Her shovel reflected early morning light. In annoyance, groggy eyes slivered against the intrusion, I spotted the frayed and mud splattered hem of her skirt swayed by the speeding train. Crouched, back humped, methodically weeding vegetables in a sullen little triangle wasteland between intersecting train tracks, this fierce woman of indeterminate middle-age represented my first day light vision of Ukraine. I was twenty years old on an overnight train from Kiev to Sevastopol. The thought of contemplating her fate seemed too much for my jet lagged mind and I promptly rolled over and fell back to sleep. Half a decade later, reading Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, I kept recalling these in-between moments from my time in Ukraine, brief private snapshots of unknown lives, wondering what was, is and will be of the people behind those glimpses.
Author Matt Ridley, a former Chairperson of the infamous Northern Rock bank, is unsurprisingly an unabashed defender of capitalism and the open exchange of information. In The Rational Optimist, Ridley makes a thoughtful, provocative, and above all rational argument for an optimistic view of the future. Ridley’s historical perspective illustrates the incredible improvement in almost every quantifiable way of human lives over the past 10,000 years from nutrition to privacy. Moreover, despite common bucolic yearnings for days gone by and doomsday predictions of near future catastrophe, Ridley clearly outlines economic growth and productivity advances through innovation, education, and investment reveal an even brighter future ahead.
Reading The Rational Optimist, little snapshots from my time in the Ukraine kept focusing in my mind: the vivid dress and yellow Kvas barrow of a street vendor, a young man hidden by his sunglasses next to the sleek lines of a new BMW, a middle aged couple staring at the giant plastic Ronald statue in front of McDonalds. Despite the vast disparities in situation and wealth behind these lives and me, the privileged American college student, Ridley seems to link us all in a constantly improving world and a vast human enterprise of trade. Through vivid narratives Ridley highlights the role of past and present markets in all our lives and suggests our trade of ideas, capital, and human resources underpin material progress.
It’s refreshing and soothing to contemplate a grand future built on every increasing trade and trust. Ridley makes a compelling argument in aggregate over time, human lives improve and the pace of improvement has increased rapidly over the past 200 years. While global warming, population explosions, and numerous other calamities loom, one may reasonable assume economic growth and productivity gains will provide ample resources to address those concerns in the future. Ridley seems to strip us of personal and collective responsibility to achieve progress, replacing these with the intrinsic force of trade and a tacit endorsement to keep doing whatever we’re doing and everything will work out all right.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest additional resources freed up through trade, specifically gains in exchange, necessitate progress. Trade is a tool which affords additional resources for individuals and societies. Ridley goes to great lengths to illustrate this relationship time and time and time again. I am a fan of trade and the free exchange of resources. As an entrepreneur (shameless plug: you should seriously buy my delicious sweet and savory pies if you live in the Phoenix area), I benefit daily from the productivity advances and economic growth trade enables. Unfortunately, Ridley’s argument falls apart at this point as he makes broad generalizations equating gains in exchange with progress. Ridley repeatedly makes unsubstantiated jumps between additional resource flows and progress which may be easily invalidated through a comparable cherry-picking of historical resource gains and regression.
While I do not doubt Ridley that the advantaged college student on study abroad and the poor Ukrainian woman weeding her garden are intricately linked through a global trade network of ideas and resources, I question Ridley’s assertion such trade inherently results in progress. Far more likely, individual and collective decisions on resource allocation achieve the progress Ridley casually ascribes to trade. The Rational Optimist starts strong making a case for the resource gains achieved through trade, but misses the mark in assigning a causal relationship between the corollary events of trade and material progress.
Super Double Bonus Round: For an excellent comprehensive, yet very quick macro-economic introduction / refresher, checkout Greg Ip’s The Little Book of Economics. A little dry and a little awesome, it’s a little like your favorite red wine.
Pages: 480 FOA Pages: 5,721 (The total number of pages reported upon by the Friends of Atticus)