The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge
Matt Ridley joins us to talk about his new book, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. How are new ideas adopted from the bottom up?
Matt Ridley joins us this week to discuss his latest book, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (2015). In it, he theorizes that much of the order we see in the natural world and in human culture and society is the result of unplanned, bottom-up, emergent evolution.
Is there a way to introduce these evolutionary pressures to government?
Is there a bias to thinking that the world operates by design, from the top down? Does this bias have an origin in our evolutionary psychology? Is it reflected in how we view history?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Ridley’s newest book, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (2015).
Ridley’s bestselling book is an optimistic look at progress and economic history: The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2011).
Also from Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (1998).
Libertarianism.org has a video from 1983 of professor and Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek talking about cultural evolution and the origins of tradition in society.
Ridley mentions the ideas and management practices of Mike Bracken, the UK government’s former digital chief. Here’s an extended interview with Bracken about his ideas for government and why he chose to leave.
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: And joining us today is Matt Ridley. He’s a journalist, businessman and author of the best selling book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, which I should point out has a proud place on Libertarianism.org’s short list of books you should read to understand libertarianism. He’s also the author of the new book The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
Matt Ridley: Thank you for having me on the show.
Aaron Ross Powell: So let’s maybe start by talking about the connection between Rational Optimist and this new book.
Matt Ridley: Rational Optimist was a book in which I surprised myself by writing a book about progress and deciding that actually it had been far better than I ever even dreamed, that in my lifetime, the average income of the average person on the planet had trebled in real terms. Their life span was up by 30 percent and the amount of child mortality was down by two-thirds.
Then on the whole, despite what we all thought and how gloomy we all were about the world, we were healthier, wealthier, happier, clever, cleaner, kind of free and more peaceful and more equal than we thought. Sorry, than we had been 50 years before. So I catalogued these extraordinary improvements. But I didn’t just stop there. I also tried to explain where they had come from and how they arose. Of course in a word, they came from innovation. They came from innovation and technology but also innovation and habits. So tools and rules, if you like, and trying to understand why innovation happens to human beings, not to rabbits or to rocks. It was part of the motivation of that book and it’s one that I carry on in the current book as it were and particularly the idea that came out of Rational Optimist was that basically it’s about recombining ideas, that you take two ideas, meld them together and make a third idea or other. They meet and mate and have a baby idea perhaps.
That’s where most ideas come from is the cross-fertilization of thoughts between different people and that’s a sort of equivalent to a biological process called sexual reproduction which is a key ingredient of evolution. So I then got interested in how evolution is actually a very good description of how society changes as well as how biology changes.
Trevor Burrus: Now for you personally because I’ve been familiar with your work with Red Queen and things like this beforehand, when you’re doing straight up evolution stuff, when you started doing Rational Optimist, was this – did you surprise – what you found surprised you and where you went on this journey to like how big evolution can be from where you started originally?
Matt Ridley: Yes, I did. I certainly a long while ago wouldn’t have thought that evolution was an apt way of describing how human society changes because I thought human society changed because clever people told it had to change. It was commanded and controlled. It was top-down. It was ordered. It was planned, et cetera.
As I grew up, I became less sure of that, shall we say. I began to notice that actually an awful lot of change in society consisted of emergent, gradual, incremental, unnoticed, unplanned change and that actually all the good things were like that and all the important things were like that too. Sure, it was possible to plan something, to command something in the way of change. But actually, the really interesting things like the change in the birth rate or the change in living standards were not the results of deliberate policy and then I realized that the Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek view of the human world, that is to say that spontaneous order emerges from the interactions of individuals, is exactly the same point as the Charles Darwin view of the biological world. That sophisticated fit between form and function and complex design emerges from an interaction among individual creatures and individual genes without a designer.
Trevor Burrus: Now you described the Darwin theory. Then if we broaden our view of evolution, it’s the special theory of evolution, sort of paralleling relativity and so there’s a general really theory of relativity – or evolution, sorry. So how does that break down?
