Economics Matt Ridley on His New Book, The Rational Optimist, & Why "Ideas Having Sex" is a Very Good Thing Indeed


Best-selling science writer Matt Ridley's latest book is The Rational Optimist, which explains why the author is upbeat on the prospects of a planet and a civilization that seems to lurch from one pending political, economic, or environmental catastrophe to another.

Doomsayers have it all wrong, writes Ridley, who argues that prosperity and innovation have outraced even the visions of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill.

The phrase diminishing returns is such a cliché that few people give it much thought. Picking out the pecans from a bowl of salted nuts gives diminishing returns: The pieces of pecan in the bowl get rarer and smaller. The fingers keep finding almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, or even—God forbid—Brazil nuts. Gradually the bowl, like a moribund gold mine, ceases to yield decent returns of pecan.

Now imagine a bowl of nuts that has the opposite character. The more pecans you take, the larger and more numerous they grow. That is the human experience for the last 100,000 years. The global nut bowl has yielded ever more pecans.

Reason's own science correspondent Ronald Bailey talked with Ridley recently in Washington, D.C. They discuss Ridley's book, his hopes for the future, and the policies that can improve—or undermine— the prospects for our future.

Past Reason articles by, about, and featuring Matt Ridley.

If you like what you see, then sign up for Reason's first-ever cruise in February 2011, which features Ridley, Bailey, Matt Welch, Nick Gillespie, Jacob Sullum, and other guest speakers for a week of relaxation and conversation. For details go here.

Shot by Dan Hayes and Meredith Bragg, who also edited the segment.

Approximately 10 minutes.

Go to for downloadable versions and subscribe to's YouTube channel to receive automatic notification when new material goes live.

NEXT: None Dare Call Him Gasbag

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  1. “global nut bowl”

    nice turn of phrase.

  2. “The global nut bowl has yielded ever more pecans.”

    As evidenced by the internet

    1. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of that.

  3. That is the human experience for the last 100,000 years. The global nut bowl has yielded ever more pecans.

    While I find the global nut bowl a most apt description of mankind, I do not share Ridley’s optimism. We know that doomsayers like Julian Simon and Thomas Malthus were wrong in their predictions that nature would drive our demise. They were wrong because they failed to recognize the problem-solving skills of properly educated and motivated individuals. I think what is different today is the threat to our ability to continue to grow and prosper is endogenous. There are entire political movements within our species that are founded on the idea of deliberately throttling human progress.

    1. doomsayers like Julian Simon and Thomas Malthus

      Huh? Julian Simon was not a “doomsayer.” Quite the opposite.

      1. You are absolutely right, my bad. I meant to say Paul Ehrlich.

    2. There are entire political movements within our species that are founded on the idea of deliberately throttling human progress.

      By definition those movements are doomed to fail. The idea that some organic hippy commune can out compete Shanghai is a false one.

      Communism did not fail because it could not function. It failed because it got its ass kicked. This is a very important distinction.

    3. Julian Simon was effectively the guy who wrote the book Ridley based his thesis on, decades ago. No doomsayer he, but an amazing optimist who was right damn near all of the time.

      A few chapters into Ridley’s book and I am loving it. It’s nice to have a “happy libertarian” story to tell people rather than my usual “grumpy depressed libertarian” angle.

      1. It’s nice to have a “happy libertarian” story to tell people rather than my usual “grumpy depressed libertarian” angle.

        I agreee and I’d like to see Reason highlight more “happy libertarian” stories (Un-nanny of the Month?).

  4. I see social programs being the end of us. If you continue with the nut analogy where pecans are the useful, productive members of society, then the more social programs/protections that a society has, the smaller minority pecans become.

    The more social programs that are enacted, the less society forces people to adapt. Nowadays, you can live 80 years without ever really accomplishing or doing anything.

    So, while there might be more pecans in present times just because of the size of the population, the pecans are becoming an ever increasing minority because modern society doesn’t require anything of its denizens anymore. If you don’t have to work to survive, what’s the point in working? Social programs remove natural incentives, such as not dying, that would ordinarily drive people to accomplish something.

    1. Well, Pecans are rich and racist exploiters of the common nuts. We should have less of them…

      1. Pecans are the Tea-Baggers of the nut brotherhood.

    2. Greece bonds are now junk bonds.

      They will now have to do something.

      Note how an unsustainable system is unsustainable.

      Note how it is self correcting.

      Note how these facts demolish your fear mongering and plutocratic views of history.

    3. If you don’t have to work to survive, what’s the point in working?

      Time is more valuable than money. It used to be that only landed gentlemen like Isaac Newton had the time to goof off and daydream about gravity. By the time Einstein came along a civil servant could do the same thing

      Now, even the middle class can escape the confines of their cubicles and the requirements of “modern society” thanks to growth in the economy and the expansion of private investing.

      This creates the time and the opportunity to do something worthwhile with your life.

      Creativity is driven by the individual’s desires, not by the collective will. Society demands that you work unpaid overtime and file all your TPS reports, so you can keep your job and continue to purchase electronic toys. Think on your own time, we’re not paying you to do that here.

  5. What sort of monster prefers pecans to anything?

    1. What? Pecans are a fine addition to any can of nuts. They are also nice for cheese logs, pecan pie, pecan-encrusted fish, etc. I defy your anti-pecan animus.

