Quick Book Review: The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

I just finished reading The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley.

It certainly seems like Matt Ridley is the intellectual heir to Julian Simon. Ridley makes a strong case that not only aren’t things that bad, there’s historically quite good, and the prospects for the future look pretty solid. After years of apocalyptic warnings from every front this is a badly-needed book.

[ Be sure to listen to the EconTalk interview with Matt Ridley, recommended! ]

Right out of the gate it’s clear that Ridley understands the concept of scarcity and realizes that we live in that world. Just as important, he understands the importance and role of property-rights and culture in human progress. It’s particularly amazing that he is not an economist, but seems to understand the fundamentals better than many in the public eye.

Think about the fact that humans build on the lessons and progress of their immediate predecessors. While animals start anew with each generation. A bear or a wolf lives the same way its ancestors did 2000 years ago.

Let’s look at some items from the book:

1. Ridley mentions F.A. Hayek in the first few pages, so I’m quickly on-board. p. 5
2. An honest but brutal look at the realities of life in the past. pp. 15-16
3. “Today, a car emits less pollution travelling at full speed than a parked car did in 1970 from leaks.”  p. 17
4. The costs of light is a great story. p. 20

[ It's great to see Ridley mention Hayek, Vernon Smith, and Donald Boudreaux. ]

5. Thanks God for robber barons. p 23
6.  Self-suffiency is poverty. Lose the infatuation with “food miles.” p. 41
7. “[Capitalism] … particularly offends intellectuals, for capitalism renders them redundant.” p. 102
8. Companies/corporations have a far shorter half-life than government agencies. Interesting stats. p. 111

9. Norman Borlaug. pp. 142-143
10. Ehrlich, and his errors., throughout the book.
11. “Organic” and anti-GM as backward and inefficient. pp 150-155
12. Free-trade. p. 186

13. Earth has rarely if ever been in a “balance” that must be preserved. pp. 250 & 329
14. The Longitude problem. p. 261
15.  A strong case for nuclear power. p 345

There really is so much great content in this book that I can’t come close to doing it justice in a brief review. Much of the core of the book centers on the topics of trade, specialization, and sharing of ideas. “Exchange is to technology as sex is to evolution, it stimulates novelty.

Ridley gives us a new alternative look at history and humanity. Where we are and how we got here, along with some prospects for the future.

Read this book, open your mind about the future. I feel like the world would be a much better place if every high school student read this. At the very least, take the time to read this brief excerpt: Apocalypse Not: Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Worry About End Times.

Additional links:
Apocalypse Not: Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Worry About End Times
A Fracking Good Story by Bjørn Lomborg
Rational Optimist – Matt Ridley
Droughts, Famines, and Markets
Why eating global is more sustainable than eating local
Rachel Carson and the Bed Bugs
Ridley on Trade, Growth, and the Rational Optimist