Matt Ridley: Yeah, this was the idea that a friend of mine suggested to me when I was preparing the book, Richard Webb, that – was I proposing a general theory of evolution as opposed to a special theory of evolution? I like the concepts. So I’ve used it in the book and what I mean by that is we used to think that evolution – in fact a lot of people still do think that evolution is a – is confined to genetic systems. That you have to have genes in order to be an evolutionary system. That’s the characteristic feature of things with genes and it’s also the characteristic feature of evolutionary systems that they have genes.
I don’t think that’s true. I think any information system because genes are particles of information – any information system is capable of evolutionary change if there’s an element of randomness in the way it changes and element of trial and error if you like and if there’s an element of selection.
Clearly both are true of human society, that we try things. We don’t come up with a single solution. Different people come up with different solutions and we get the opportunity to pick through the market or through choice or even through democracy. We get the opportunity to pick the ones we like and reject the ones we don’t like. So in that sense, evolution by natural selection is going on among ideas, among thoughts, among habits, among technologies, among morals, among gods.
Trevor Burrus: Among businesses.
Matt Ridley: Businesses, exactly. Yeah. So there’s a lot of unconscious incremental change driven by evolution in human society.
Aaron Ross Powell: Is it fair though to think of like a spectrum of – from our creationism to outright like algorithmic evolution where on the one end, on the biological, we’ve got – this is random selection. There are random mutations and they’re checked against things in the world. Has the organism died? Has it lived long enough to breed and so on?
But cultural evolution seems like a weird halfway point perhaps because it’s not entirely random. It does have agency. Like there are intelligent designers making design choices like I am going to try doing this thing instead of what we were doing yesterday and then there’s a selection process but the selection process is also being done by intelligent selectors who are themselves intelligent designers. Does it look just like biological evolution? Because I can imagine it being weirder.
Matt Ridley: It’s certainly true that we are trying to improve the world in a way that Darwinism isn’t, biological Darwinism isn’t trying, and that we can plan something and a plan might be a good plan and it gets selected. So in that sense, there is consciousness, there is purpose, there is aim in the human world. It would be foolish to deny that.
What I’m saying is that to a surprising extent, that’s a bad description of how we do change the world because yes, people come up with ideas for how to improve it. But what really matters is having competition between those ideas and some of them surviving and some of them failing.
Let me give you a very nice example that was given to me by Dan Dennett, the evolutionary philosopher and it’s a quote from an early 20th century French philosopher by the name of Alain. He went by one name and he – looking at the designs of boats in the Pacific Islands. He thinks about [Indiscernible] the badly designed ones sank and disappeared. The well-designed ones were copied.
It was the sea that fashioned the boats. Yeah, sure, each person, when he built a new design of boat was trying to make it a better one. But it was the sea that decided whether it was a better design or not.
Trevor Burrus: Then someone might come along and say, “Isn’t it amazing that we only have good boats?” There must be some principle designed by this. It’s like no, they’re just not here anymore. Like the anthropic principle kind of thing.
Matt Ridley: That’s right. As Dr. Adams said, the puddle says, “Isn’t it amazing that this hole fits me so well?”
Trevor Burrus: Exactly.
Aaron Ross Powell: We see that in – I mean that would seem to explain to some extent the constant culture and arts decline attitude of art and music and whatever else used to be good. So much better way back when and that’s largely because right now, we’re watching that process in action. We’re watching the good novels and the bad novels being written. But in the past, all we have left from that are the ones that were pretty good.
Matt Ridley: That’s a very interesting point and I think that’s spot on. In other words, the second rate Victorian novels don’t get read. So we think, “My goodness! They wrote good novels in the Victorian times,” whereas today we have to labor through some drafts in order to find the good ones and the filter of history is – one of the reasons I like classical music is because it’s being well-filtered for me, if you like.
Of course that’s partly why we have rose into nostalgia about the past is because we’ve only bothered to remember the good stuff and to preserve the good stuff and we compare it with the present and we think, “God, yeah, things went much better in those days.” That’s because we left out the bad bits.
