'Chiefs, Thieves, and Priests'

Science writer Matt Ridley on the causes of poverty and prosperity


Matt Ridley, an Oxford-educated zoologist, turned to journalism in 1983, when he got a job as The Economist's science reporter. He soon became the magazine's Washington correspondent and eventually served as its American editor. This time in the United States had a profound intellectual effect on Ridley, ultimately leading him to become a self-described classical liberal, a "person who believes in economic freedom and social freedom, too."

Ridley, 50, has written several superb books that combine clear explanations of complex biology with discussions of the science's implications for human society. In The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (1997), Ridley showed how natural selection led to human morality, including the development of property rights and our propensity to exchange. At the end he warned that government can subvert our natural tendency to cooperate. "We are not so nasty that we need to be tamed by intrusive government, nor so nice that too much government does not bring out the worst in us," he concluded. Reviewing the book for reason, the UCLA economist Jack Hirshleifer noted that "Ridley leans in the anarchist direction."

Written just before researchers announced the completed sequencing of the human genome, Ridley's Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (2000) toured our 23 chromosome pairs to illustrate how genes cause disease, direct the production of proteins, and influence intelligence. While pointing out the differential heritability of many human characteristics, Ridley condemned genetic determinism and eugenics as unscientific. "Many modern accounts of the history of eugenics present it as an example of the dangers of letting science, genetics especially, out of control," he wrote. "It is much more an example of the danger of letting government out of control." Ridley further deflated genetic determinism in Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human (2003), which explained how genes change their expression in response to environmental influences.

Ridley is now working on a book about how and why progress happens. During a visit to Blagdon Hall, Ridley's home outside Newcastle upon Tyne, I took advantage of the author's weakened state (he had broken his collarbone falling from a horse) to talk about the new book.

reason: What's the book about?

Matt Ridley: My last three or four books have all argued that there is such a thing as an evolved human nature which is true all over the world and has been true throughout history. But something changes. Clearly, my life is completely different from what it would've been if I was an Ice Age hunter-gatherer. Technology changes. Society changes. Prosperity changes.

What I want to do is turn the question on its head and come at it from the point of view of an evolutionary biologist who looks at this species—man—which has a constant nature but has somehow acquired an ever-changing lifestyle. I want to understand what's driving that change. Let's give it the obvious word, even though it's a very unfashionable one: progress. The book is about where progress came from, how it works, and, most important, how long it can continue in the future.

My major themes are specialization, exchange, technology, energy, and then population. Human beings have progressed in material living standards, on the whole, since the Stone Age, but they've also progressed enormously in terms of the number of people on the planet. That's because we got better at turning the energy available into people, and the denser the population has got, the more things we've been able to invent that we wouldn't have been able to invent with a sparse population. For example, if you're going to smelt metals, you need a fairly dense population of customers before it's worth building kilns.

Population density can also lead to reductions in the standard of living. There must be cases in history where people have tried to live at too a high a density for the resources that were available to them. They've either then suffered one of Malthus' positive checks—war, famine, and disease—or, and this is a slightly more original point, they've reduced their division of labor, i.e., they've returned to self-sufficiency.

If you look at the Bronze Age empires in Mesopotamia or Egypt, or the Roman Empire, or some of the Chinese dynasties, at a certain point the population density gets too high for people to be able to generate a surplus of consumption income to support trade and specialization by others, and you have to go back to being self-sufficient. Essentially that's what happened to every surge in productivity, wealth, and technology up to the one that came around 1800, the Industrial Revolution.

At some point there's something you're relying on that gets more and more expensive. If you look at Mesopotamia, it deforested itself. It has to go further and further for wood, for construction. Maybe it's food.

The English Industrial Revolution had been bubbling along very nicely in the 18th century, with fantastic increases of productivity, particularly with respect to cotton textiles. We saw a quintupling of cotton cloth output in two consecutive decades, in the 1780s and 1790s, none of it based on fossil fuels yet but based on water power.

