Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How do we build a good society?

Matt Ridley argues in the new book The Rational Optimist that innovation and trade will keep civilization from collapsing. (For the moment, I'm putting the continued existence of civilization into the category of "good." Feel free to argue with me about that.)

I'm not certain I buy Ridley's argument, but the book looks interesting. I particularly appreciate the perceptions noted by New York Times reviewer John Tierney, who quotes:

“Empires bought stability at the price of creating a parasitic court; monotheistic religions bought social cohesion at the expense of a parasitic priestly class; nationalism bought power at the expense of a parasitic military; socialism bought equality at the price of a parasitic bureaucracy; capitalism bought efficiency at the price of parasitic financiers.”

Progress this century could be impeded by politics, wars, plagues or climate change, but Dr. Ridley argues that, as usual, the “apocaholics” are overstating the risks and underestimating innovative responses.

“The modern world is a history of ideas meeting, mixing, mating and mutating,” Dr. Ridley writes. “And the reason that economic growth has accelerated so in the past two centuries is down to the fact that ideas have been mixing more than ever before.”

Our progress is unsustainable, he argues, only if we stifle innovation and trade, the way China and other empires did in the past.

One more question: What does Ridley mean by "progress?" Is he only looking at material progress, or does he consider advancement to include progress toward equality, saner and sounder lifestyles, progress of the heart? (Notice that I have a hard time even figuring out what to call this. We so rarely talk about progress that doesn't involve making more money or improving technology that it's hard to even figure out how to describe it.)

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