What I rather like about Golden Age nostalgia is that if you go back to the Golden Age, what the Greeks described as the Golden Age because they were already nostalgic for a time. When you go back to a time of Hesiod, eight centuries before Christ, you find that Hesiod was grumbling about how things aren’t like what they used to be.
Trevor Burrus: Maybe that has something – it ties in in some way to something you talk about in the book, the sort of bias to purpose and the bias to design, which I think that we have – when it comes to say creationism and biological evolution, especially here in America where creationism is still pretty popular. But just in terms of human institutions in general.
Matt Ridley: It’s certainly I think true that we have a tendency to look for – to think things are more top-down than they are. It’s a common mistake as it were, a reflex we have, and it manifests itself in the way we think inanimate objects are vindictive and think thunderstorms are revenge of the gods and that sort of thing. It caused the intentional stance. It’s a big part of the way we view the world.
I wouldn’t see it necessarily so much as coming out of that Golden Age nostalgia thing that we were talking about as coming out of a – evolutionary psychology would likely build in a hair trigger for intentionality because if your friend bumps you and you’re walking along a narrow path next to a big cliff drop and you almost go over, and he says, “Oh, sorry. That was an accident,” it probably makes sense to say, “Oh, well, it was an accident.” I mean not to say it was an accident but to say, “Hang on a minute. You were trying to kill me, weren’t you?” It’s better to err on that side.
Trevor Burrus: Or the noise in the bushes is someone coming to get you rather than the wind. Yeah, to err on the …
Matt Ridley: That’s an even better example. It’s actually …
Trevor Burrus: Than suppose that your friend is killing you. But perhaps another question that strikes me, before we get into some of the details over your chapters, as they’re called the evolution of education, the evolution of money, a bunch of these things.
But does it also maybe require – something I think about in libertarianism in general that you have to have some sort of faith in the quality and goodness of people, which in your prior work on evolution, you’ve written about virtue and things like this, that you might not be for bottom-up explanations, if you think that people are just bad, because bad people would create evolutionary things too. They would create the Thunderdome and Mad Max or something like this.
So you have to actually believe that people are fundamentally good, kind of Lockean versus the Hobbesian paradigm that people are actually pretty good. So that was maybe an important part of this that some people who don’t believe in bottom-up solutions, maybe the one reason I don’t endorse them.
Matt Ridley: That’s a very interesting point and the way in which this argument intersects with the slightly older or parallel argument about the perfectibility of man, et cetera, is I think – which is kind of I wrestled with in my book, the Origins of Virtue. It’s a really interesting question and you’re quite right. The view that people only behave morally because they’ve been told to by priests or teachers is not really compatible with the view that people should be free to live their lives as they want.
If you genuinely think that we would all kill each other were it not for – being told as children, that that’s bad …
Matt Ridley: Then of course you think that we must have benevolent dictators in charge of the world because the opposite is very dangerous anarchy and I think most people go around with a view that anarchy – that lack of rules leads to …
Trevor Burrus: Top-down rules.
Matt Ridley: Lack of top-down rules, exactly, as opposed to bottom-up emergent ones, leads to really bad outcomes in which horrible things happen. On the whole, the evidence doesn’t bare that out. I mean one of the things I like to do is ask people, “Can you name a country which you think has too little government?” and some people say Haiti.
Trevor Burrus: Somalia maybe.
Matt Ridley: Yeah. Haiti is not a good example because actually if you go to Haiti, you find it’s extremely difficult to start a business because the regulations are so tight, even in sort of badly-governed countries like that. Somalia, well, actually it has got rather too much government. It’s just that it’s not a monopolistic government. It’s several different warlords.
Trevor Burrus: I ask students when I teach this kind of emergent rule things if – whether or not – before Hammurabi’s Code, if they think that Ancient Sumeria was just complete chaos with everyone just running around, kicking everyone and until he came down and carved this in, that’s when – oh, OK, well, it stopped. Well, no one actually believes that. People were pretty good at behaving themselves. Let’s talk about some of these – actually, Aaron, did you have –
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, I always wanted to start – I mean there’s the [Indiscernible] of what we think of as a totally planned – going back to the Hobbes and Locke, totally planned institution is government. We got together and we created this thing in some distant past in order to protect our rights or do whatever and then we kept planning it and kept planning it until we got to today. But you say no – like even government is often the product of an evolutionary process. How does that work?
