So I was in a bookstore browsing the new non-fiction when I came across “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley. The cover blurb was intriguing:
For two hundred years the pessimists have dominated public discourse, insisting that things will soon be getting much worse. But in fact, life is getting better—and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down all across the globe. Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching people’s lives as never before.
In his bold and bracing exploration into how human culture evolves positively through exchange and specialization, bestselling author Matt Ridley does more than describe how things are getting better. He explains why. An astute, refreshing, and revelatory work that covers the entire sweep of human history—from the Stone Age to the Internet—The Rational Optimist will change your way of thinking about the world for the better.
I pretty much agree with this. Life is getting better for most people, and for the same reason as described here: people are accumulating more and more knowledge about how to do more and more complex things. The wider one’s field of interaction becomes, the more good ideas you find, and the better off everyone is. You can be Whiggish about this and claim that it’s due to strong property rights and the Invisible Hand, but the overall direction of progress is clear.
But that name, Ridley, rang an alarm bell. Where had I heard that? The author bio was brief:
Matt Ridley is the author of several award-winning books, including Genome, The Agile Gene, and The Red Queen, which have sold more than 800,000 copies in twenty-seven languages worldwide. He lives in England.
I had heard of “The Red Queen” is some biology context, but that wasn’t it. There was a little more bio stuff inside the back cover, but it sounded unobjectionable.
Fortunately I had one of those instruments of human progress in my pocket: a phone with a browser that could reach Wikipedia. It turns out that Ridley is not mainly a science journalist – he was the chairman of Northern Rock Bank when it collapsed in mid-2007. During his chairmanship, the bank had gone heavily into securitization of mortgages, the practice of selling bonds based on pools of mortgages of varying quality, the now infamous Collateralized Debt Obligations or CDOs. The same practice later destroyed a slew of American banks and finance companies, and brought on the Great Recession in September 2008.
Ridley resigned his position in October 2007 after questions were raised in Parliament about his performance. Eventually the Bank of England took it over, wiping out the shareholders. The bank started its road to ruin in 1997 when it converted from a mutual building society owned by its members (somewhat like a US credit union) to a stock-issuing corporation. Ridley was in charge from 2004 to 2007, its most reckless period. His father, the 4th Viscount Ridley, was a senior exec at the bank, and Ridley himself has been involved with it since the 90s. He has also been a strident libertarian columnist and a climate change skeptic.
OK, so Wikipedia just saved me $15. The fact that he didn’t mention any of this in the bio clinched it. Yet I was still troubled. Is it right to dismiss someone’s arguments because of their personal behavior? I remember having this argument with a friend when Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was captured. His Manifesto was all over the Internet, and my friend had found it quite interesting. There were a lot of good points there, he thought. “But how can you take it seriously when its author went around murdering entirely random people?” I asked. “The arguments are made on their own, independent of the author,” he replied.
He was right, strictly speaking, but wrong with regard to my own learning pattern. I have neither time nor ability to fully evaluate ideas that are being presented to me. The presenter could be leaving out crucial counter-arguments or over-emphasizing favorable data or just flat-out lying. I can catch obvious cases of this, but if the subject is at all deep, I’m not going to catch them all. If I bother to read something at all, it has to be with a certain level of trust in the source. If the source has done something outrageous, then it’s not worth my time to think about what they say.
To take another example, Henry Kissinger knows an enormous amount about foreign relations, and has written extensively on it. Yet he also betrayed his country by conducting secret negotiations with the South Vietnamese before the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. Is it worth reading his thoughts on Soviet-Chinese relations? I’d say no.
Does this lead to excessive filtering of ideas? Yes, if I were an active participant in the subject. In that case I ought to know the dodges that partisans use and be able to account for them. But most of what I read is as an interested citizen. It’s hard enough to make time just to learn something, never mind pass judgment on it. There may be a case for techno-optimism about the ills that beset us, but a financial criminal like Ridley is not a source to be trusted.