Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The luckiest people in history 

Via my Facebook scroll, five questions for Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. I liked this one:

5. You have five minutes with President Obama. What point would you want to get across to him as it relates to your book?

That it is precisely because there is still so much wrong with the world that it is vital to understand how powerful the engine of prosperity can be – the process of specialization and exchange through which we all work for each other. Thus the best way to improve the world is not to expect catastrophe but to have the ambition to reach for growing prosperity, that the twenty-first century will be a time of ecological restoration, not managed ecological retreat, and that the free flow of ideas, goods, services and innovations is what causes prosperity.

A lot of life is dumb luck. As long as I can remember I've thought that I had a much greater chance of being born in some miserable time and place than the United States of 1961. Say, West Africa in 1971. Or Russia, in pretty much any time or place before about 1980. Or Europe in the 14th century. Indeed it is hard to imagine how I and my American peers (however many of them whine as a matter of habit) could be luckier. We were win-the-Powerball lucky, just by the circumstances of our birth.

Take it a bit further. There are six billion people alive on the planet today, probably less than 6% of all the humans ever born. Many of them -- perhaps a majority -- are among the luckiest in history by virtually all measures, including expected lifespan, material well-being, and social, economic, and political freedom. In turn, freedom and the prosperity that comes with it are the reason why so many people today enjoy such good fortune. Our job is to rejoice in that freedom and prosperity and understand that it must be sustained in order that our posterity is, well, even luckier than us. So I am a rational optimist, worried only that the forces arrayed against freedom and prosperity -- and they are legion, from Islamist jihadis to Middle Eastern kings to leftist authoritarians to squishy progressive fantasists -- do not in the end carry the day.

Seems like it might be an interesting book.


By Blogger Georgfelis, at Wed May 26, 10:19:00 AM:

Five minutes with the President is not nearly enough time to reverse an entire lifespan that has developed his preferences for governmental control over all aspects of our lives. However in about 4 months (November), we should be able to put quite a substantial dent in it. And in two years and four months, we should be able make him experience the job market first hand.  

By Anonymous Mr. Ed, at Wed May 26, 11:47:00 AM:

My thoughts have gone down the same road many times. "Count your blessings" is simple, timeless and sagacious. Pinning my own self down with a label, I often ended up with "rational romantic." In practice not too different from rational optimist. The label is not so important, but the attitude probably is.


By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Wed May 26, 12:06:00 PM:

Ah, but it wasn't just luck. Read outliers.

Your family many generations ago made choices that put you here. Are you fortunate that your mom and dad met? Of course. But your presence here is the work of their ambition and other factors.

I feel that acutely because indeed, it was my parents foresight and energy to leave Argentina that put me here. And in turn the foresight and energy of their parents to leave eastern europe. Had they not done so, all might have perished in some concentration camp.

So, it wasn't merely dumb luck. Somebody made some good decisions on your behalf.  

By Anonymous tyree, at Wed May 26, 12:29:00 PM:

The Cardinal has it right. In general, my family owes it's "luck" to a long tradition of education and hard work.Our ancestors didn't accidentally wind up in the US. They came to the land of the free and the home of the brave because they knew things other people didn't know.  

By Anonymous tyree, at Wed May 26, 12:39:00 PM:

That being said, we are pretty lucky. Or as the priest said at my daughters wedding, "there is no luck, only blessings".  

By Anonymous Brian Schmidt, at Wed May 26, 02:15:00 PM:

Prosperity in most parts of the world increased significantly from 1900 to 2000 while ecological functions retreated. I see no reason why that pattern won't repeat for the 2000 to 2100 period.

Terrestrial and freshwater habitats in some parts of the developed world may improve, especially in places with stabilized populations. Habitats in the developing world, and marine habitats everywhere should be worse off.

Air quality and drinking water quality will be more of a mixed bag, both good and bad, but they're only part of overall ecology.

Very hard to predict economics and technology more than 50 years in the future though, so who really knows. I'm undecided about the Singularity, for example, but it would change everything if it happens.  

By Blogger MTF, at Wed May 26, 02:16:00 PM:

...and counting your blessings is a worthwhile thing to do. Thanks to my ancestors, fate, my own hard work, the founders...whomever. All I can say is that I'm grateful to be here.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Wed May 26, 10:12:00 PM:

Ecological functions retreated... London air? Number of rivers of raw sewage? I'll grant you many problems, but there is an enormous set of assumptions hidden in your assertion. Is your metric of "ecological function" what is good for humans? If so, then public sanitation, medicine, refrigeration, crop improvement - all those would have to be counted in. If not - if what you mean is Good For Sexy Mammals, or Good For Gaia, or aesthetically more pleasing, or one of the vaguer imagined paradisios, then what is your philosophical basis for it? You might expect, BTW, that several people here have thought a bit about the usual cliched answers and have a response.

To the OP: Before 1700, nearly everyone who ever lived starved by current standards, even in the wealthiest areas. I recommend Bob Fogel's The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100.  

By Anonymous Brian Schmidt, at Thu May 27, 02:07:00 AM:

"Is your metric of 'ecological function' what is good for humans?"

No, I'd use the biological ecosystem as its own metric. Human health has improved as part of prosperity, but could probably have done even better with better environmental protection.  

By Blogger Lucia, at Thu May 27, 08:27:00 AM:

TigerHawk, be fair and include the far-right nut jobs who endanger freedom and prosperity like the ones who fabricated death panels to campaign against reasonable health care.
As you know, I'd talk to President Obama about changing our farm subsidy program. The health of our nation is rapidly declining. Heart disease, strokes, diabetes, ADHD, bi-polar, cancer and alzheimers are all on a dramatic increase. For the first time our children have a shorter expected lifespan than we do. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/35938575/ns/health-kids_and_parenting/.
Scientists are projecting that one in three kids born after 2000 will develop diabetes. This is largely because our government props up the monoculture of corn and soy. Just guess what our declining national health, dependence on foreign oil to fertilize this crap is going to do to our coveted freedom and prosperity. Then check out the pollution it causes rendering us incapable of growing real food. And keeping animals in cruel confinement ike they are pieces of machinery rather than sentient beings eating this crap is immoral and corrupting. Don't think chickens, pigs and cattle are sentient? Come on over and spend time with ours. If we are a free market society - keep our tax money out of the food system and level the playing field.  

By Blogger Progressively Defensive, at Thu May 27, 11:47:00 AM:


Great and inspirational post, Tigerhawk.

I guess the term freedom seems to vague to me ... I think what we ought to celebrate is our lucky ordered liberty. Orwell wrote well of precision in langauge being essential to political and economic well being. And order requires government of some size depending on the cirmcumstances, all anarchist as yet fantasies aside.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Sat May 29, 01:22:00 AM:

Brian "No, I'd use the biological ecosystem as its own metric."

You don't realise that the statement doesn't mean anything firm?  

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