Matt Ridley: Yes. Government is the emergence of monopoly on violence. That’s pretty clear from both myth and history and also what we see around the world is that the characteristic of a government is that it’s managed to monopolize violence. So – and therefore doesn’t need to use it. It keeps it in the background and what I think is rather interesting is that you can see this arrangement emerging ab initio from nothing in certain institutions today and the example I give in the book is prison gangs.
Prisons operate on a sort of – you know, various kind of rules emerge among prisoners about what’s good and what’s bad behavior and it turns out that at a certain level, a certain size of prison, a certain turnover of prisoners, these rules start to break down and so what happens is that instead, you see gangs emerging within the prison and the gang says, “We’re in charge. We decide what happens. We punish transgressors,” and often this is very welcome to the prison authorities because they find that what’s happening is that order is being brought in.
But some quite powerful gang masters are emerging within the prison who are able to bribe the prison authorities, et cetera. So it’s very parallel I think to – and – but the point is, it’s not planned. It appeared spontaneously. David Skarbek has a very interesting book about this.
Aaron Ross Powell: But doesn’t that cut against the general idea that what’s unplanned is good and what is planned is bad? I mean if your example of like, look, here’s an unplanned thing, prison gangs, that doesn’t sound all that encouraging.
Matt Ridley: Well, prison gangs are better than complete anarchy. I mean complete chaos in prison, which is the point. They’re a response to a much more dangerous and chaotic situation. They are a form of order emerging within a prison. Sure, these are bad guys we’re talking about because they’re in prison. So we’re talking about a problem of violence that is being solved.
Trevor Burrus: Now another one of your chapters, you talk about the evolution of education which is one of my favorite subjects. It wasn’t the case that the – before the state came along and said we’re going to have schools, that there were no schools. I mean – it seems people might think but the story, the real story is different.
Matt Ridley: Indeed and the literacy rates shot up in the 19th century in America but also in Britain and other parts of Europe and indeed in India and places like that, long before there was any public education policy or compulsory education or anything like that.
Why? Because once people, ordinary working people, got sufficiently well off, that they could afford to worry about this kind of things, there was an appetite to come to arrangements whereby their kids got education. So you see a huge progress, evolutionary progress, emergence of education systems and then government comes along and says, “Look, it’s disgraceful. We haven’t got enough education. We’re going to impose a system from top down.”
It’s not always clear that that was an improvement. In fact it seems in many cases to have slowed down the evolution of education. Sure, it’s improved education in the 20th century and so on. But it’s bound to because the resources were much more available. The wealth of the society was much greater. It would also have improved under a much more free system.
So you’re also seeing that now coming back to haunt the public sector education because of the ways in which people can use new technology to develop new forms of education.
I think self-organized learning is an example of that. So you got Mitra’s experiments showing that kids with computers attached to the internet, as long as they’re working in groups and as long as they’re given certain well-posed questions by teachers, will teach themselves surprisingly well. I think that is a reminder that there are new forms of education that are much more bottom-up, that are going to emerge and of course the Khan Academy and things like that in terms of using the internet to teach people.
You know, the idea that you should have a medieval structure. Well, actually it’s not medieval. It’s an 18th century Prussian structure where you have one guy standing at the front of the class and we’re all sitting at desks. That’s not the only way to learn. It’s just …
Trevor Burrus: I hope not. There has to be something different out there.
Matt Ridley: Exactly.
Aaron Ross Powell: That seems to raise another way of arguing. The other side of coming at the problem with the planned systems is so we can – you know, on one hand says like, look, if we begin with emerging processes, then we’ve got the selection process going on and it’s going to weed out the things that don’t work and the things that will work and that – which is better than hoping that one guy or one group of experts can get us to the right thing.
