Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Anybody Want to Talk About my “Uncommon Knowledge” Interview with Matt Ridley?

 

A few weeks ago, one of our faithful members–was it Paules?  Or Aaron?–said he wished I’d start a thread for each episode of Uncommon Knowledge.  I thought I’d give that fine idea a try.

Anybody care to comment on my interview with Matt Ridley, author of the best-selling volume, The Rational Optimist:  How Prosperity Evolves?  

The interview has been appearing this week at National Review Online, one segment at a time.  As of today, though, you can watch the interview in full.  Just click here.

Any thoughts you’d like to share?  Comments of Matt Ridley’s you found especially perceptive?  Or, for that matter, particularly galling?  Questions you wish I’d had the smarts to ask?  Just open the little box on your computer screen and type away.

I’ll be working this afternoon and evening–in addition to getting in a few licks on a couple of other assignments, I’ll be prepping for my interview next week with Thomas Sowell; positively glowing, as I do so, with gratitude to everyone here at Ricochet who has suggested a question or two–but I’ll check in every now and then.  

Say on!

There are 31 comments.

  1. Ward Inactive

    This is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. It would have been my nomination for book of the year if I hadn’t been having technical problems when that thread came and went. However, the distinction he makes between markets for goods and services versus markets that value assets is not correct in my opinion. I’d love to see him explore that topic in more depth because I do not view the recent bubbles in asset prices as having as much to do with the crisis as the leverage in the banking system.

    • #1
    • December 12, 2010, at 2:45 AM PST
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  2. Kervinlee Member
    Kervinlee Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I always look forward to Uncommon Knowledge, especially the episodes featuring Thomas Sowell!

    I was struck by Mr. Ridley’s observation that we homo sapiens are the only species who engage in barter, and how successful barter has been for the species.

    It reminded me of something Dr. Walter Williams once said (paraphrasing here); that barter, trade or, capitalism, if you will, has been so successful in solving the problems of gross poverty, that other problems that are minor by comparison have now become intolerable. So from that we see the current overwhelming concerns for things like inequality, health, the environment, etc. It’s not that these things are not important, it’s more like, thanks to the success of capitalism, we can afford the luxury of being concerned about them.

    • #2
    • December 12, 2010, at 2:55 AM PST
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  3. Profile Photo Member

    Kervinlee: Well said. Capitalism has succeeded in moving us way up Maslow’s hierarchy.

    Peter: Excellent interview. I’d enjoy seeing an interview with Bjorn Lomborg. I first was exposed to him via ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’ some time ago. At the time, everywhere I looked liberals were decrying his book. I decided that anything that stirred up that much controversy had to be worth a look. It was. As you probably know, Lomborg presents similar kinds of analyses — optimistic — but with a focus on the environmental impacts. He’s had several books since.

    • #3
    • December 12, 2010, at 3:15 AM PST
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  4. James Poulos Contributor

    You’ll recall Ridley’s was one of two books singled out for recommendation at Ricochet by Rupert Murdoch.

    • #4
    • December 12, 2010, at 3:17 AM PST
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  5. Kervinlee Member
    Kervinlee Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Tom Lindholtz: Kervinlee: Well said. Capitalism has succeeded in moving us way up Maslow’s hierarchy.

    Thanks, Tom. I wish I could take the credit, but, it all goes to Dr. Williams.

    • #5
    • December 12, 2010, at 3:22 AM PST
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  6. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Samwise started a thread on the interview earlier. But yes, I’d like to see a thread for every Uncommon Knowledge interview. Thanks.

    I enjoyed the interview, overall.

    His main point about “ideas having sex” is only half right. Innovation is not inherently good, whether it occurs in technology, art, economics or another field. Cooperation between individuals results in both good and bad consequences. Basically, the world is getting better and worse simultaneously in that the potentials for both good and evil are always increasing. Each generation is faced with more decisions, too, as life is further complicated.

    And, as I said in Sam’s thread, Ridley’s naturalist perspective is odd. He talks about us like animals.

    It’s not entirely true that only human beings share ideas and pass them down from one generation to the next. Individual families of apes and whales have been witnessed learning new behaviors and teaching them to their young. One pod of orcas returns to the same spot every year to rub their bellies on the pebbles. A group of Japanese macaques was supposedly witnessed to develop a habit of “washing” its food in water before eating.

    • #6
    • December 12, 2010, at 3:30 AM PST
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  7. Profile Photo Member

    Peter, pardon my ignorance, but have you done an UK with Alan Reynolds?

    He was a speaker on the NR cruise and he really had people hanging on every word.

    • #7
    • December 12, 2010, at 3:47 AM PST
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  8. Thirsty Artist Inactive

    Matt Ridley is charismatic and persuasive here–as all refined British accents are to me–and while I certainly agree with his conclusions, I don’t trust his evolutionary logic. It reminds me of a silly science article I read in Slate.com years ago where the author argued that conservatives(or maybe it was Christians) should accept evolution because they already believed in survival of the fittest in the market place.