At some point, you run out of dams. You run out of rivers in Lancashire to dam. At some point England would suffer the fate of Holland, or Venice before that, or of China, Egypt, or Japan. What did England do that others didn't? It started using fossil fuels.

By 1870 Britain is consuming the coal equivalent to 850 million human laborers. It could have done everything it did with coal with trees, with timber, but not from its own land. Timber was bound to get more expensive the more you used of it. Coal didn't get more expensive the more you used of it. It didn't get particularly cheaper either, but it didn't get more expensive, so you don't get diminishing returns the more you use of it.

reason: One of the things that Marco Polo reported to the amazement of Europe was that those Chinese people are burning rocks. So the Chinese had access to coal already, and that extra energy didn't make them wealthy.

Ridley: That's right. [University of California at Irvine historian] Kenneth Pomeranz's answer to that is very straightforward: The coal was in Shanxi in Inner Mongolia in the far northwest. Those areas got hit very soon after Marco Polo was there by a peculiar combination of barbarians and plague. It was hit much harder than the rest of China and was totally depopulated. When China revived as an economy, it was a long way away from the coal, so it had a wood-based iron industry, for example on the Yangtze, which was impossibly far from the coal mines in the far northwest.

The north of England happened to have a coal field that was near the surface and near navigable water. Remember, you cannot transport anything by bulk in the 18th century unless it's within a very short distance of water. It happened to have a huge demand on its doorstep too.

The fossil fuel industry itself did not get much more efficient. A miner in the early 20th century is using a pony and a lamp and a pick ax like he was in the 18th century, and the product he's producing is not a lot cheaper. But it's not more expensive, and it's hugely larger in volume.

reason: What institutional environment favors progress?

Ridley: It's very clear from history that markets bring forth innovation. If you've got free and fair exchange with decent property rights and a sufficiently dense population, then you get innovation. That's what happens in west Asia around 50,000 years ago: the Upper Paleolithic Revolution.

The only institution that really counts is trust, if you like. And something's got to allow that to build. Property rights are just another expression of trust, aren't they? I trust you to deliver this property to me. I trust somebody else to allow me to keep this property if I acquire it from you.

But human beings are spectacularly good at destroying trust-generating institutions. They do this through three creatures: chiefs, thieves, and priests.

Chiefs think, "I'm in charge, I own everything, I'm taking over, I'm going to tell everyone how to do it, and I'm going to confiscate property whenever I feel like it." That's what happens again and again in the Bronze Age. You get a perfectly good trading diaspora and somebody turns it into an empire.

A classic example is the Chinese retreat in the 1400s, 1500s. China got rich and technologically sophisticated around the year 1000 A.D. That's when it's working at its best.

Interestingly, it's just come out of a period when it's not unified. Once you're unified, people keep imposing monopolies and saying there's only one way of doing things and you've got to do it this way. Whereas when you're fragmented, as Europe remained throughout this period, people can move from one polity to another until they find one they like.

If you want a recipe for how to shut down an economy, just read what the early Ming emperors did. They nationalized foreign trade. They forbade population movements within the country, so villagers weren't allowed to migrate to towns. They forbade merchants from trading on their own account without specific permission to do specific things. You had to actually register your inventories with the imperial bureaucrats every month, that kind of thing. And they did the usual idiotic thing of building walls, invading Vietnam.

Thieves—one of the reasons for the growth of the Arab civilization in the seventh and eighth centuries must be the fact that the Red Sea was increasingly infested with pirates. It became increasingly difficult to trade with India. Byzantium was having a real problem doing it, and the Arabs had come up with a great new technology for crossing the desert called the camel train. So the rule of law to prevent thievery is also important; but the rule of too much law, to allow chiefs to take everything, is equally a risk.

Priests—well, I must admit I don't think one can necessarily blame religion for shutting down trust, trade, and exchange. But there's little doubt that it didn't help in the Middle Ages, surely. I won't go further than that.

reason: They did try to adjust prices in the marketplace. Whether that actually had an effect I don't know.

