A Most Ingenious Trick

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Peter Robinson: A former science and technology editor for the Economist magazine, Matt Ridley is a journalist and a best-selling author whose many books include Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. His most recent book is The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. Matt Ridley, thank you for joining us.

Matt Ridley: Thank you for having me on the show, Peter.

Robinson: I’m going to quote over and over again from The Rational Optimist:

“Human progress has been a good thing and the world is as good a place to live as it has ever been for the average human being. Richer, healthier, and kinder, too.” So this is where the optimism comes in.

Ridley: That’s right.

Robinson: The book has been out for several months now. Have you had any occasion to retreat from that assertion?

Ridley: Well, it contains the claim that the amount of oil spilled in the ocean is down 90 percent since the 1970s. There was a big oil spill almost immediately after the book came out . . . but you know, the trend is still there. On average, we’re spilling less oil in the ocean. The numbers really astound me, and no, I haven’t had to retreat from any of it because I keep getting more examples.

Just last week, for example, Steven Pinker was telling me that the 2000s look like the decade with the lowest number of war deaths for 150 years, at least. Now, we find that surprising in the West because we’ve been involved in some wars in the 2000s and we weren’t before that. But globally, the number of people killed in wars is down, per capita income is trebled in my lifetime, child mortality is down by two-thirds in my lifetime. Lifespan is up by one-third. We’re adding lifespan globally. . . . It’s an extraordinary achievement. Of course, there are things going in the wrong direction.

Robinson: Who is in your mind as someone whom you must rebut? What are you pushing against?

Ridley: When I was a student in the 1970s, I was told that the future of the world was bleak. The grownups told me that. They told me the population explosion was unstoppable, there was a cancer epidemic caused by chemicals in the environment that was going to kill us off. The desert was advancing. The oil was going to run out. I don’t remember anyone telling me, “Actually, you know, we could be on the verge of three decades of faster economic growth, more reduction in poverty, more reduction in ill health and hunger, and more democratization than in any period in history.” And yet that’s what actually happened. So I’m kind of writing this to a version of myself thirty years ago, saying, “Here’s the book I wish I’d been able to read in the 1970s.” Paul Ehrlich, for example, was specifically predicting that lifespan in the West was going to drop to forty-two years by the end of the twentieth century. Instead, it continues to rise. And you know there was no great cancer epidemic.

Robinson: Let’s delve down a little more deeply into the evidence. That summary argument of yours that the average human being is “richer, healthier, and kinder.” Let’s take each of those in turn.

Ridley: Healthier—lifespan, but also the retreat, for example, of waterborne diseases, which have almost entirely vanished as a cause of death in the United States. Malaria has seen a huge retreat—it hasn’t retreated far enough, it’s still killing a million people a year, but it used to kill people in Russia, America, and all over Asia as well. Heart disease, declining pretty steadily. Cancer, if you correct for age, is not going up. In fact, it’s going down slightly.

“Globally, the number of people killed in wars is down, per capita income is trebled in my lifetime, child mortality is down by two-thirds in my lifetime.”

People think, “Well, OK, we’ve expanded lifespan, but only at the expense of a lot of painful and miserable years at the end of life.” Actually, that’s not true. Go and talk to most people in their eighties; they’re having a great time. The evidence is that we’re compressing morbidity. We’re spending a longer time living and a shorter time dying.

Robinson: That’s healthier. What about richer?

Ridley: Per capita income is the easiest measure. In real terms, it’s trebled for the average citizen of the world since the late 1950s. The enrichment of China is really the most extraordinary demographic and economic phenomenon; India as well. Because not only is the world getting more prosperous, there are more people joining the middle class and the world is getting less unequal. Inequality is probably increasing in China because some people are getting very rich, and it may be increasing in this country, but it’s decreasing globally because the Chinese are getting richer faster than the Americans. The poor people are getting richer faster than the rich people.

Robinson: The third of these attributes: life is kinder. That’s harder to argue, isn’t it?

Ridley: Well, look at charitable giving. It’s rising faster than GDP in countries like the United States and Britain. Look at homicide: your chances of being a victim of homicide were about ten times what they are now in Europe in the Middle Ages. It’s been declining steadily ever since. Look at the kinds of things that we don’t tolerate nowadays that we thought routine before: slavery, racial prejudice, gender prejudice, you know. We’re much less tolerant of unkindness now, and that’s a measure of how much nicer we are. On the whole, there’s an awful lot wrong with life, but it’s not that unkind compared with what it was in the past.