    It’s just too easy to say that 100,000 years ago or whatever, two parties of hairy, hunchbacked, thick-browed hominids just figured out how to barter to increase both parties’ wealth out of the blue–without even seeing an apparition of a black monolith. I am surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of twenty-something, seemingly well-evolved peers in Columbia, MO, in the Year of Our Lord 2010, who would applaud your attempt at irony if you told them that the ape man trading the organic banana for the sushi wasn’t ripping off his client–or vice versa. In short there seems to be a spiritual element that Ridley, like all evolutionists, fail to consider.

    • #8
    • December 12, 2010, at 3:54 AM PST
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  9. Thirsty Artist Inactive

    P.s. I can’t wait for the next Thomas Sowell UK either!

    • #9
    • December 12, 2010, at 3:56 AM PST
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  10. Peter Robinson Founder
    Peter Robinson
    Tom Lindholtz: I’d enjoy seeing an interview with Bjorn Lomborg. · Dec 11 at 2:15pm

    We devoted an episode of the show to Lomborg several years ago, as it happens. Immensely impressive. Also cheerful–important on television. I can’t seem to find the video feed, but you can look over the transcript here.

    Kenneth: Peter, pardon my ignorance, but have you done an UK with Alan Reynolds?

    He was a speaker on the NR cruise and he really had people hanging on every word. · Dec 11 at 2:47pm

    • #10
    • December 12, 2010, at 3:58 AM PST
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  11. Cas Balicki Inactive

    Aaron are you a pessimist by nature? I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but your post is almost Manichean in tone. I disagree that innovation is both good and bad, as it is innovation that rids us of the “bad” ideas that pop up from time to time. Consequently, innovation is good. Cooperation is neither good nor bad, it is intent that is good or bad. If you and I cooperate to achieve a bad aim, it is not our cooperation that is bad, but our aim. How pray tell, Aaron, is “the world” getting both good and bad? If you mean by world the physical planet on which we live, it can be neither good nor bad. If you mean by “the world,” the people that dwell in it, then your view or people is particularly black. This is especially so since one of the points made in the interview was that the people were becoming more pacific in outlook. Life is not more complicated, if anything it is getting less so. Take this thread as an example, you’re in Texas and I’m in Vancouver, yet we are communicating. That’s good!

    • #11
    • December 12, 2010, at 3:59 AM PST
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  12. Peter Robinson Founder
    Peter Robinson
    Kenneth: Peter, pardon my ignorance, but have you done an UK with Alan Reynolds?

    He was a speaker on the NR cruise and he really had people hanging on every word. · Dec 11 at 2:47pm

    We haven’t, but that’s a darned good suggestion. Gracias.

    • #12
    • December 12, 2010, at 3:59 AM PST
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  13. Profile Photo Member

    Hey, Peter. I, um, had dinner with Alan Reynolds…

    • #13
    • December 12, 2010, at 4:01 AM PST
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  14. Peter Robinson Founder
    Peter Robinson
    Mark Nanneman: Matt Ridley is charismatic and persuasive here–as all refined British accents are to me–and while I certainly agree with his conclusions, I don’t trust his evolutionary logic.. · Dec 11 at 2:54pm

    You’re onto something here, imho. Ridley works hard to fit barter into the evolutionary scheme. Maybe he succeeds, and maybe he doesn’t, but these struck me as the least compelling arguments in the book. Ridley’s story of dramatic improvement in our material condition really gets started only in the eighteenth century. And what happened to kick it off wasn’t a new phase in evolution. It was the emergence of capitalism.

    Thanks for making that point. You crystalized my own thinking. (Fwiw.)

    • #14
    • December 12, 2010, at 4:04 AM PST
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  15. Robert Bennett Inactive
    Peter Robinson
    Tom Lindholtz: I’d enjoy seeing an interview with Bjorn Lomborg. · Dec 11 at 2:15pm
    We devoted an episode of the show to Lomborg several years ago, as it happens. Immensely impressive. Also cheerful–important on television. I can’t seem to find the video feed, but you can look over the transcript here.

    Peter, are the videos for those old UK episodes lost? Lots but not all are on the Hoover Youtube account. Any chance of recovering the missing videos? I will read the Lomborg transcript though. Thanks for pointing it out.

    • #15
    • December 12, 2010, at 4:12 AM PST
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  16. Spin Coolidge
    Spin Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I’m halfway through the book. I haven’t watched the interview, but I certainly will.

    The book is certainly very interesting, I think the most interesting point so far is the distinction between specialisation and generalization. I had never thought about it quite in that way before, but it’s a great point.