Ridley: Usury laws and that sort of thing. That's exactly right.

reason: So periods of rising productivity are choked off by institutional barriers. You get an over-elaboration of rules and regulations and taxation. And that's what killed them off, not lack of fuel or lack of ingenuity, but governance that just got so bad that it stopped it. Is that plausible?

Ridley: I think that's a big part of it. How does that fit with my story that it shuts down because of a Malthusian thing or diminishing returns on sources of energy? Do they go together, or does one explain one collapse and another explain another? I don't know. The problem with history is it tends to be overdetermined. You've got lots of different things happening at once.

If we were having this conversation in 1800, I think I would have very good reason for telling you that however wonderful the prosperity you can generate by elaborating division of labor and specialization and exchange, you're never going to be able to escape this trap that living standards don't seem to be able to go up faster than the population. But we're not having this conversation in 1800, and we've had 200 years in which we've shown that you can actually have a dramatic transformation of living standards in a very large portion of the world purely by elaborating the division of labor, as long as you've got energy amplification in there too.

reason: [Yale economist] William Nordhaus would say that at least 50 percent of economic growth in the 20th century is because we're using better recipes, which is better technology.

Ridley: Absolutely. The compact fluorescent light bulb is a better recipe than the filament light bulb, which was better than the kerosene lamp, which was better than the tallow candle. If I overemphasized energy, maybe it's just because I've been recently reading and writing on that subject. The proximate cause of our prosperity is technology. I quite agree.

The ultimate cause of technology is division of labor, though. The man who made a mango slicing machine in 1800 would have been lucky to sell 20, because he only had access to his village. Now he can have access through the Internet to the world, so it pays him to make something as specialized as a mango slicing device. And that makes living standards rise. My standard of living has risen because a man has made a mango slicing device that I really can use.

But I also need an awful lot of watts to run my lifestyle: to turn on the lights, to drive the machine that made my mango slicing device, to provide me with the transport that I deem necessary to make my life interesting, but in particular, to drive those container ships that are bringing my mango slicing devices from Korea.

The fact that I can now earn an hour of reading light with half a second of work, if I'm on the average American wage, whereas it took eight seconds in the 1950s, releases me to go and spend another seven and a half seconds consuming some other kind of energy, like driving my power boat across a lake where I have a recreation home which I've driven to in my 4×4, or even just deciding to leave the light on all night so that my daughter doesn't have to worry about being left in the dark.

reason: Flipping this around a little bit, what's the cause of poverty in the modern world?

Ridley: I think lack of access to networks of exchange and specialization is the principal cause of poverty. If you find yourself in a position where you make everything yourself rather than buy it from someone else, then you are by definition poor.

Now, I buy the argument that it is possible to be poorer in the modern world than it was a couple of hundred years ago because the diseases that would've killed you a couple of hundred years ago can be prevented. It is conceivable that some people in Africa are living at a lower standard of living than anyone was 200 years ago.

reason: Of course, living might be considered a higher standard of living than dying.

Ridley: Well, exactly. To get hopeful, is Africa really that different from South Asia in the '60s and '70s? The standard of living is rising in most of Africa. There are parts where it's not—in Congo it's not, but in Kenya and Ghana it is. They're not great, these countries, but they're not regressing. The health outcomes are improving pretty dramatically, child mortality in particular. Fertility is falling, as it does after child mortality has started falling.

And you also have got the beginnings of an explosion of entrepreneurship that will allow them to leapfrog onto new technologies that were not available. The lack of decent telephone networks means that they're going straight into a mobile world. Mobile telephones are amazingly ubiquitous in Africa, even among people who are not particularly well off, often in a form of shared ownership. Just look at the effect that that's had on Kenyan farmers finding markets for their produce. They call ahead and find where the best prices are and send their produce there.

reason: I was at a Cato Institute function where the British development economist Peter Bauer was giving a lecture, and I had a really smart-ass question: Isn't the problem with a lot of poor countries, Africa in particular, that there's corruption and we have to get rid of corruption? And he leaned back on the podium and smiled and shook his head, no. And he said when the United States and Britain were developing in the 19th century, their governments were as corrupt as anything you'd find in Africa, but the governments in Britain and the United States had control of 1 percent or 2 percent of the economy when those countries were growing. In many African countries, the government controls over 60 percent of the economy. That's the difference.

