Friday, March 4, 2011

From "The Rational Optimist" - Best book of 2010

This is from the ending of Matt Ridley's "The Rational Optimist", probably last year's best libertarian book.  The ending is pure, undiluted greatness. 
Ridley argues that the world is NOT going to hell in a handbasket, as long as people are free to freely exchange goods and services, and most important - ideas. 
The item on the left, a primitive handaxe, is one of the oldest human artifacts.  One person made it.  The item on the right is approximately the same size and was made by hundreds, if not thousands of people, each one working on a small part of the project and reflecting "multiple strands of knowledge". 
The one on the left is the result of a system with cultural, geographic and trade barriers in place.  The product on the right can only be efficiently manufactured when people are left alone to seek their own self-interest. 
Pick a side, pick a side. 
Here's Matt Ridley:

Politicians are increasingly corks tossed on the waves of public opinion.  Dictators are learning that their citizens can organise riots by text message.  'Here comes everybody' says the author Clay Shirky. 

People will more and more freely find ways to exchange their specialised production for diversified consumption.  This world can already be glimpsed on the web, in what John Barlow calls 'dot-com communism': a workforce of free agents bartering their ideas and efforts barely interested in whether the barter yields 'real' money.  The explosion of interest in the free sharing of ideas that the internet has spawned has taken everybody by surprise.  'The online masses have an incredible willingness to share' says Kevin Kelly.  Instead of money, 'peer producers who create the stuff gain credit, status, reputation, enjoyment, satisfaction, and experience:.  People are willing to share their photographs on Flickr, their thoughts on Twitter, their friends on Facebook, their knowledge on Wikipedia, their software patches on Linux, their donations on, their community news on Craigslist, their pedigrees on, their genomes on 23andMe, even their medical records on PatientsLikeMe.  Thanks to the internet, each is giving according to his ability to each according to his needs, to a degree that never happened in Marxism. 

This catallaxy will not go smoothly, or without resistance.  Natural and unnatural disasters will still happen.  Governments will bail out big corporations and big bureaucracies, hand them special favours such as subsidies or carbon rations and regulate them in such a way as to create barriers to entry, slowing down creative destruction.  Chiefs, priests, thieves, financiers, consultants and others will appear on all sides, feeding off the surplus generated by exchange and specialisation, diverting the life-blood of the catallaxy into their own reactionary lives.  It happened in the past.  Empires brought stability at the price of creating a parasitic court; monotheistic religions bought social cohesion at the price of a parasitic priestly class; nationalism bought power at the expense of a parasitic military; socialism bought equality at the price of a parasitic bureaucracy; capitalism bought efficiency at the price of parasitic financiers.  The online world will attract parasites too: from regulators and cyber-criminals to hackers and plagiarists.  Some of them may temporarily throttle their generous hosts. 

....There is even a new reason for such pessimism: the integrated nature of the world means that it may soon be possible to capture the entire world on behalf of a foolish idea, where before you could only capture a country, or perhaps if you were lucky an empire. 

....Imagine if the globalised world of the twenty-first century allows a globalised retreat from reason.  It is a worrying thought.  The wrong kind of chiefs, priests and thieves could yet snuff out future prosperity on earth.  Already lords don boiler suits to destroy genetically modified crops, presidents scheme to prevent stem-cell research, prime ministers trample on habeas corpus using the excuse of terrorism, metastasising bureacracies interfere with innovation on behalf of reactionary pressure groups, superstitious creationists stop the teaching of good science, air-headed celebrities rail against free trade, mullahs inveigh against the empowerment of women, earnest princes lament the loss of old ways and pious bishops regret the coarsening effects of commerce.  So far they are all sufficiently localised in their effects to achieve no more than limited pauses in the happy progress of the species, but could one of them go global? 

I doubt it....Said Lord Macaulay, 'We see in almost every part of the annals of mankind how the industry of individuals, struggling up against wars, taxes, famines, conflagrations, mischievous prohibitions, and more mischievous protections, creates faster than governments can squander, and repairs whatever invaders can destroy.'

....The twenty-first century will be a magnificent time to be alive. 

Dare to be an optimist. 

I hope you'll check out this book when it's released in paperback.  It's greatness. 


Dave Killion said...

Having finished the book recently, I can say I concur entirely with your review. Ridley is the Julian Simon of our time.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Mr. Killion,
Thanks for the comment, and for the Julian Simon comparison.
I'm going to scrape this site for a post sometime soon:

Laurent Franckx said...

While the book certainly has a lot of merits, it also suffers from the same flaws it blames other for. see my in-depth review at

Laurent Franckx said...

While the book certainly has a lot of merits, it also suffers essentially from the same flaws it blames others for. See my in-depth review at