Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Rational Optimist

Matt Ridley joins the ranks of cornucopian libertarians with a similarly error-ridden and cherry-picked set of arguments.

I found a harsh review and a followup by George Monbiot:

The Man Who Wants To Northern Rock The Planet

Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist is telling the rich what they want to hear

These are in the book reviews, environmentalism, and freedom through technology indexes.

[Addition: I've found several more harsh reviews, and placed them at: Reviews Of Books Related To Libertarianism.]


Frank S. Robinson said...

Monbiot, and the bulk of his cheerleading commenters (like this blogger), are quite simply in denial about the big picture: 1) life has gotten hugely better for the average human over the past few centuries; 2) there are powerful reasons for that, which are continuing to operate; and 3) more freedom is better than less, not only because it is morally preferable, but also because it makes people better off, with more rewarding lives. 
These are Ridley's basic messages. And also mine, in my own book: THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a rather broader range of subject areas. See

Mike Huben said...

Mr. Robinson has very swiftly responded almost everywhere on the web that Ridley's new book has been mentioned. Primarily to advertise his own book, it seems.

Here's a review of his book by Victoria Bekiempis at eSkeptic. It sounds rather pathetic.

The reason critics dislike works such as Ridley's is that they are propaganda, and they use bad scientific claims to generate controversy. That controversy is what produces the media attention to sell their books and get their ideas into the heads of more people.

The ideas they are selling are not simply that life is getting better and there are forces that make that happen. The subtext is: "Big business is progress, keep out of the way even if we commit atrocities."

The rhetoric of freedom that they use is typical libertarian tripe. There is no "more freedom" overall: freedoms create duties for others, who may not appreciate those duties. What these people want is a redistribution of freedoms in favor of business: freedom from liability, freedom from beneficial regulation, etc. They want us to have the duty to clean up after their messes as in Ridley's Northern rock debacle.

And they use the "there will be pie in the sky when you die" meaning of the long run. Right now, you should suffer the costs of "progress", so that business can be free.

Frank S. Robinson said...

AND here is the response showing how utterly dishonest that Bekiempis review was:
It is exceedingly lame and bogus to ascribe a libertarian philosophy to merely a desire to promote business. (As if business is a bad thing -- but that's another matter.) I believe people on the left are sincere and well-intentioned. That belief is rarely reciprocated.

Mike Huben said...

I noticed your response ends with "I’ll let readers judge whether to call her crazy." Not only impolite, but a standard fallacy of argument. And when did YOU stop beating your wife?

"It is exceedingly lame and bogus to ascribe a libertarian philosophy to merely a desire to promote business." And just where did I do that? Either you're erecting a strawman here, or your reading skills need serious improvement. Either way, your "rationality" doesn't work very well.

It is a simple fact that business promotes various libertarian viewpoints. Most recently in the news there's been a huge promotion of Ayn Rand. But most significantly, they've heavily funded CATO, several indexes of "economic freedom" (which happen to be just what international businesses want, but not what individuals would want), the economics departments of the U. of Chicago and George Mason University, and a huge entrepreneurial class of libertarian and conservative pundits through conservative and libertarian think tanks such as Heritage Foundation and CATO.

It sounds as if you'd like to dip into that last gravy train. It can pay much better than numismatism.

Jeff J said...

Some serendipity for you:

"Has there ever been a clearer case of the triumph of faith over experience?"

It was at this line in the Monbiot article that I was reminded of Greenspan's admission that he "made a mistake" in trusting free markets to regulate themselves. Despite his place in Ayn Rand's inner circle, this revelation had no effect on the true believers.

That got me thinking of other examples of faith trumping reality, including the crop circle hoaxes in the 90s. True believers held firm even after the perpetrators provided detailed confessions. Some still do. Among the hoaxers was one Matt Ridley.

There are some good lines in that linked article:

"The whole episode taught me two important lessons. First, treat all experts with skepticism and look out for their vested interests... Second, never underestimate the gullibility of the media. Even the Wall Street Journal published articles that failed to take the man-made explanation seriously."

Although he has personal experience in deliberately fostering irrational beliefs in others, Ridley fails to recognize his own, even after they fail him spectacularly. It is very difficult for human beings to recognize when they in the clutches of irrational beliefs.