Robinson: I have one version or another of this question in virtually every segment in my notes here: what is everybody complaining about? Here in this country we hear over and over again about the plight of the poor. This is kind of a trope on the evening news and in the newspapers. In the New York Times there’s something about the poor on the front page every single day, particularly during the recession. And you write in The Rational Optimist: “Today, of Americans officially designated as poor, 99 percent have electricity, running water, flushing toilets, and a refrigerator. Ninety-five percent have a television, 88 percent a telephone, 71 percent a car, and 70 percent air conditioning.” So what is going on that we seem to be stuck with these political tropes that are decades out of date?

“I’m kind of writing this to a version of myself thirty years ago, saying, ‘Here’s the book I wish I’d been able to read in the 1970s.’ ”

Ridley: Partly we’re interested in relative wealth. We adjust what we mean by “poor”; we say you’re now considered poor even if you’ve got a car or something else that would have been ridiculous in the early years of the twentieth century. And partly, as I say, we’re getting kinder, and so that means we want to show our kindness. One of the ways of showing our kindness is to show concern about the fact that some people are not as well off as others. So it doesn’t reflect badly that we talk about this, but it just means that we keep forgetting to notice the improvement.

Why does that matter? Because in order to be ambitious to make improvements in the future, you have to understand that it’s possible. You have to look around, look at the recent past, and say, “My goodness, we’ve dragged a lot of people up the income scale in the past thirty or forty years. We’re not doing badly.” That means let’s do it again, let’s drag them even further up the income scale.

Robinson: Now I’ll hit you with a criticism. Steven Malanga, in a review that he published in City Journal, wrote, “Consider one glaring omission, which we might call the twentieth-century problem—or more precisely, the problem of the years 1914 to roughly 1989. . . . Two world wars that killed some seventy million people; the rise of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Japanese militarism; the Holocaust; and the Cold War, most of it waged under the threat of nuclear annihilation. What is the theory of progress that explains how the very people who were prospering from the Industrial Revolution and the rise of democracy managed, starting in the early twentieth century, to plunge themselves into destructive confrontations that undercut much of what they’d spent a century achieving?” That is a problem.

Ridley: It is a good question. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. That is to say, the prosperity produced by trade and commerce will produce regimes that then use that prosperity to wage war either on their own subjects or on somebody else’s subjects. I regard it as a form of parasitism—a flea on the back of the thing that’s doing good. In other words, human beings have always had two ways of prospering: one is to engage in trade—to grow things or make things and swap them—and the other is to simply steal, to plunder.

“Look at the kinds of things that we don’t tolerate nowadays that we thought routine before: slavery, racial prejudice, gender prejudice.”

Robinson: Right.

Ridley: And you can do that by either becoming a king or becoming a thief or some such version—even a bureaucrat, actually.  

Robinson: I’m pretty willing to argue that your book suggests a particular, classically liberal point of view. Adam Smith was the first rational optimist of whom I’m aware. You’re arguing, “Look, if we can have free markets and limited government, we can get this cornucopia of goods and services, of virtues being developed, but we must resist tyrannical government, we must resist a kind of throwback to the old tribe, the Volk of Hitler.” So this is pretty much an argument for limited government. You are a tea party man, you just haven’t been told that yet. What do you reckon?  

Ridley: To some extent, yes, I think there is an old-fashioned human nature in us that wants to stab people in the back and plunder. We find various ways of keeping that under control. And if you look at the story of the twentieth century, do you end up concluding that there was too much government or too little government? After a century with Mao and Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and Mugabe and Mobutu and so on, it’s hard to think of countries that had too little government in the twentieth century, whereas there are far more examples of countries that had too much. So yes, I do think that too much government is a much bigger risk than a lot of the intelligentsia are prepared to admit.

