What It's Like To Be a Rational Optimist in a Pandemic

Matt Ridley on how the coronavirus caught him by surprise, the crucial role of dissent in politics, and the importance of innovation for survival


Matt Ridley is one of the best-selling—and best-regarded—science and economics writers on the planet. He wrote recently that in the face of the coronavirus pandemic "we are about to find out how robust civilisation is" and that "the hardships ahead will be like nothing we have ever known." Given that Ridley's best-known book is 2010's The Rational Optimist, those dire words caught some of his fans by surprise.

Ridley's next book, How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom (Harper), will be published in May. It touches on many questions now of acute interest, including how to set the stage for major breakthroughs in medicine and technology. Innovation, the book argues, "cannot be modelled properly by economists, but it can easily be discouraged by politicians."

In late March, Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Ridley via Skype from their respective self-quarantines in New York and Northumberland, England. They discussed the political response to COVID-19, Ridley's longstanding distrust of viruses and bats, and when we'll be able to reopen the world economy.

Reason: You are the rational optimist. But when the coronavirus hit North America and Europe, you wrote a couple of pieces that were striking to me because of the pessimism involved. You talked about how you thought we would never be faced with something like this. Can you explain how the emergence of this pandemic has shaken some of your beliefs about progress?

Ridley: Well, the first thing I should say is that I've never believed that the world is the best of all possible worlds and can't be improved—you know, that we've already reached nirvana. One of the things I'm very clear about in The Rational Optimist is there are still problems to be solved. There are still threats. There are still risks. I personally think we've been worrying about the wrong risks, and this is a reminder that we have been doing that. But I'll hold my hands up and say I was not out there saying, "Watch out. There's a pandemic coming." I wish I had been.

But back in 1999, I was asked to write a short book about the future of disease, and I did say in that if we do have a pandemic that goes crazy—that combines high contagiousness with high lethality—then it will be a virus, not a protozoan or a bacteria. We're on top of those enemies pretty well. It's not going to be like the plague or like malaria. We're too good at beating those big organisms. It's the tiny ones, the viruses, that we're still pretty bad at.

I also said it's gonna be a respiratory virus. Why? Just look around you: People are coughing and sputtering all the time. There are up to 200 different kinds of respiratory viruses that we give each other every winter. We call them the common cold or flu. Some of them are rhinoviruses, some of them are coronaviruses. So there's clearly something pretty irresistible to the virus tribe about the urban human population.

And the third thing I said was that it might come out of bats. I said that because a whole bunch of relatively new diseases have come out of bats in recent decades. And in fact, that's been even more true since I said that, because [the 2003 outbreak of] SARS was after I made that remark. The reason is because bats are mammals like us, and it's relatively easy for a virus to jump from a mammal to a mammal. Bats are animals that live in huge crowds—in huge densities. There's a cave in Texas that has a famous bat roost in it. It has roughly the population of Mexico City living in that cave. So respiratory viruses are going to enjoy bats, and they're going to enjoy humans, and there's going to be a crossover between them.

We didn't learn from SARS, which was a really good canary in the coal mine—a very clear warning that these wet wildlife markets in China were a dangerous place for crossover between species. That's because the animals are alive in the markets. The problem is not bringing meat to market. The problem is bringing live animals that are coughing and sputtering. We had a dry run with a virus that wasn't very contagious, but it was very dangerous: SARS. We should have said, "Look, this is a real threat."

I had taken some comfort from the degree of improvement in molecular biological knowledge. The fact that we could sequence SARS in three months or something—that felt electric-fast. Because 20 years ago we hadn't sequenced a single virus. So [with SARS], we'd read its recipe. We knew its defects. We knew how to attack it, in theory. And I had sort of vaguely in the back of my mind assumed that vaccine production would speed up as well.

