The Rational Optimist
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The Rational Optimist

How Prosperity Evolves

Matt Ridley

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📖 eBook - ePub

The Rational Optimist

How Prosperity Evolves

Matt Ridley

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Shortlisted for the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction 2011.

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Fourth Estate

A better today: the unprecedented present

Review of Southey’s Colloquies on Society
By the middle of this century the human race will have expanded in ten thousand years from less than ten million to nearly ten billion people. Some of the billions alive today still live in misery and dearth even worse than the worst experienced in the Stone Age. Some are worse off than they were just a few months or years before. But the vast majority of people are much better fed, much better sheltered, much better entertained, much better protected against disease and much more likely to live to old age than their ancestors have ever been. The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going rapidly upwards for 200 years and erratically upwards for 10,000 years before that: years of lifespan, mouthfuls of clean water, lungfuls of clean air, hours of privacy, means of travelling faster than you can run, ways of communicating farther than you can shout. Even allowing for the hundreds of millions who still live in abject poverty, disease and want, this generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light-years, nanometres, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles, and of course dollars than any that went before. They have more Velcro, vaccines, vitamins, shoes, singers, soap operas, mango slicers, sexual partners, tennis rackets, guided missiles and anything else they could even imagine needing. By one estimate, the number of different products that you can buy in New York or London tops ten billion.
This should not need saying, but it does. There are people today who think life was better in the past. They argue that there was not only a simplicity, tranquillity, sociability and spirituality about life in the distant past that has been lost, but a virtue too. This rose-tinted nostalgia, please note, is generally confined to the wealthy. It is easier to wax elegiac for the life of a peasant when you do not have to use a long-drop toilet. Imagine that it is 1800, somewhere in Western Europe or eastern North America. The family is gathering around the hearth in the simple timber-framed house. Father reads aloud from the Bible while mother prepares to dish out a stew of beef and onions. The baby boy is being comforted by one of his sisters and the eldest lad is pouring water from a pitcher into the earthenware mugs on the table. His elder sister is feeding the horse in the stable. Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fall-out have been found in the cow’s milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window.
Oh please! Though this is one of the better-off families in the village, father’s Scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at 53 – not helped by the wood smoke of the fire. (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.) The baby will die of the smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be the chattel of a drunken husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The neighbour’s lodger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hayshed even now and her child will be sent to an orphanage. The stew is grey and gristly yet meat is a rare change from gruel; there is no fruit or salad at this season. It is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl. Candles cost too much, so firelight is all there is to see by. Nobody in the family has ever seen a play, painted a picture or heard a piano. School is a few years of dull Latin taught by a bigoted martinet at the vicarage. Father visited the city once, but the travel cost him a week’s wages and the others have never travelled more than fifteen miles from home. Each daughter owns two wool dresses, two linen shirts and one pair of shoes. Father’s jacket cost him a month’s wages but is now infested with lice. The children sleep two to a bed on straw mattresses on the floor. As for the bird outside the window, tomorrow it will be trapped and eaten by the boy.
If my fictional family is not to your taste, perhaps you prefer statistics. Since 1800, the population of the world has multiplied six times, yet average life expectancy has more than doubled and real income has risen more than nine times. Taking a shorter perspective, in 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer. She was less likely to die as a result of war, murder, childbirth, accidents, tornadoes, flooding, famine, whooping cough, tuberculosis, malaria, diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox, scurvy or polio. She was less likely, at any given age, to get cancer, heart disease or stroke. She was more likely to be literate and to have finished school. She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush toilet, a refrigerator and a bicycle. All this during a half-century when the world population has more than doubled, so that far from being rationed by population pressure, the goods and services available to the people of the world have expanded. It is, by any standard, an astonishing human achievement.
Averages conceal a lot. But even if you break down the world into bits, it is hard to find any region that was worse off in 2005 than it was in 1955. Over that half-century, real income per head ended a little lower in only six countries (Afghanistan, Haiti, Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia), life expectancy in three (Russia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe), and infant survival in none. In the rest they have rocketed upward. Africa’s rate of improvement has been distressingly slow and patchy compared with the rest of the world, and many southern African countries saw life expectancy plunge in the 1990s as the AIDS epidemic took hold (before recovering in recent years). There were also moments in the half-century when you could have caught countries in episodes of dreadful deterioration of living standards or life chances – China in the 1960s, Cambodia in the 1970s, Ethiopia in the 1980s, Rwanda in the 1990s, Congo in the 2000s, North Korea throughout. Argentina had a disappointingly stagnant twentieth century. But overall, after fifty years, the outcome for the world is remarkably, astonishingly, dramatically positive. The average South Korean lives twenty-six more years and earns fifteen times as much income each year as he did in 1955 (and earns fifteen times as much as his North Korean counterpart). The average Mexican lives longer now than the average Briton did in 1955. The average Botswanan earns more than the average Finn did in 1955. Infant mortality is lower today in Nepal than it was in Italy in 1951. The proportion of Vietnamese living on less than $2 a day has dropped from 90 per cent to 30 per cent in twenty years.
The rich have got richer, but the poor have done even better. The poor in the developing world grew their consumption twice as fast as the world as a whole between 1980 and 2000. The Chinese are ten times as rich, one-third as fecund and twenty-eight years longer-lived than they were fifty years ago. Even Nigerians are twice as rich, 25 per cent less fecund and nine years longer-lived than they were in 1955. Despite a doubling of the world population, even the raw number of people living in absolute poverty (defined as less than a 1985 dollar a day) has fallen since the 1950s. The percentage living in such absolute poverty has dropped by more than half – to less than 18 per cent. That number is, of course, still all too horribly high, but the trend is hardly a cause for despair: at the current rate of decline, it would hit zero around 2035 – though it probably won’t. The United Nations estimates that poverty was reduced more in the last fifty years than in the previous 500.

