[ExI] stossel on optimism

spike spike66 at att.net
Wed Jan 4 06:49:38 UTC 2012

I like this guy.  It reminds me of myself:








Ideas Have Sex, and We're Better for It

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An idea walks into a bar. She meets another idea. They get together, and
nine months later (or maybe it's nine minutes or seconds? It's not clear how
it works with ideas), a new idea is born. A baby idea with the best traits
of both parents.

When this happens a lot, everyone gets smarter and the world gets better.

Did you know that ideas have sex?

It's a weird concept, but the more I think about it, the more right it
seems. I learned it from British journalist Matt Ridley.

Ridley, author of "The Rational Optimist," says the reason life gets better
is that ideas have sex.

"Ideas spread through trade," he told me. "And when they meet, they can
mate, and you can produce combinations of different ideas. I think a good
example is a camera pill, which takes a picture of your insides on the way
through. It came about (during) a conversation between a gastroenterologist
and a guided missile designer ... a process very similar to sex in biology,
because through sex, genes meet and recombine, and you get new combinations
of genes. That's what causes innovation in biology, and innovation in

And life improves.

"Our living standards have shot up in my lifetime. The average income of the
average person, corrected for inflation, is three times what it was when I
was born (in 1958). And life span is 30 percent longer."

This didn't happen because of central planning. It's the spontaneous market
generated from free individuals that sets and keeps it in motion.

Ridley goes on to argue that even sex between the ideas of dumb people
produces better results than those of a brilliant central planner.

"If you look at human history ... lots of people in a room who are talking
to each other, however stupid they are, can achieve a lot more than a lot of
clever people in the room who never talk to each other. So it's not
individual intelligence that counts in how well a society works. It's how
well people communicate and exchange ideas with each other."

In light of this, it's not hard to understand why Ridley calls himself a
rational optimist.



He reminds me the late, great economist Julian Simon, author of "the
Ultimate Resource," who for years stood virtually alone in explaining the
benefits of population growth, free exchange and the mixing of ideas. 

"I was fed up with the pessimists," Ridley explained. "When I was a student
in the 1970s, the grown-ups told me that the future of the world was bleak,
that the oil was running out, that the population explosion was unstoppable,
that famine was inevitable. I feel kind of cross that nobody said anything
optimistic to me about how these resources might not run out. They might
become more abundant because of human ingenuity. They might actually get
cheaper rather than more expensive and that it might be possible for us to
live higher living standards and actually do less damage to the environment
as we do so, that the air might get cleaner, the rivers might get cleaner!

"All of these things have happened. We've got healthier, happier, cleaner,
kinder, cleverer, more peaceful and, indeed, more equal, if you look at the
picture globally over that time."

In a debate, Bill Gates pushed back against Ridley's optimism. Gates argued
that worrying about the worst case can help drive a solution.

Ridley doesn't buy it.

"If you look at where the solutions come from, they come from optimistic
people living in rich places, like Steve Jobs, or Archimedes in ancient
Greece, or Leonardo in Renaissance Italy. ... It's the pessimists who are
the complacent ones these days, because they're the ones saying: 'This is as
good as it can get. We can't make it any better.'"

But we can make it better. All it takes is rule of law and limited
government. If government will just stay out of the bar, and stop bossing
the patrons around, ideas will meet and mate and produce wonderful things.


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