We sequenced [the new coronavirus] in days. It's almost instantaneous. But it turns out, as I now realize reading up, that vaccine development is about as slow as it was 20 years ago. I read something recently about how the whooping cough vaccine was developed in four years flat in the 1930s by two very remarkable American women. Four years is not that much longer than it's probably going to take us to find a vaccine to this. So we have left the door unguarded, in one respect. We've let obstacles get in the way of the development of vaccines.

So we assume that this all started at a wet market in China. It was clear to observers, health officials and whatnot, that something was going on. We know the Chinese government is going to lie about how great they are. But what were the fundamental missteps in the United States and the United Kingdom when it came to containing this? 

One of the lessons is that countries like South Korea were better prepared. And that was partly because of SARS. They got more of a fright from SARS in Asia than we did in the West, and so they set up this system of "contact tracing" based on extensive testing that they were geared up for in a way that we weren't. Both in the U.K. and the U.S., we were very slow to ramp up testing for the virus. And testing turned out to be crucial. That's one lesson.

The other lesson is we relied too much on the World Health Organization, and I think it has very serious questions to answer after this. If you look at what it was saying in January—it was repeating untrue Chinese claims that this virus was not transmissible human to human, and it was praising China to the skies, and it was ignoring whistleblowers in Taiwan and elsewhere. These are questions that need to be looked into, because I think if the World Health Organization had run the flag up in January, we all might have reacted a bit quicker.

Would you say that South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore have been exemplary in their response to the coronavirus?

On the whole? Yes. What South Korea did was it tracked it—tested lots of people and found out who they'd been in contact with. It issued each of them with an app so that they could go back through their records and find out who they came close to, which is pretty remarkable. There turned out to be one superspreader who had gone to a church and met a huge number of people. Tracking down his contacts proved vital. So yes, I do think that track and trace is the technique that's gonna work in the absence of antivirals and vaccines and so on.

Because what's particularly dangerous about this virus, as I read it, is that it is highly contagious in the very first few days of infection. Whereas with SARS it's about eight days before you infect someone else, with COVID-19, it's about four days. And quite a lot of this transmission is happening from people who are symptom-free. Young people seem to get a very, very mild version. They don't even think there's anything wrong with them. That is a very dangerous feature.

I'll add one other way in which my country in particular was not ready for this, or I myself was not ready for this: In January, we were obsessed with Brexit. None of us could pay attention to anything else. I mean, that doesn't excuse us being caught out in February, but it does excuse us perhaps not being aware of things in January. And of course that's true of every country. America was obsessed with the presidential campaign—

And impeachment. 


On the one hand, you're interested in questions of public health and science. On the other, you're a big defender of individual freedom. It's in the subtitle of your forthcoming book, How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom. Is there a necessary tension between public health, as it was practiced in a country like South Korea or a country like Taiwan, and the freedom that we take for granted in the West?

Yes, there is. We're seeing that very clearly. Not just in terms of what you might call the technology of tracing people, but also in terms of the police state that we are now living in, where we've got policemen arresting people for going on unnecessary walks. That's one of the worrying things about this. But what I would say is, yes, I'm afraid it is necessary to be pretty draconian when you're in the middle of a pandemic, as it was during the plague in centuries past. If you want to avoid that, then you need to unleash the freedom to innovate, to solve the problem, in good times.

Where I think we've been mistaken is we've made it very hard for people to bring forward medical devices, vaccines, drugs, etc., partly because of safety regulations, but partly because of just bureaucratic growth. I have this statistic in my book: How long does it take to get a license for use for a medical device on average? It's like 20 months in America, and it's something like 17 months in Germany. It takes too long to decide whether a new hip joint or a new ventilator or a new kind of personal protective equipment is safe.

The result of that, of course, is invisible, because you're deterring people from going into these fields. You're deterring people from inventing and innovating in this area. So you can't point to it and say, "Show me the product that we could have licensed a bit quicker." The point was he never brought it forward, because he looked at how dysfunctional this market was and stayed away, and so it never got developed. That's one of the issues we have to learn is [the importance of] freedom to innovate.