But the on the flipside – and we can see this for public education is even if the planners let’s say get it right at the time, like they come up with sitting in – early 20th century, we’re going to come up with a system of education that will work for all Americans. The world changes a lot and the problem with these planned things is the planners like to keep them the way they are and we tend to be stuck with them.
Matt Ridley: Well, I think what that’s teaching you is that monopoly is very bad at change and that’s because change comes from trial and error in an evolutionary system. So letting a thousand flowers bloom and seeing which one is best adapted to the new technology or the new situation or the new background is the best way of making sure that you don’t get stuck in a rut and do the same thing over and over again.
Trevor Burrus: Well, maybe the way of talking about it could be that – or another way of talking about it could be that the government – if you think about it as an ecosystem and you saw something in the ecosystem, an animal with an adaptation that seemed to be counterproductive or made no sense, you would wonder what would – like a peacock’s tail for example.
You would wonder what was the thing that allowed it to exist and the government has this unique adaptation called the ability to use force which is why it can have things continue to exist that no one even wants perhaps or Prussian model of education. A hundred and fifty years after, it’s out of date because it has its own adaptation to thrive in this world which is the ability to use force in this specific way.
Matt Ridley: Well, back to the point about what government is, it’s a monopoly on force as we said and the keyword there is monopoly I think that it only – government only pacifies a country because it’s a monopoly. I mean if you had two rival monopolies on force, within a country, by definition, you’ve got a civil war.
So to solve that problem, government has to be on monopoly but that produces another problem which is that it can’t evolve. It can’t change fast enough. It’s not responsive enough to new environments and it doesn’t experiment enough. It doesn’t try new things.
So for example, political systems tend to be surprisingly long-lived. They change with revolutions but they don’t change much in between and political reform is notoriously difficult to achieve. I make the point in the book that if you brought Daniel Defoe who wrote about riding around England, describing it in the early 18th century, if you brought him back today 300 years later, he would find everything completely changed, except government, which would be horribly familiar. There’s a constitutional monarch. There’s a bicameral parliament. There’s an unelected House of Lords, et cetera, cetera.
Trevor Burrus: There’s something depressing about that.
Aaron Ross Powell: Is there a way though to introduce evolutionary pressures into government? Because I mean we have a system right now where we – at the global level, there is not a monopoly. There’s no state that controls all of it and they are competing but the history of humanity is filled with destructive competition among states. It tends not to go well when two states compete with each other. Is there a way to get them more into an evolutionary process without it just being a series of wars?
Matt Ridley: Well, David Hume made the point and a lot of people have continued to make this point since that the reason Europe stole the march on China in the – from the sort of 18th century onwards – from the 17th century onwards was because it was fragmented politically and that meant that during the Reformation and the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, an individual inventor or talent of some kind could get up and leave if he didn’t like the regime he was living in.
This happens all the time. I mean if you go and look – you know [Indiscernible] the man who invented Meissen China or whatever. They often move from one country to another, to find a regime that’s more congenial for them to live under. So it’s very favorable to innovation to having a fragmented continent. The reason Europe is always fragmented is because of its peninsulas and its mountain ranges. It’s very hard to unify.
A lot of people tried, Julius Caesar, Hitler, Napoleon, Charles the Fifth. None of them pulled it off for very long whereas China, which is a much more sort of concentric country with great big rivers running through it and without very – much in the way of peninsulas was very easy to unify and although it’s occasionally fragmented and its Golden Age was when it was a bit more fragmented, nonetheless when it – it usually ends up being turned into an empire and very clearly, when it gets turned into an empire, it tends to stand still. It would be actually anti-innovative because it gets a regime that’s too monopolistic.
So war is the price that Europe paid for being fragmented but innovation was the reward it got for being fragmented.
Trevor Burrus: On that point, dovetailing off that, is there a top-down bias in …
Matt Ridley: Sorry, can I come back on one postscript after that? Because it’s an interesting though. So where does American fit into that? In many ways, it looks like China. It’s easy to unify as – North America I’m talking about. But of course the answer is the federal structure gives you just about the best of both worlds. A single monolithic country but with an ability to have experimental governments within it.
Trevor Burrus: Theoretically at least.
Matt Ridley: At its best.
Trevor Burrus: At its best.
Matt Ridley: Yeah, with of course the risk that that turns into a civil war over state’s rights, which it does at one point. But the states as laboratories is a huge advantage of your system that most countries don’t have.
Trevor Burrus: So yeah, the question I was asking was about history in terms of – we were bringing up history and you were writing about sort of the – the same sort of bias that we have when we think of history, the top-down view of history as opposed to thinking about it as more organic. It kind of reminds you of some – the Whig view of history that – Mises and – to discuss the history as directed by people and has a purpose and it’s going towards something. Usually, you know, centralization and nice, classy buildings. But how is there a bias in affecting our view of history?
Matt Ridley: Well, I think we believe in the Great Man theory of history too much. We tend to say, “Brilliant George Washington. He won the war. He created the nation.” Yeah, and of course he deserves some credit. But if you go back and look at the surrender at Yorktown of the British forces – and this isn’t a Brit complaining …
Trevor Burrus: I was just going to come back on that, yeah. You got sour grapes here?
Matt Ridley: It was way in the past and I’m very glad you won that war and it was inevitable. You were going to win that war but that’s kind of the point. But if you go back and look at what actually happened, the malaria parasite played a huge role in the surrender of that particular British army because the – Cornwallis had been ordered to stay in the low ground or rather [Indiscernible] and all this – three-quarters of his army was debilitated when the battle happened.
Trevor Burrus: That’s true. Most wars historically …
Matt Ridley: So yeah, often …
Matt Ridley: … economic or biological or parasitic or something, the reason why a war gets won. But nonetheless, we say – I mean Napoleonic wars, Wellington wins. Not because he was a better tactician than Napoleon but because Britain had the most money and the allies did as it were. In the end, they were able to throttle Napoleon for that reason.
So the Great Man theory of history is that great men take history and turn it in one direction or another. And obviously that can happen. I don’t think anyone would deny that Hitler was a great man in the wrong sense of the word obviously.
Trevor Burrus: Affecting a lot of …
Matt Ridley: I do not mean to imply that he was a good man of course. But on the whole, we overemphasize that. We don’t take into account the inexorable, inevitable emergent forces and the degree to which your ordinary people are what’s deciding the outcome in the way they’re behaving and trading and so on.
So I think we give too much credit to the people on top of history rather than the people at the bottom of history.
Aaron Ross Powell: What about the role of innovators that we have – I mean so much of the really wonderful stuff that has improved our lives today came from smart individuals, making discoveries, whether that was Newton and I guess Leibniz for calculus or the invention of whatever these things happen to be, all are from a single –
Trevor Burrus: Vaccines.
Aaron Ross Powell: Vaccines.
Trevor Burrus: Canned food.
Aaron Ross Powell: The iPhone I have in front of me.
Matt Ridley: Well, there again, I think we overemphasize the Great Man and by the way, I’m not dissing these wonderful inventors and I’m a huge fan of science. I’m a huge fan of technological invention. But look at – do you really think that if Google hadn’t invented the search engine, we would have no search engines? If Thomas Edison hadn’t invented the light bulb, we would have no light bulbs? If Newton hadn’t discovered gravity, we wouldn’t ever discover gravity? If Darwin hadn’t discovered natural selection – you know, it’s inevitable. The double helix of DNA was bound to be discovered in the 1950s. The technology had reached the point where it was inevitable.
So in that sense, every single scientist and inventor is dispensable. You can do without them. You can even run over Einstein before he discovers special relativity and you still get special relativity because Hendrik Lorentz was on the trail and would have got that. Do you see what I mean?
So – I mean this sounds like I’m being very rude about these guys but I’m not really meaning to. I’m just saying that let’s hear it for the ordinary technologists and grunts who are sort of putting together the pieces that mean that actually this thing is ripe and someone is going to find it. Let’s celebrate the chap who will find it but let’s not overdo it.
The Nobel Prize tends to be in that sense very unfair because it selects the person who happened to be in the place to put the keystone in the arch or whatever it is.
Trevor Burrus: Can we advocate for say government funding of these institutions? Understanding that there’s a lot of evolutionary bottom-up stuff, so say the Manhattan Project. We had to get a bunch of people in there to share ideas, but have the funding for them so they can share ideas, so they can come up with this and so many different false starts and we need to figure out how to do this. But at the end of it, we have nuclear weapons which – bad thing but probably going to come anyway, but nuclear power and all these things. So maybe government has a role in trying to direct this towards some sort of path.
Matt Ridley: Well, certainly whoever is in charge of society or whoever is taking the decisions should do their best to create an ecosystem in which innovation happens. Absolutely. What does that require? It requires plentiful movement of people, movement of ideas, trade, so that things are coming into contact with each other. It requires resources. It requires stable infrastructure, et cetera.
Now does it require government pump priming? Yes, obviously. In some cases, it does. But would it get other kinds of pump priming? Yes, that’s true too in the first half of the 20th century. Britain and America were conspicuous by not spending any public money on science whereas France and Germany did spend money on science, which were more successful. Arguably Britain and America were more successful in discoveries in that period.
So I think where the money comes from doesn’t necessarily matter so much. It’s how you make sure that the money and the people and the opportunities and the resources and the infrastructure are in place. That usually these days is a role for government but it doesn’t sort of have to be.
Trevor Burrus: Well, sort of the follow-up question I had on here was kind of based on that. If you kind of thing – so, we wouldn’t advocate for emergent evolutionary stuff if say an asteroid is going to hit the earth. I mean we want people to come in and plan and organize people and say, “Let’s get asteroid,” I assume or build a laser or whatever.
Matt Ridley: Well, it depends. Are you suggesting that we know which technology we’re going to use to head off the asteroid?
Trevor Burrus: We want to make a Manhattan Project for it.
Matt Ridley: Well, yeah, but exactly. But what are you going to – do you need some experimentation to find out what technology to use to head off the asteroid? That I think – climate change is the thing here. Should we be spending our money on R and D to come up with cheap and abundant low carbon energy or should we be spending it on top-down targets and plans?
Well, I think we should spend it on R and D. I think that’s more likely to produce the results. So yes, if we know it’s just a matter of putting together 10 billion pounds to solve the problem, then obviously we’ve got to club together and do that. But if we don’t know what’s going to solve the problem, then we should let a thousand flowers bloom.
Aaron Ross Powell: So one of the objections that I get when I make the thousand flowers bloom sort of argument whether it’s let’s not centrally plan this but leave it up to the market or let emergent processes handle it is the sense that evolution seems to work pretty well and we could see that with biological evolution, but at tremendous cost.
All of those mutations that failed along the way, all of those organisms that died out and when you’re talking about people’s lives in the real world – so we say like a free market and healthcare will lead to all of these terrific innovations and lower costs and provide access to more people and it will be better. But we can’t tell you the specifics because you can’t tell the specifics about a market process and the response is, “Well, OK. But what do I say to the person who needs the healthcare right now?”
The process hasn’t provided something for him yet. But if we centrally plan it, maybe it won’t be as good in the long run, but we can help this guy right now. It seems a lot to ask these people to be the cost for evolutionary process.
Matt Ridley: Yeah. But I think that’s a false dichotomy because I don’t think we’re saying to the person with polio in 1950, “We won’t give you an eye and a lung because we’re going to spend all our money on a vaccine.” But we are saying, “Let’s see if there’s a better way out there than simply designing a better eye and lung.” It turned out there was. It was a vaccine.
So I think you can run both horses at once as it were and yes, evolution is wasteful and a lot of bad ideas fall by the wayside. But better bad ideas fall by the wayside than people fall by the wayside, which is often the result if you try and do it by planning. It’s hard to argue that centrally-planned systems have not been wasteful. I mean look at – often they’re very wasteful of human lives whereas at least the experimentation is wasteful of ideas if you like.