    2. Indeed, pecans are the only kind of nut I tolerate in baked goods…

      1. With the exception of peanut butter anything…

      2. OK for texture Pecans have a use…but a use that can be fulfulled by just about any nut.

        Still the idea that pecans are not sewage to a good bowl of nuts is pure evil.

        1. Where you’ve gone, I cannot follow.

          1. I am the Kwisatz Haderach

  6. I would have to agree, yes indeed it is.


  7. The unprocessed culinary nut hierarchy clearly goes:

    Brazil nut
    Pine Nut

    For the nitpickers: “unprocessed” means out of hand eating, with roasting optional. “culinary nut” because many of them are technically seeds and legumes.

    1. I claim this depends on processing. Toasted hazelnuts good. Raw bad.

      Also I think Almonds should go up on the list if you get the right ones (the Spanish Marcona variety).

    2. If you put the hazelnut above cashew and pistachio, then you are clearly the unprocessed culinary nut.

      Hazelnuts are most useful as a base for romesco.

      1. I like hazelnuts for out of had eating. And I’m fine eating them raw out of the shell. It’s a close thing though, cashews and pistachios are also huge favorites of mine.

        Cashews… caustic spray… yum.

        1. Pistachios are most excellent.

    3. My grandma likes to loudly announce that they called Brazil nuts “niggertoes” when she was a kid. She usually does this in grocery stores; ideally when black people are nearby.

      1. My sister-in-law tells a charming story about meeting her future husband’s paternal grandparents for the first time. It’s a long and hilarious story, but the best part is his grandfather doesn’t say anything the whole time, while in a wheelchair with a revolver in his lap. When everyone else leave the room, he turns to her and asks “You like bananas in your cereal in the morning, dontcha?” She nods and he goes “That’s why we gotta fight wars, so’s the niggers won’t steal all our bananas!”

        1. It makes sense, if you think about it.

          1. This was also the house where the entirety of Thanksgiving dinner was a room temperature store-bought baked ham on the stove with a chef’s knife stabbed into it.

            1. Not a sword? Your story would be better with a sword.

              Better yet, a halberd.

              1. This is the family where one of his cousins had a dead girl in his living room for three days before anyone noticed.

            2. It being a dead raccoon with some birdshot still in it would have been better.

              1. Really, SF, let us rewrite your stories for you.

        2. We all need a good source of potassium.

        3. My sister-in-law tells a charming story about meeting her future husband’s paternal grandparents for the first time.

          Wouldn’t those be your grandparents, SugarFree?

          This is the family where . . .

          Umm, yours, yes?

      2. The correct term is Toes of Color.

    4. Also, peanuts belong at the bottom of that list, and pecans belong above walnuts.

    5. Your list is acceptable, though I think the macadamia is ranked too low. I’d also score the ‘stach a little higher.

      1. Oh, and I do think the hazelnut is ranked much too high. Forgot to mention that.

    6. Pistachio
      Brazil nut
      Pine Nut


      Also Pine Nuts are really not nuts culanary or otherwise. In fact I would not even call them food. I better catalog for Pine Nuts is hell.

      What is hell?

      Other people and Pine Nuts.

      1. Wha? Did you see a cashew beat up your mom when you were a kid or something?

        1. What is truly funny is that i just looked up pecan and Cashews and apparently i have confused the two. or more correctly i thought Pecans were Cashews and had no idea what Cashews were.

          But yeah Cashews are in fact the worse nut (Pine nuts not being a true nut but in fact a level of the abyss). Pecans i would classify as a slightly inferior walnut. Not terrible but not great.

      2. You are clearly an insane person, as pignolis are a core ingredient in pesto and other dishes.

        1. Yes, while I don’t habitually munch on pine nuts, I’m not giving up my pesto.

          Though I am intrigued by the idea of a pistachio pesto.

          1. A dear friend of mine is Sicilian. He makes pesto with almonds instead of pine nuts and pecorino instead of parmesan, because that’s how they make it in Sicily

            1. Sicilian cuisine is awesome, so perhaps this is something to pursue further.

            2. Blood orange sorbettu… mmm. 🙂

        2. Pine nuts do not make pesto pesto.

          What you claim is like saying Pizza is not pizza unless it has anchovies.

          1. Pizza without anchovies is pizza dumbed-down for wusses.

        3. ^^THIS^^

      3. If you want to get all picky, very few of those are actually nuts in the strictest sense.

    7. Peanuts are not nuts, infidel.

  8. Anyway, back OT, it will be politics that drags down and destroys innovation and the growth of the economy. Both parties of the oligarchy are acting like Louis XIV – “Apr?s Nous, le Deluge”.

    The technological revolution should have raised our living standards to the point where one person could support a family with ease. This would undoubtedly be true, if government didn’t syphon off 30-50% of an individual’s income.

    I do have faith that things will last at least a couple more years – I’m buying December 2011 puts on the Nasdaq Index.

    1. We’d be doing better if you hadn’t spewed all of that oil into the Gulf.

      1. Have faith. Obama & Co. are going to fix it so “it never happens again.” That’s right, they are going to make large-scale energy production absolutely foolproof. No accidents ever again. Yes, they are going to defy reality by getting really angry. And by punishing their scapegoat, BP.

        1. The unreality-based community strikes again!

  9. Those interested in Ridley’s very good book might also wish to know about my own book, THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a rather broader range of subject areas. See

  10. Fuuuu….any idea what the gender ratio is gonna be on this cruise? Not that you all aren’t interesting or anything like that.

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