Robinson: Two quotations, Matt. The first comes from former vice president Al Gore. I’ll take a deep breath so I can deliver this as well as he did: “Two thousand scientists in a hundred countries engaged in the most elaborate, well-organized scientific collaboration in the history of humankind, producing a consensus that we will face a string of terrible catastrophes unless we deal with global warming.” The second quotation comes from your own fine self in The Rational Optimist: “The extreme climate outcomes are so unlikely that they do not dent my optimism one jot.” Matt Ridley, how dare you?

Ridley: I think this is like previous scares we’ve heard. Yes, it’s real, there’s no doubt that carbon dioxide emissions are changing the climate. But if you go into the science properly and examine this in all the details and you take what those two thousand scientists are writing to each other and not what people are saying that they’re saying, then there’s no evidence that this is either accelerating at an unprecedented rate or that it’s going to reach a very dramatic level of warmth. The evidence to me is very persuasive that we have a high probability of a small warming and a low probability of a big warming. Actually, that’s what those two thousand scientists say. That’s what the IPCC says. It just says we need to plan for that small probability—and that’s where the argument is.

“Human beings have always had two ways of prospering: one is to engage in trade—to grow things or make things and swap them—and the other is to simply steal, to plunder.”

I perfectly accept that we need to have an argument about how small a possibility we need to take drastic measures for. But at the moment we are rushing into measures that are doing real ecological harm and real economic harm. Biofuels would be a classic example; they have minimal benefits, even if we are facing one of these small probabilities of a catastrophic event. We’ve got to be very much more careful to look at the costs and the benefits. Otherwise we might find in fifty years’ time, as I put it, that we have put a tourniquet around our neck to prevent a nosebleed.

Robinson: Around the neck of Western Europe and the United States. The Chinese will not put up with this for a moment.

Ridley: That’s another point. In practical, political terms, the idea of telling two billion Asians that they can’t use the route to prosperity that we used is unrealistic.

Robinson: I’d like to return to Steven Malanga, who says you mostly ignore “the substantial problems that economists and demographers see in birthrates that have fallen rapidly below replacement level, including problems that are before us right now in countries like Japan and Italy—notably, a rapidly aging population, which creates an increasing dependence of pensioners on a shrinking labor force; declining national productivity,” and so forth. So Russia is dying, Europe is hollowing itself out, China will grow old before it grows rich. To which Matt Ridley replies—

Ridley: I reply that at least we’ve got the argument away from panicking about population growth.

“If you look at the story of the twentieth century, do you end up concluding that there was too much government or too little government?”

Ten, twenty years ago, and still in a lot of places, people go on about exponential, uncontrolled population growth. It ain’t happening. It’s slowing down. Population growth globally has gone from 2 percent to 1 percent in my lifetime. It’s going to hit naught percent sometime between 2050 and 2075, by the look of it, although things could change. But he’s right about what that means in terms of a rapidly aging population in some parts of the world. We’re going to have fewer working people to pay for the benefits that support older people. But in a sense, I’m just simply saying that the aging population and the declining birthrate are a lot easier to deal with than the exploding population we thought we were going to have.

Robinson: We keep coming back to the puzzle: why is everybody whingeing and whining so much? Mark Steyn, for example, would argue that the low birthrate in Europe is tied to, reflective of, a loss of civilizational self-confidence. It almost seems that if only Europeans could all read The Rational Optimist, they’d have more children. They’d say things aren’t so grim after all. Do you think there may be something to that?

Ridley: You’d have to get to the Japanese, too, of course; they have an even lower birthrate. I’m not persuaded that it’s a loss of civilizational self-confidence. In a way, it’s sort of a sign of how comfortable we are about our individual futures that we don’t feel we have to have lots of babies to support us, lots of babies in case one dies, and things like that. So in some ways it’s a sign of complacency, if you like, or comfort.

Robinson: Here’s my final question. Americans today are still reeling from financial crisis and recession. Quite learned journals are using the term “the new normal”—that we may have to get used to a much lower rate of economic growth. The whole feeling that we may have to settle into what happened to Britain in the Fifties, the loss of empire, that somehow China is eclipsing us in all kinds of ways. If you could offer advice to Americans and their leaders, what would you say?

Ridley: Openness. The secret is surely to recapture what you’ve been so good at over the past two centuries, and that is to be open to the world in terms of people and ideas and goods and services. That’s what got you great: openness within your borders and openness outside your borders.