But there is a tension. I'm not the perfect libertarian. I'm not someone who says that in the middle of a dangerous pandemic, the state should have no power to shut down society. On the other hand, we can have an argument about whether we are to some extent overreacting.

What is the role of dissent in a pandemic? Everybody, with the exception of very doctrinaire anarchists, is going to say, "You know what, when there is a genuine emergency, different rules apply." There are a lot of conspiracy theories about how this disease actually was grown in a Chinese government lab as some kind of bioweapon. Toby Young, the British writer who works at Quillette, was talking about how we're simply wrong to shut down the economy, because when you look at it from a strictly economic point of view, the recession we're causing is actually going to kill more people. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keep going back and forth about whether or not it's a good idea for people to wear masks when they go outside. What is the role of dissent, of pushback against authority, in a moment like this? 

I personally think there's no reason to shut down debate at a moment like this. Quite the reverse, actually. I think that what this is showing us is there is no monopoly on wisdom. Nobody knows exactly what the right answer is. It's possible that we are overreacting. At the beginning, I thought we probably were, because I'd seen so many busted flushes. So many wolves had come along, and we'd cried wolf, and it wasn't a wolf: bird flu, swine flu, SARS, MERS, Ebola. Ebola was a wolf for people in Africa, but it wasn't for the rest of the world. It's right to have that debate about whether or not this is a real threat.

It's also right to have a debate about what the prognoses are, because there's been a dangerous tendency in this country—I don't know whether it's true to the same extent in the U.S.—to believe the models, to put them on a pedestal. Imperial College came out with a model saying that up to half a million people might die [in the U.K.] unless we brought in much more draconian restrictions on people's freedoms. And that caused them to bring forward the lockdown of the economy. Now, that model is not unchallengeable. It's got some very unhappy assumptions in it. And it was immediately challenged by another model from Oxford University—which I think went far too far in the other direction and put some crazy assumptions in about how quickly we'd get this under control. But that has reminded us that models are just that: They are models. They're not scripture.

And that, by the way, is a lesson for the climate change debate, where models have been deified to much too great a degree. But we'll leave that on one side for the moment.

So I don't want to stop anybody coming out with an article saying, "here's my evidence why the Chinese invented it," or "here's my evidence why it's easily cured with this crack here that I've got made out of dandelions, brewed at midnight under the full moon." Let a thousand flowers bloom in this. Let everybody say what they want. But let them produce their evidence, and let them put up with a bit of criticism if their evidence is bad.

In the case of the idea that it's a Chinese bioweapon, I've seen very good molecular biological evidence that that is extremely implausible. So I don't object to the theory being advanced, but I don't think anyone should object to it being severely criticized too.

Some people found your take on the coronavirus to be credible because of your history of skepticism. Your willingness to publicly discuss what you're thinking and how the evidence has changed your mind helped them take this virus more seriously. 

Certainly as somebody who has pooh-poohed alarmism about many different things, from the population explosion through to climate change…I'm all for debunking scares. So for me, as someone who's almost a professional debunker of scares, to come out and say, "This one is quite scary, and we just need to take it seriously," has made some of my friends stop and think.

What are the markers that go into figuring out where we are, if what we're doing is working, and when we can start to reopen things? 

Short answer: I don't know. I haven't got a model, and even if I did, I wouldn't believe it, because it'll depend on assumptions.

What we don't really know, in my view, is which measures are working best. Was closing the schools a good idea or a bad idea, because it sent kids back to stay with their grandparents, and the grandparents are at more risk?

The way I see it developing is that we will get better at curing people who get it. Hydroxychloroquine and things like that may be helpful. Or the way in which just simply laying patients on their fronts, not their backs, when you're ventilating them apparently is helping. So we're going to get a little better at saving lives. We're going to ramp up the capacity for hospitalization, [the number of] ventilators and so on. We're going to improve the testing over the next few weeks so that we're going to get better at contact tracing. And once we've done that, we can start to lift these restrictions, because when it does flare up, we can quickly track down who's at risk and put them under lock and key, rather than the whole of society. Eventually we'll get to the point where the only people who have gotta be really careful are the very vulnerable, and the rest of us can get on with a relatively normal life.

