Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Comments on Review of Ridley's Rational Optimist

Posted by Simon Halliday | Monday, August 09, 2010 | Category: , , , |

I've just read this review - by John Gray - of Matt Ridley's book The Rational Optimist.  I originally intended to comment on the article's content, then realised that I had to refer to some commenters who would probably just troll (because, I suspect, their ignorance displays their misunderstanding of the position that they advocate).  Anyway, here's the extended version of the comment I planned to write.  My comment is intended to be about the comments and not so much about the review itself. 

I get the sense when reading the comments on Gray's review that people are misconstruing  as a philosophical point what Gray intended instead as a description of an historic process, i.e. when Gray says "Laissez faire [...] was imposed through state power".  What Gray seems to be saying is that what we mean when we talk about 'laissez faire' occurred not only as a consequence of decentralized decision-making by people, but also because of the application of state power to reinforce and support (an approximation of) laissez faire.  In terms of British, Dutch and US history that makes sense: these countries had people who made decentralized decisions to create and sustain free markets, and then used state power to mobilize the populace to protect these free markets.  So-called laissez faire was not only the result of a decentralized process, but also a consequence of people coming together and asserting the primacy of free markets through state power and democratic systems. 

Also, semantically, laissez faire is not the 'absence of state power' as some commenters assert.  It is the absence of state intervention in industry and the market particularly, rather than the absence of any government intervention or state power generally.  The absence of state power is anarchism, not laissez-faire.  Consequently, it's entirely consistent for state power to support laissez faire market organizations by using state power to prevent state intervention in markets. This is what Gray said.  Moreover, state power is often necessary to ensure that markets remain free.  Adam Smith made this point in The Wealth of Nations when he observed that "People of the same trade seldom meet together [...] but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public." (WoN, Book1, Ch 10) Smith argued later in The Wealth of Nations that government would be required to sustain competitive markets against the forces of merchants operating in the market.  Consequently, it is only through the exercise of state power that free markets, that is laissez faire, can be protected and sustained.  Anarcho-capitalism is a pipe dream. 

Some other commenters also seem to suggest that the kind of capitalism used by China is equivalent to a 'free market'.  I suggest that they read their Hayek on the differences between private property (several property) and state property and what sustains liberty in markets (see, for example, The Fatal Conceit).  The point is not that China was a Communist country, but that China now engages in a form of state-sponsored capitalism (also, anyone who claims that the Chinese economy is a free market obviously forgets that the Renminbi is not a floating exchange rate - they need to read their Friedman).  Ridley apparently ignores China as a counter-example.  It appears he also ignores other east Asian State-Owned Enterprises and their roles in these quasi-capitalism economies.  It's the problem that 21st century capitalism may not only be about private property, but about state property and how states dispose of their property in ways that might contravene principles of liberty, yet their policies result in improved material flourishing of their populations.  It's a problem for those, such as myself and Ridley, who advocate a capitalism based on private property.  We need to examine and confront this problem, not ignore the problem as Ridley apparently does.

Independent of these problems in the comments and the massive problems and glossings-over in Ridley's book, Gray gets several things wrong too.  It would take him some time to cover all of them, so I will try to cover one: it appears as though Gray has not read any of the literature on cultural evolution and group selection, often in counterpoint to and contention with gene-level-only selection arguments.  Consider, for example, the work of Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, or that of Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza.  Gray incorrectly labels cultural evolution a 'misleading metaphor'.  He portrays his ignorance of the topic by saying so - it's not only about memes and Susan Blackmore.  Gray is right to call Ridley on Ridley's poor history, Ridley's mis-characterization of cultural evolution as an ultimately teleological force with laissez faire capitalism as its end, and Ridley's attempts to ignore confounding facts like China.  But Gray should have been more careful in his representation of evolutionary theory as he ignored important ideas in contemporary theory that approach the problems in a theoretically well-grounded manner.

Currently have 1 comments:

  1. Ridley is not the idiot Gray portrays him to be. He does not believe in "unfettered" or "unrestrained" free markets -- that's a straw man nobody believes in. We all recognize that businesses must be constrained by laws against anti-social behavior -- just as people are.
    As to China -- it's absurd to say this example refutes a belief in Smithian free markets. While China's government does participate in the market, the fact is that China's markets are among the most "unfettered" on earth.
    It's really Gray who's the idiot. His review is full of absurdities. For example, it is downright idiotic to imply that economic growth won't help poor countries cope with climate change. This disdain for economic growth is common among supercilious intellectuals who live cushy lives of affluence as a result of economic growth, and bemoan the plight of the poor while opposing everything that would actually help them become not-poor.
    John Gray is quite simply in denial about the big picture: 1) life has gotten hugely better for the average human over the past few centuries; 2) there are powerful reasons for that, which are continuing to operate; and 3) more freedom is better than less, not only because it is morally preferable, but also because it makes people better off, with more rewarding lives. 
These are Ridley's basic messages. And also mine, in my own book: THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a rather broader range of subject areas. See