Ridley: Very nice point. I find myself completely surrounded by pessimists, people who think that Africa is never going to get rich, that it's deteriorating rather than improving, that living standards are about to get worse. And they're not convinced they have been getting better in the last few years because things like congestion at airports have gotten worse. There's a tremendous tendency to take improvements for granted and to notice deteriorations.

There are a lot of people who think, "Ah, we are in a uniquely dangerous situation in my generation. Back in my parents' generation, they looked forward to the future with confidence and happiness." That ain't true either. If you go back and look at every generation, it was dominated by pessimists. There is this wonderful quote from Lord Macaulay in 1830, who says, why is it that with nothing but improvement behind us we anticipate nothing but disaster before us?

What the precautionary principle [the idea that when science has not yet determined whether a new product or process is safe, the government should prohibit or restrict its use] misses is the danger that in not progressing you might miss out on future improvements in living standards for poor people in Africa. I'm desperately hoping to persuade the world, not that everything's going to be fine, but that there's a chance everything's going to be better for everybody and that we should be very careful not to cut ourselves off from that chance.

reason: How would you describe your politics?

Ridley: I'm a good old-fashioned 19th-century liberal. I love progress, and I love change. What makes what I've just said seem right-wing, particularly in Europe, is that it seems to be more concerned with wealth creation than social justice, i.e., with baking another cake rather than cutting up the existing cake. Actually, to some extent, I am an egalitarian. I think that there are ways in which you have to keep equal opportunities in life in order to generate the incentives for people to generate wealth. But I think I'm that classically underrepresented voter, the person who believes in economic freedom and social freedom, too.

I lived in America for three years, which is not a long time, but it was a very influential time for me. I arrived there a pretty standard statist in my views of the world and left a—not a completely convinced libertarian but a person who had suddenly started thinking about politics from the individual's point of view much more than I had before. Meeting Julian Simon and Aaron Wildavsky and people from the Property and Environment Research Center and George Mason University had an influence on me. I encountered a view that's hard to come across in Europe.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was also a very important moment in my life. It told me that all those people who said that the Soviet Union was actually a lot better place than it was made out to be, and I'd come across tons of them in my life, were plain wrong, not just a little bit wrong.

I recalled one conversation I had around 1985. A singer who is now a famous labor activist and a highly respected elder statesman, Billy Bragg—I happened to sit next to him on an airplane. He had just come back from playing East Berlin. He was perfectly friendly, but he spent most of that plane ride trying to persuade me that East Germans were much happier than West Germans and it was complete bollocks, this propaganda from the West that they were unhappy. And he's hugely respected still as a Labour Party grandee.

reason: What would you say to people who say that progress is simply unsustainable, that the Africans and the Indians and the Chinese will never be able to live at the same living standards as we do?

Ridley: I'd respond to that by saying that in a sense they're absolutely right. If we go on as we are, it'll be very difficult to sustain things. But we won't go on as we are. That's what we never do. We always change what we do and we always get much more efficient at using things—energy, resources, etc.

Just take land area for feeding the world. If we'd gone on as we were, as hunter-gatherers, we'd have needed about 85 Earths to feed 6 billion people. If we'd gone on as early slash-and-burn farmers, we'd have needed a whole Earth, including all the oceans. If we'd gone on as 1950 organic farmers without a lot of fertilizer, we'd have needed 82 percent of the world's land area for cultivation, as opposed to the 38 percent that we farm at the moment.

Sure, if every office in China uses as much paper as every office does in America now and there're just as many of them, then we're going to run out of trees to chop down to make the paper. Well, I'm willing to bet that we'll have found ways of recycling paper or making paper from less material or not using so much paper. It might take paper getting expensive before that happens.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent.