Book Review: The Rational Optimist
the rational optimist1 This is a bold and controversial read for 2013 and antidote to gloom and doom. The acclaimed science writer Matt Ridley asserts that the 21st century will be the best ever for mankind.

Reading the back of this book is enough to arouse the curiosity of even a hardened cynic. Acclaimed scientific writer Matt Ridley claims "we are wealthier, healthier, happier, kinder, more peaceful, more equal and longer-lived than any previous generation. Thanks to the unique human habits of exchange and specialization, our species has found innovative solutions to every obstacle it has faced so far."

As Keynes wrote in 1930 in the midst of the economic depression, perhaps the gloom and doom-mongers are wrong. Are we all "... just suffering from a bad attack of pessimism"?

Ridley describes with a lot of historical examples that the more human beings are diversified as consumers and specialized as producers, and the more they exchange, the better off they have been, are and will be. And the perceived good news is that there is no inevitable end to this process.

He coins the term "rational optimist", indicating that he arrived at optimism not through temperament or instinct, but by looking at the evidence. As such Ridley makes a strong case for his thesis. He takes us from the hunter-gatherers to the whizz kids of Silicon Valley and shows how the modern man has continually innovated e.g. an hour of work today earns us 300 days" worth of reading light; an hour of work in 1800 earned you ten minutes of reading light.

He is a strong advocate of the idea that : "Prosperity, or growth, has been synonymous with moving from self-sufficiency to interdependence, transforming the family from a unit of laborious, slow and diverse production to a unit of easy, fast and diverse consumption paid by a burst of specialized production." 2 Key in this is trade or barter, which he describes as "the chief thing that led to the ecological and burgeoning material prosperity of the species." 3

"True barter requires that you give up something you value in exchange for something you value slightly more." 4 The ability to transact with strangers is often based on trust and we are surprisingly good at guessing who to trust. As a broad generalization, the more people trust each other in a society, the more prosperous the society is.

The author makes a strong case how organizations like eBay, Wikipedia, the open-source movement have been successful on including trust in their model e.g. fewer than 0.01 per cent of all transactions on eBay were fraud attempts. The reason for this is that the internet has returned to a world where there is no place for a fraudster to hide, similar to the Stone Age village.

The book gives an interesting historical overview of the latest evolutions and the underlying reasons, though was not 100% convincing. It remains rather general in its analysis. On the other hand, it is heartwarming to read an upbeat and optimistic viewpoint for a change.


1The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley, Fourth Estate, March 2011
2Ridley, Matt; The Rational Optimist, Fourth Estate, 31 March 2011, p. 41
3Ridley, Matt; The Rational Optimist, Fourth Estate, 31 March 2011, p. 58
4Ridley, Matt; The Rational Optimist, Fourth Estate, 31 March 2011, p. 59