    By the time I have finished the book and watched the interview this thread will have come and gone, but I would definitely suggest the book to anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

    • #16
    • December 12, 2010, at 4:25 AM PST
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  17. Duane Oyen Member
    Duane Oyen Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I did get into with Samwise about Ridley- I recommend that y’all go read the other thread. The thrust of the argument is that Ridley’s time scale is far longer than the one we typically look at here, and far broader. Indeed, the social pathologies we are facing may bring down our American empire if we can’t fix any of it- but that does not mean that there is no other power ready to take up the cause and progress further in a natural carnal sense; and to whatever extent the US is commiting societal suicide as a post-Christian nation, there are others growing (and evangelizing).

    Yes, Ridley is a materialist not much into spliritual matters- but his perspective is important to us.

    • #17
    • December 12, 2010, at 4:33 AM PST
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  18. Johnmark7 Inactive

    I only watched Thursday’s episode and had enough of Ridley. The sensible things he said seemed obvious, but his claim of being a fiscal conservation but not a social conservative is either a cognitive dissonance or contradiction in terms.

    Without social conservatism, all that folderol about making divorce difficult, religion more influential, mores against fornication, homosexuality, and so forth which Ridley thinks is happily dispensed with, well, Ridley’s world collapses into moral chaos, destruction of the nuclear family and free marketeering goes wanting as tyrannies, oligarchies, aristocracies are set up to manage the chaos.

    The Fall of Rome and its decadence didn’t lead to innovative exchanges and good ideas having sex.

    • #18
    • December 12, 2010, at 4:34 AM PST
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  19. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Cas, what I meant by life getting ever more complicated is the number of decisions the average person must make. A thousand years ago, the average person would not have made countless small decisions about what to eat, what to wear, what to buy, etc. Nor would one decide whom to marry, what profession to pursue, where to live, etc. Options were simply unavailable. One was also more reliant on heritage for beliefs regarding life and society.

    We have more freedom, thanks to tools and knowledge. That’s good. But it means we are challenged with more questions and more decisions.

    My other point is that both tools and knowledge have empowered us, so our decisions have greater consequences. A nation can save a fellow country from disease and famine; or it can kill thousands of people with a single bomb. Automobiles enable one to visit family hundreds of miles away; or to kill an entire family by drinking while driving.

    Technology and knowledge are morally neutral, but they empower the will.

    As a Catholic, I believe life is about embracing or rejecting God’s love. We do so with greater freedom now, but the choice is the same.

    • #19
    • December 12, 2010, at 4:58 AM PST
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  20. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    To put it another way, I perceive the difference between a person thousands of years ago and a person today as being analogous to a footsoldier and a general. They’re fighting the same war and both are challenged. The threats and opportunities they face are simply different.

    Humanity’s advances of freedom are good and wonderful. We are honored to live during this point in history. But life is basically the same as it ever was… which is why the tales of Shakespeare and Homer are still relevant and thrilling so many centuries after they were created.

    It’s not a pessimistic view, Cas. In fact, such a view might help one to better recognize beauty in ancient history.

    • #20
    • December 12, 2010, at 5:52 AM PST
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  21. Cas Balicki Inactive

    Aaron, I accept that you are not a pessimist. I also accept that we, by various means, can have a greater impact on our world today than yesterday. But most strongly, I accept that we are morally engaged in the same battles our ancestors were engaged in, which is to say we are who they were with better toys. I would only add that we have likely, as people, become far less humble, more proud and wilful if you will allow the construction. I was once laughed at when I was asked to define the greatest sin a man could commit. No doubt the questioner had visions of Hitler or Stalin floating in his head. My response at the time, which I still hold it as a personal truth, is that the greatest sin is to put self above God. It is here that evil begins. In God’s eyes it probably doesn’t much matter how many people you kill after that. Indeed, this is Lucifer’s sin. If I were to be a pessimist about the future, which I am not, I would write God’s great mistake was allowing men to deny our own humility.

    • #21
    • December 12, 2010, at 6:44 AM PST
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  22. r r Inactive
    r r

    (copied from the other thread)

    Dearest Duane,

    Interesting comments, but they still fail to address that Ridley’s point, the scientific one about barter being thet driving force behind human prosperity and the thing that sets us apart from the animals, seems to be flat out wrong. Barter requires a combination of other skills, interpersonal, psychological, linguistical, that certainly predate it and are far more important than barter itself in the prosperity of man. I can think of about half a dozen examples of structures and development in the brain alone that pre-date barter that are more vital to our prosperity.

    His philosophy truly is secular, and look where that got us… So while he may be able to give us some insight in various scientific matters (the main scientific argument he gives I think is pretty week, but we’ll let that pass) when he strays from that area into others…. well, disaster ensues. Just like Dr. Sowell (I can’t wait for that one, Peter!) outlines in his work, Public Intellectuals. Check out that transition! Segment two: Samwise moves to a different conversation on Ricochet.