Now, will that happen in April? I doubt it. Will it happen in May? I hope so. Will it happen in June? I jolly well think so, 'cause I think that's the point where we have to start to take Toby Young's arithmetic very seriously and say, "Sorry, we're killing more people by leaving them locked up with abusive partners, alone and in danger of committing suicide, workless and unable to feed themselves properly, more prone to take drugs and alcohol," whatever it might be. There's a whole bunch of things that'll be going wrong with society because of this lockdown.

There are good things about this—sorry, that's not the right word. There are no good things about it, but there are less bad things. The big one is that it does not kill children. Influenza was quite good at killing kids. Smallpox was lethal among children. We're incredibly lucky in that respect. But of course that has contributed to the young feeling somewhat invulnerable, and that's made it harder for them to take seriously the restrictions on movement.

We've been talking mostly about the public health interventions. What about the economic responses? The federal government just passed the single largest spending bill in U.S. history. What are the types of responses, consistent with limited government, that are likely to work, and what are the ones that are likely to do more damage? I mean, we're still digging out of the bailouts from the financial crisis 12 years ago. 

Yeah, I think the U.K. paid off its last debt from the Napoleonic Wars just a few years ago. There is no doubt that when you hugely increase the scope of government, it tends not to retreat as fast as you would like. Britain didn't end [World War II–era] food rationing until something like 1954. And the argument was always, "There are some people at the bottom of society who might not be able to afford food." Well, it turned out the reason they couldn't afford food was because food was being rationed, and so the supply wasn't responding to demand in the same way, and so the price wasn't coming down. Do you see what I mean? It was a sort of circular argument.

There is a real danger that what we've done is nationalized huge swaths of the economy. We will find it very hard to undo it. The moment you start to say, "We'll no longer subsidize you for the fact that your business is struggling," a lot of people will be saying, "I'm going to go bust if that happens!" On the other hand, the idea that the government steps in during this period because we think it's temporary might be quite a reasonable one. In other words, if everyone was just to sort of say, "Right, I'm closing down my business overnight," it would be harder to start the economy up again. But there's got to be a degree of rethinking of how we run the economy in the wake of this. We can take a bit of a blank-slate approach. Things that we've said for years, "You can't do that because there's huge vested interests."

Can you give us an example? 

Well, for a start, the [regulations] around product safety. Not all of them, obviously—we've got to have some. But it's clear that if we can suddenly say, "let's tear up these regulations in order to respond quickly [to the pandemic]," well then we shouldn't be doing that anyway. These regulations are unnecessary. A lot of reporting requirements are about sending bits of paper from one person to another. It's now being said, we don't need to do that: "We don't need to get that bit of paper from you. We'll just get the grant out to you straight away." A lot of the complication around taxes—it turns out to be much simpler to run a tax system than we thought. We need to have a real drains-up look at what we don't need to do.

Likewise, we need to have a look at how we as individuals, not just government, run society. That's things like videoconferencing, what you and I are doing right now. I'm gonna try and insist that I have an awful lot fewer face-to-face meetings and an awful lot more meetings of this kind, 'cause they're generally efficient. And it turns out the technology has really advanced. Five or 10 years ago if we did this, we'd have dropouts, we'd have freeze-ups, there'd be all sorts of stuff that wouldn't quite work. I remember trying to do a lecture to Texas about eight years ago, and there was a 10-minute delay—or maybe it was a two-minute delay. But it was paralytically difficult to do in those conditions.

A number of people I've spoken to say, "You know what? Our regular weekly meeting is happening at half the time now."

This interview has been edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie.