Matt Ridley, the Rational Optimist, gave the Institute of Public Affairs Annual C.D.Kemp Memorial Lecture at the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne on the 14th of November, 2013,  attended by this serf.. Heh, only in a democracy will yer get serfs at a swish event mingling with mandarins and captains of energy. This serf attended the Institute of Public Affairs’ Dinner at The Grand Hyatt ter hear Matt Ridley speak on ‘Freedom and Optimism: Humanity’s Triumph.’ I even got ter ask a question from the floor. )

There was also another surprise speaker, in Melbourne fer another event, Bjorn Lomborg, so under one roof, the rational optimist and the skeptical environmentalist! Both, as yer’d expect, spoke well. Matt Ridley gave his usual confident assault against the purveyors of  ‘apocalypse – if – not – today – then – next – week.’

Matt Ridley spoke on ‘Freedom and Optimism – Humanity’s Triumph’ using material from his book ‘The Rational Optimist – How Prosperity Evolves’ ( Fourth Estate, London, 2010 ) and his TED Talk, ‘When Ideas Have Sex.’ The central theme of Matt Ridley’s address  was that exchange of goods and ideas in human societies have evolved as a uniquely human behaviour and trade and practices of specialisation have lead ter unexpected and beneficial consequences fer humanity.

Matt Ridley opened with a reference ter C.D. Kemp, who was the first Director of the Institute of public Affairs, a think tank set up in the 1940’s advocating free market policies and small government  at a time when war time rationing continued and strong central government was popular in Western nations. People like C.D. Kemp were a voice against the pervasive socialist politics of the period.

Ridley compared life fer people in 1800, around the period that the First Fleet came ashore in Australia at Botany Bay, with the improved living standards a century later, life expectancy increased by one third, child mortality reduced by two thirds. In 1800 famine was still a source of concern in the western world, by 1900 it was no longer a threat. Another improvement was affordable night lighting. In 1800 it took the average serf six hours of work to earn one hour of candle light ter read by (if he or she could read) less work time fer lamp-light in 1900, today it takes less than half a second of work time ter pay fer the equivalent in electric lighting.

Trade fosters innovation. According ter the anthropologist Joe Heinrich, human beings learn skills from each other by imitation and  they innovate by making mistakes and adaptations that occasionally are improvements. The larger the connected population the more likely the productive development. Closed societies stagnate. When societies are isolated from trading partners they regress over time as the Tasmanian natives did when they became isolated from the mainland of Australia by rising seas, 10,000 years ago, gradually losing skills they had originally possessed, eg making barbed spears, fish traps and cold weather clothing. In contrast the people of Tierra del Fuego, an island not much bigger, and generally colder and more inhospitable, but in contact with people across the Magellan Strait, had more advanced technology than the Tasmanians. Matt Ridley also refers to isolation due ter stultifying government bureaucracy such as  evolved during the Ming Dynasty in China which discouraged innovation.

Despite irrefutable evidence of improvements in living standards brought about by exchange and innovation, pessimists post Malthus continue predicting increasing poverty, coming famines, expanding deserts, exhaustion of water and fuel supplies, falling sperm counts, ocean acidification and global warming, among other things. )

Seems that claims of defining moments and tipping points have been encountered in most generations. In 1830 Lord Macauley observed: ‘We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us, and with just as much apparent reason.’

Matt Ridley calls this mind-set, ‘Turning – point – itus.’ And while the Club of Rome, Erlich, Al Gore et al, have been refuted in the past, unabashed they continue ter predict dooms-day scenarios.

John Stuart Mill commented on these merchants of doom: ‘I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.’

Pessimists eschew benefit analysis. Those who do benefit analysis may find that market societies exert a civilizing effect.  In market economies, if you get a reputation for unfairness no one wants to deal with you. ‘In civilized society,’ wrote Adam Smith,
an individual ‘stands at all times in need of the co-operation and assistance of great multitudes ..’

‘Wherever the ways of man are gentle, there is commerce, and where there is commerce, the ways of man are gentle.’ observed Charles Montesquieu.

David Hume thought ‘commerce rather favourable to liberty  … and that nothing is more favourable to the rise of politeness and learning than a number of neighbouring and independent states, connected together by commerce and policy.’

Matt Ridley’s address was enlivened with elegant quotations like those above, but also well peppered with facts supporting his arguments regarding the benefits of open society and of commerce. When asked what he might fear concerning the future, Matt Ridley  replied that he feared only  two things and these were superstition and bureaucracy.

Ter quote kim at Judith Curry once again as I previously posted in the First Edition of Serf  Under_ground Journal: ‘Wage wage war against the lying and the fright.’

So thank yer serfs and good _night.


  1. I could wish Ridley and Lomborg more skeptical, yet they do a fine job on the New Class of professional worriers, whom Johnson described thus:
    “Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.”

    Thank you, serf. You have been our eyes and ears for the event. I shall turn on extra electric lights tonight, in the knowledge that I am saving candles.

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