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Matt Ridley: The Rational Optimist


Matthew White Ridley, the fifth Viscount Ridley, is a member of the British aristocracy. His family has been contributing to British intellectual and political life for generations. He is the ninth Matt Ridley to serve in the British parliament. His great-grandfather Sir Edwin Lutyens was the architect who designed New Delhi in the 1920s; his great-great-great-great-grandfather Dudley Marjoribanks, 1st Baron Tweedmouth, created the Golden Retriever breed. He is married to the neuroscientist Professor Anya Hurlbert. They have two children and live on the family estate at Blagdon near Newcastle upon Tyne in the north of England.


Educated at Eton and Oxford, Matt achieved a first-class honours degree and a DPhil in zoology, then worked for The Economist for nine years as a science writer, Washington correspondent and American editor. Nowadays, he writes regular columns for the Wall Street Journal and The Times.


Matt Ridley has written six books: The Red Queen, about the evolution of sexual reproduction; The Origins of Virtue, which examines human trust and virtue, and how our instinct for social exchange enables us to reap the benefits of co-operation; Genome: the autobiography of a species in 23 chapters; Nature via Nurture, how humans are free-willed yet motivated by instinct and culture; a biography of Francis Crick, the discoverer of the genetic code; and The Rational Optimist, about how prosperity evolves. In all, his books have sold over a million copies.


In The Rational Optimist, Ridley argues that our prosperity is due to our willingness to trade with strangers. This enables the division of labour and permits us to specialise, to work on the things we are good at. That encourages us to innovate, to make tools and machines and processes that make our production more efficient. We trade ideas too. We learn skills from experts and build on what has gone before, so a communal intelligence develops. Prosperity increases exponentially.


Trading relationships depend on trust and building reputations. If you can be trusted then more people will deal with you. Where trade flourishes, so do other virtues. Cities provide more opportunity for interactions, for innovators to meet and share ideas. So people move to the cities where they can trade and be prosperous. Creativity and compassion were most evident in the great commercial cities of the past and it is the same today.


Ridley is scathing about pessimists who are forever forecasting doom and gloom and never apologise when their predictions do not eventuate. He says that the pessimists always assume lineal continuation of current trends, and they fail to take human innovation into account.


Ridley’s intellect enables him to present challenging ideas in readily accessible language. His journalistic training shows, too. His text is replete with interesting and relevant statistics, stories and anecdotes. For example:

  • The average South Korean lives 26 more years and earns 15 times what he did in 1955.

  • It cost 4700 hours of work to buy a Model T Ford in 1908; a much superior car can be purchased today for 1000 hours work.

  • In USA, in 1915, one-third of agricultural land was used to feed 21 million horses; tractors have freed this land for productive use.

  • China’s highly coerced (one-child) birth rate decline since 1955 (from 5.59 to 1.73) is almost exactly mirrored by Sri Lanka’s largely voluntary one over the same period (5.70 to 1.88).


Ridley describes our current situation as follows:

Human beings are not only wealthier, but healthier, happier, cleaner, cleverer, kinder, freer, more peaceful and more equal than they have ever been. This is because the source of human innovation is, and has been for 100,000 years, not the individual inspiration through reason but collective intelligence evolving by trial and error resulting from the sharing of ideas through exchange and specialization. The secret of human prosperity is that everyone is working for everybody else.


The prologue to The Rational Optimist, “When ideas have sex” became a 16-minute TED conference talk and is available on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 2 million times.


The Rational Optimist won the Hayek Prize 2011 and the Julian Simon award in 2012. It is a significant contribution to our understanding of life and prosperity.





[Photo is by John Watson]

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