Affluence for all

Nor was 1955 a time of deprivation. It was in itself a record – a moment when the world was richer, more populous and more comfortable than it had ever been, despite the recent efforts of Hitler, Stalin and Mao (who was then just starting to starve his people so that he could use their grain to buy nuclear weapons from Russia). The 1950s were a decade of extraordinary abundance and luxury compared with any preceding age. Infant mortality in India was already lower than it had been in France and Germany in 1900. Japanese children had almost twice as many years in education in 1950 as at the turn of the century. World income per head had almost doubled in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1958 J.K. Galbraith declared that the ‘affluent society’ had reached such a pitch that many unnecessary goods were now being ‘overprovided’ to consumers by persuasive advertisers.
He was right that Americans were especially well off compared with others: they were three inches taller in 1950 than they had been at the turn of the century and spent twice as much on medicine as funerals – the reverse of the ratio in 1900. Roughly eight out of ten American households had running water, central heating, electric light, washing machines and refrigerators by 1955. Almost none had these luxuries in 1900. In his 1890 classic How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis encountered a family of nine in New York living in a ten-foot-square room plus a tiny kitchen, and women earning 60 cents a day for sixteen hours’ work in sweatshops and unable to afford more than one meal a day. This would have been unthinkable by mid-century.
Yet looking back now, another fifty years later, the middle class of 1955, luxuriating in their cars, comforts and gadgets, would today be described as ‘below the poverty line’. The average British working man in 1957, when Harold Macmillan told him he had ‘never had it so good’, was earning less in real terms than his modern equivalent could now get in state benefit if unemployed with three children. Today, of Americans officially designated as ‘poor’, 99 per cent have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator; 95 per cent have a television, 88 per cent a telephone, 71 per cent a car and 70 per cent air conditioning. Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these. Even in 1970 only 36 per cent of all Americans had air conditioning: in 2005 79 per cent of poor households did. Even in urban China 90 per cent of people now have electric light, refrigerators and running water. Many of them also have mobile phones, internet access and satellite television, not to mention all sorts of improved and cheaper versions of everything from cars and toys to vaccines and restaurants.
Well all right, says the pessimist, but at what cost? The environment is surely deteriorating. In somewhere like Beijing, maybe. But in many other places, no. In Europe and America rivers, lakes, seas and the air are getting cleaner all the time. The Thames has less sewage and more fish. Lake Erie’s water snakes, on the brink of extinction in the 1960s, are now abundant. Bald eagles have boomed. Pasadena has few smogs. Swedish birds’ eggs have 75 per cent fewer pollutants in them than in the 1960s. American carbon monoxide emissions from transport are down 75 per cent in twenty-five years. Today, a car emits less pollution travelling at full speed than a parked car did in 1970 from leaks.
Meanwhile, average life expectancy in the longest-lived country (Sweden in 1850, New Zealand in 1920, Japan today) continues to march upwards at a steady rate of a quarter of a year per year, a rate of change that has altered little in 200 years. It still shows no sign of reaching a limit, though surely it must one day. In the 1920s demographers confidently asserted that average life span would peak at 65 ‘without intervention of radical innovations or fantastic evolutionary change in our physiological make-up’. In 1990 they predicted life expectancy ‘should not exceed…35 years at age 50 unless major breakthroughs occur in controlling the fundamental rate of ageing’. Within just five years both predictions were proved wrong in at least one country.
Consequently the number of years of retirement is rocketing upwards. Starting from 1901, it took sixty-eight years for the mortality of British men between 65 and 74 to fall by 20 per cent. Subsequent 20 per cent falls took seventeen years, ten years and six years – the improvement has accelerated. That is all very well, say pessimists, but what about quality of life in old age? Sure, people live longer, but only by having years of suffering and disability added to their lives. Not so. In one American study, disability rates in people over 65 fell from 26.2 per cent to 19.7 per cent between 1982 and 1999 – at twice the pace of the decrease in the mortality rate. Chronic illness before death is if anything shortening slightly, not lengthening, despite better diagnosis and more treatments – ‘the compression of morbidity’ is the technical term. People are not only spending a longer time living, but a shorter time dying.
Take stroke, a big cause of disability in old age. Deaths from stroke fell by 70 per cent between 1950 and 2000 in America and Europe. In the early 1980s a study of stroke victims in Oxford concluded that the incidence of stroke would increase by nearly 30 per cent over the next two decades, mainly because stroke incidence increases with age and people were predicted to live longer. They did live longer but the incidence of stroke in fact fell by 30 per cent. (The age-related increase is still present, but it is coming later and later.) The same is true of cancer, heart disease and respiratory disease: they all still increase with age, but they do so later and later, by about ten years since the 1950s.
Even inequality is declining worldwide. It is true that in Britain and America income equality, which had been improving for most of the past two centuries (British aristocrats were six inches taller than the average in 1800; today they are less than two inches taller), has stalled since the 1970s. The reasons for this are many, but they are not all causes for regret. For example, high earners now marry each other more than they used to (which concentrates income), immigration has increased, trade has been freed, cartels have been opened up to entrepreneurial competition and the skill premium has grown in the work place. All these are inequality-boosting, but they stem from liberalising trends. Besides, by a strange statistical paradox, while inequality has increased within some countries, globally it has been falling. The recent enrichment of China and India has increased inequality within those countries by making the income of the rich grow faster than that of the poor – an income gap is an inevitable consequence of an expanding economy. Yet the global effect of the growth of China and India has been to reduce the difference between rich and poor worldwide. As Hayek put it, ‘once the rise in the position of the lower classes gathers speed, catering to the rich ceases to be the main source of great gain and gives place to efforts directed towards the needs of the masses. Those forces which at first make inequality self-accentuating thus later tend to diminish it.’
In another respect, too, inequality has been retreating. The spread of IQ scores has been shrinking steadily – because the low scores have been catching up with the high ones. This explains the steady, progressive and ubiquitous improvement in the average IQ scores people achieve at a given age – at a rate of 3 per cent per decade. In two Spanish studies, IQ proved to be 9.7 points higher after thirty years, most of it among the least intelligent half of the group. Known as the Flynn effect, after James Flynn who first drew attention to it, this phenomenon was at first dismissed as an artefact of changes in tests, or a simple reflection of longer or better schooling. But the facts do not fit such explanations because the effect is consistently weakest in the cleverest children and in the tests that relate most to educational content. It is a levelling-up caused by an equalisation of nutrition, stimulation or diversity of childhood experience. You can, of course, argue that IQ may not be truly representative of intelligence, but you cannot argue that something is getting better – and more equal at the same time.
Even justice has improved thanks to new technology exposing false convictions and identifying true criminals. To date 234 innocent Americans have been freed as a result of DNA fingerprinting after serving an average of twelve years in prison; seventeen of them were on death row. The very first forensic use of DNA in 1986 exonerated an innocent man and then helped to catch the real murderer, a pattern that has been repeated many times since.

