarian, but apolitically so. This leads to him dismissing straw men of conservatives as well as liberals; that the past was somehow better than modern times (it wasn’t); that limiting personal freedoms can co-exist with an expanding economy (it can’t, and personal freedoms enable economic growth); that protectionism is a way to raise employment levels (it won’t, he argues, and never has, despite a long history of attempts).

Is it really that our basis for happiness is co-operation, inquisitiveness, and moving towards a more humanistic world, fuels economic progress, rather than the other way around? It would seem so, and one leaves this book with a sense that economic progress can be a powerful good for society, if that power is harnessed correctly, if the social-responsibility facet of corporations is truly honored, and economic competition and trade is allowed to operate freely.

The beauty of this book is it allows the reader to be immersed in an argument that is purely economic, and wrestle with the conclusions; nothing is more important to think about as we contemplate our future. And, bringing up these ideas at any dinner party is certainly to lead to lively conversation.