Book review: The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley.
Ridley is more eloquent than Julian Simon, but like Simon he seems like a lawyer focusing all the reader’s attention on the evidence most favorable to his conclusions rather than an objective scientist.
A lot of what he says is right, but I’m bothered by the frequency with which he exaggerates. E.g. he says “justice has improved” [since the 1950s] because 234 innocent Americans were freed due to DNA evidence. That seems like such a tiny fraction of the total injustices that’s it’s nearly useless – it’s easy to imagine that declining jury quality has overwhelmed the improvements.
The book has a bit more history than I wanted, much of it devoted to the idea that free trade is an important cause of progress. He has an interesting claim that trade an important factor in pre-agricultural human success – it reportedly was virtually nonexistent in other species (even Neanderthals), and it may have started around the time that human population began to grow significantly. But the industrial revolution has been discussed often enough elsewhere that I got little out of his summary of the causes.
I’m disappointed that he presented trends of slowing population growth as reasons for optimism. There are many ways those trends could change, such as evolution or cheaper ways reproducing. And there are good arguments that more population growth would be desirable at least for this century.