Review – The Rational Optimist (#books, #optimism, #reason, #evolution, #economics, #development)

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

by Matt Ridley, published 2011

Why, for the last 300 years, has “everything” been getting better and better in terms of just about any human outcome you can come up with? Human beings are getting better at exchanging ideas and thus generating new and better ideas. In addition, the total stock of life improving ideas humanity can build from is compounding at an increasing rate. The benefits of free exchange extend beyond the economic realm and into the philosophic, and then back again.

The author charts a surprising course through humanity’s shared hunter-gatherer history. He argues that it was economic trade which allowed the division of labor to develop, and the division of labor which allowed for the transition from hunter-gatherer subsistence living to agricultural subsistence, and from there to a compounding of capital and an increasing division of labor and economic specialization that allowed for mankind to finally break free of the Malthusian trap in many parts of the globe (and more every year).

In addition, he says we are never going back. The genie is out of the bottle and rather than the division of labor being fragile, it is far more robust than any social structure yet experienced and gets stronger the more specialized it becomes.

Because of this, and because when surveying history up to this point in the broadest terms possible there is evidence of things getting better and better for more and more people, not the opposite, the author concludes that the rational thing is to be an optimist and expect this trend to continue.

There are several convenient leaps of logic built off flimsy premises that would startle and upset an opponent of markets and industrialized societies, but there is such a preponderance of hard logic and even harder evidence that there isn’t enough here to tip over the apple cart. But the value of this book is less in its rhetorical force for free markets and industrial development and more in its sweeping survey of a number of seemingly unrelated historical data and economic phenomena into a coherent picture of hopefulness about humanity’s future. I found myself joyfully surprised by the idea that in the chicken-egg quandry of agriculture and trade, the author contends that trade came first and produced all the surplus we moderns have enjoyed since then.

Going “back to the land” or seeking out de-urbanized, atomized communities seem to be doomed to bring their proponents a lower standard of living overall, idealizing a past reality that never actually existed or rejecting the very thing (the division of labor) which is necessary to enjoying a desirable standard of living with modern securities and comforts.

3/5

Diversity and sameness

Walking into a small Florentine osteria like Cinghiale Bianco — there don’t appear to be any large eateries, and even after spending a whole semester in Florence and now revisiting, I still can’t figure out what the difference is between osterie, ristoranti, tratorrie and the like — I am immediately struck by the diversity and efficiency of these spaces.

In the United States at least there is a seeming obsession with uniform geometry. Every place, fancy or hole in the wall alike, is cubic and utilized in cubic form. All I have to do to clarify what I mean by this is to paint a picture for you of Cinghiale.

This little restaurant has three galleries for diners. The first is rectangular in the front and seats two rows of 4 seat tables and two rows of six seat tables. The second gallery is another rectangle behind it but attached at one of the corners and perpendicular to it. It has three tables of four and a table of two as well as a “nook” buried in the street side wall (bordering the first gallery) which seats 4 or 5. This nook has an arch and the whole thing is constructed of gloss painted brick. Above it is the third gallery, seating 2 or 3, which is accessed by a small ladder step way as if it belongs in a library bookshelf. The ladder is in the second gallery but the third gallery looks out on the first. Its claustrophobic, romantic and dangerous– a sign warns you in Italian to watch your head as you climb up because a support arch of the wall leaps out and cuts across about three feet from the top of the ladder.

I can’t even imagine how many OSHA and fire code regulations such a design would garner in the US. In Italy I’m sure this place is legally protected from ever being renovated!! The law is a singularly irrational and subjective institution wherever in the world it is crafted.

The interior of the restaurant is white washed plaster over occasionally exposed brick and dark painted timber support beams. The walls are lined with shelves covered in wine bottles and carrafe pottery. The tiny hallway segueing the first two galleries has an indent about five feet up that serves as the coat hang.

Cubic architecture should be more economical and efficient both to construct and maintain and utilize for a variety of functions, which is why I assume it is so prevalent in the US. And yet, its hard to not be charmed by the efficiency of this humanistic design in little Italy.

To a traveler, this is diversity. But the shocking truth of Italy is that all these little towns are like this. All the restaurants are ancient and cute and cozy. All the towns you ride the trains through up and down the coast are painted in a variety of dark pastel tones such as red, pink, and yellow with green window shutters. Everywhere they offer the “cucina tipica.”

Every city and village has a copy of the Garibaldi statue.

They serve the same food at every restaurant. The pasta is always good even when the meat dishes are second rate at the tourist traps. Its actually hard to find anything that isn’t Italian. Its a country that has failed by successfully and faithfully embracing mercantilist self-sufficiency, even though the osterie sometimes serve Tunisian olive oil, a blasphemy of ever there was one.

And in these ancient places nothing ever changes. It will all be here, the statues and paintings and museums and history and restaurants and hotels, next time.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I suppose it depends who you are and what you’re after. Its hard to imagine businesses shutting down, even in a recession — more economic thoughts in a coming post — and I’ve yet to see entire city blocks with For Lease or for Sale signs as there would be in the US. But I also don’t see how you could avoid being a 60 year old waiter one day. Or how you’d ever get to live a “modern” life of new things if you were just an average Joe. Or Jiacomo as it were.

Many of the portraits in the Uffizi, it turns out, were the likenesses of various condottieri of Florence under the Medicis. They were celebrating these military contractors who helped them crush their neighbors and enemies.

Today there are no more contractors in Italy. But the US govt employs thousands. Do things ever change? Are we all that different? Which is modern, and which is not?