Cheap light

These richer, healthier, taller, cleverer, longer-lived, freer people – you lot – have been enjoying such abundance that most of the things they need have been getting steadily cheaper. The four most basic human needs – food, clothing, fuel and shelter – have grown markedly cheaper during the past two centuries. Food and clothing especially so (a brief rise in food prices in 2008 notwithstanding), fuel more erratically and even housing has probably got cheaper too: surprising as it may seem, the average family house probably costs slightly less today than it did in 1900 or even 1700, despite including far more modern conveniences like electricity, telephone and plumbing. If basic needs have got cheaper, then there is more disposable income to spend on luxuries. Artificial light lies on the border between necessity and luxury. In monetary terms, the same amount of artificial lighting cost 20,000 times as much in England in the year 1300 as it does today.
Enormous as that difference is, in labour terms the change is even more dramatic and the improvement is even more recent. Ask how much artificial light you can earn with an hour of work at the average wage. The amount has increased from twenty-four lumen-hours in 1750 BC (sesame oil lamp) to 186 in 1800 (tallow candle) to 4,400 in 1880 (kerosene lamp) to 531,000 in 1950 (incandescent light bulb) to 8.4 million lumen-hours today (compact fluorescent bulb). Put it another way, an hour of work today earns you 300 days’ worth of reading light; an hour of work in 1800 earned you ten minutes of reading light. Or turn it round and ask how long you would have to work to earn an hour of read...

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APA 6 Citation
Ridley, M. (2010). The Rational Optimist ([edition unavailable]). HarperCollins Publishers. Retrieved from (Original work published 2010)
Chicago Citation
Ridley, Matt. (2010) 2010. The Rational Optimist. [Edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers.
Harvard Citation
Ridley, M. (2010) The Rational Optimist. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.