Look at the economy of South Korea – sorry, North Korea. Well, let’s look at them both. South Korea is an experimental place that tries lots of different things and no doubt wastes a lot of electricity on advertising, hoardings or something futile, which North Korea doesn’t.
But North Korea certainly wastes human lives and human potential and human happiness and so I don’t think that that’s a fair argument because you can solve a problem pretty quickly with evolution often and get a better result and the fact that it’s disruptive often means that the people who are suffering, the people who feel this pain and this waste are the inefficient ones who should have gotten out of the way anyway. Not the people but the organizations I mean in that sense should have gotten out of the way anyway.
So the vested interests are the ones who are on the whole making that argument.
Trevor Burrus: Well, that – something Aaron and I have talked about for a very long time is that maybe at the end, the best argument for freedom and also evolution that comes with freedom is that it minimizes the damage of being wrong as opposed to governments will maximize the damage of being wrong, because we’re all wrong often.
I mean if we’re all humans and governments are markets, we have a bad idea and we run with it and it doesn’t work. But that in essence would be a dead end in the evolutionary change if you let the evolution go. But if you have government with its unique ability, wrongness can go on for a very long time at very high cost.
Matt Ridley: Yeah. Let me tell you a story about a really inspirational guy who has just left the UK government but has been there for five years. He was brought in from the IT industry called Mike Bracken and he was given the problem five years ago of these gigantic IT projects that – where hundreds of billions of dollars are spent and then you end up trashing the whole thing at the end because it doesn’t work.
Trevor Burrus: Government projects.
Matt Ridley: Government …
Matt Ridley: Yeah, exactly, the same sort of thing. And he has basically kind of stopped that in the UK and we haven’t had any of those in recent years and I’ve asked him how did he achieve this and it’s all about saying instead of designing the whole system, you’ve got to fail fast. Get a little bit out there, test it in the real world. Get another little bit out there. Keep trying it on a small scale. Not just piloting. You know, that’s piloting the whole thing. He’s saying do it in stages and test it at every stage. Evolve it essentially. But I was very struck by his use of the word “failure”.
I want you to fail. I want you to discover what’s wrong with it. Don’t say it’s not ready to be used yet. Go out there and test it and fail fast. Fail cheaply and fail fast was his motto and I think he has had pretty big impact on it. I mean he may be one of many examples, but his model is now of interest to other countries around the world. I know that – you know, et cetera. So I think there are ways of doing it even within monolithic structures.
Trevor Burrus: Do you fear that the more that government grows with this unique power of force, that it will constrain the evolutionary growth of society when there are a lot of – there are more entities out there that have this granted power and therefore are not going to be easy to get rid of. So maybe we won’t be evolving as fast as we might – as we could have?
Matt Ridley: There’s certainly an arms race between monopolistic and bureaucratic and anti-innovation tendencies and the opposite as it were. I think the good guys will stay one step ahead of the bad guys because as you’ve seen with the internet, it was out of the blocks and three-quarters of the way down the track before government even realized it existed.
Trevor Burrus: Thank God.
Aaron Ross Powell: Thank God. And couldn’t catch up and regulate it. But then you take the examples like genetically-modified crops in Europe or electronic cigarettes and you see how vested interests working through monopolistic governments are managing to stifle innovation almost completely and keep new products out of certain markets almost completely.
Yes, I do worry that the power – the political power that – not necessarily government but corporations can achieve through lobbying government often is sometimes sufficient to stop this process happening and when you then look at the history of innovation and the history of progress, it’s a pretty rare flower. It’s in America in the 20th century. It’s in Renaissance Italy in the 15th century. It’s in Arabia. It’s in China. It’s not everywhere. It’s not everywhere. It’s in Holland in the 17th century, et cetera.
But you could imagine an asteroid landing on the wrong part of the world and suddenly there’s nowhere doing this thing and everybody is run by very neo-phobic governments as it were.
Aaron Ross Powell: Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more about libertarianism and the ideas that influence it, visit us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.