    Cheers, SG

    • #22
    • December 12, 2010, at 8:05 AM PST
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  23. The Mugwump Inactive

    Peter, I believe it was Aaron who wanted to see Common Knowledge added as a thread. As I remember it, my contribution was to suggest that despite progress in so many fields of human endeavor, self-governance seems to be the one intractable problem. Anyway, I’ll get back to you once I have the time to see all five episodes.

    • #23
    • December 12, 2010, at 8:24 AM PST
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  24. Scott R Member
    Scott R Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    An important development (maybe the most important of all) that Riddley fails to mention is the innovation of patent law (15th century???), the idea that individuals, however low their stature, are entitled to ownership of their ideas. This is what allows a large population to be equally large in its progress and innovation.

    • #24
    • December 12, 2010, at 8:26 AM PST
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  25. Duane Oyen Member
    Duane Oyen Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Samwise, there is a difference between the motivations and driving forces leading to barter and the top level observation- barter as the observed phenomenon that has led to significant progress for humanity. Ridley simply observes that we make material progress because we interact and trade, while you are arguing about what it is that makes us interact. I’ve listened to many many interviews with Ridley RE this book and others. He does not push his personal secular humanist view as the causative factor.

    I am happy to crown you as the official neuroscience authority of Ricochet (until Barbara Oakley comes in; BTW, Dr. Oakley is a conservative and agnostic and we have exchanged some good-natured comments about origins of life), but I still believe that you are digging too deep behind Ridley’s words looking for a spiritual vs. secular battle. That argument belongs in an arena where someone argues that secular societies progress better than religious societies- and we’d be on the same side for that one.

    In fact, I’d love to see her on UCK, or a debate between her and her faculty colleague (who is a Christian) about religion and science!

    • #25
    • December 12, 2010, at 8:31 AM PST
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  26. Scott R Member
    Scott R Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Riddley’s embrace of Gordon Gecko’s “greed is good” with respect to commerce markets but not speculative markets is an issue I’d like put to Dr. Sowell, which I shall now do in the other thread.

    • #26
    • December 12, 2010, at 8:31 AM PST
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  27. Doug Scott Inactive
    Scott Reusser: Riddley’s embrace of Gordon Gecko’s “greed is good” with respect to commerce markets but not speculative markets is an issue I’d like put to Dr. Sowell, which I shall now do in the other thread. · Dec 12 at 7:31am

    I would like to hear Dr. Sowell’s nuance on this as well.

    I agree with the first half of Mr. Ridley’s assessment that “greed (or more accurate, ‘self-interest’) is good”. But what Mr. Ridley fails to account for is that speculators provide a crucial function to bring goods and services to market. The commodities markets were created so that speculators could eliminate much of the risk from the farmer, who in turn could hedge the value of his crops even before they were planted. Likewise, the stock market provides a way for companies to raise capital to create things people desire. (Think Google or Microsoft.)

    What compromises the health of these markets is outside influence – usually political (ie crony capitalism) – which bastardizes the natural forces of supply and demand. As we recently discovered in the sub-prime mess, privatizing profits while socializing risk can be a recipe for disaster.

    • #27
    • December 12, 2010, at 9:14 AM PST
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  28. Cas Balicki Inactive
    Scott Reusser: Riddley’s embrace of Gordon Gecko’s “greed is good” with respect to commerce markets but not speculative markets is an issue I’d like put to Dr. Sowell, which I shall now do in the other thread. · Dec 12 at 7:31am

    Scott, when people speak of greed they mostly mean avariciousness, which I, frankly, feel is rare, because it is counter productive. There is a line to be drawn between greedy and shrewd. Almost all persons born into this world are shrewd when it come to their interests, and few are greedy. The reason is simple, and Ridley brushed past it when he spoke of leaving something on the table for the other guy. Those who leave nothing on the table soon find no one will join them at their table, to continue the analogy. As for financial markets and their driver, greed is vastly over rated, and I posit that it is counter productive.Good traders know when to take a profit and when to hold, bad traders never do and as a consequence lose their shirts.

    • #28
    • December 12, 2010, at 11:56 AM PST
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  29. Sisyphus Coolidge
    Sisyphus Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Dead on, Cas. In business, any time it is face to face, a relationship develops. As a consultant, it is important to me to take care of my clients and let my clients take care of me. My familiarity with them and their personnel, practices, and procedures, gives me an advantage against the next guy to come along.

    • #29
    • December 13, 2010, at 4:35 AM PST
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  30. Norm McDonald Coolidge
    Norm McDonald Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Dr Sowell’s standard rejoinder is that the word greed occurs nowhere in the economic work of Adam Smith, The Weatlh of Nations.

    • #30
    • December 13, 2010, at 4:40 AM PST
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