The bad first and the three goods.
The bad is that Matt Ridley is just as poor a writer as I am. If Ridley were a great writer or even a good writer this book would be recommended by every right thinking economist, historian and original thinker. If it were exciting to turn the page, few intelligent people could live without this book. A good writer knows that pushing too hard doesn't work, that rhetoric is the structure by which people change their minds and too much sugar with no lemon is hard to take.
The three goods: (a) Ridley agrees with nearly everything I have covered in this blog for ten years. (b) Ridley has several new and important ideas (c) Ridley has done a masterful job of consolidating numbers and evidence to support the upward trajectory of commercial history.
(a) Ridley is in love with commerce, as I am, and he weaves together a history which properly appreciates that nearly everything positive about human life today is the result of commerce. He appreciates cities, density, diversity and technology. He makes the same arguments I do about the vitality of commercial innovation, the power of specialization that arises from trade and the revolution in happiness, health and fulfillment of life that commerce generates.
I love his denigration of science. As I say often, technology is the handmaiden of our better lives, science sweeps up the crumbs technology generates and tries to put them together.
We both see commerce as a Darwinian process of adaptation, pragmatic solutions and incremental decentralized evolution. The size of the trading market matters; bigger is better.
(b) Ridley suggests that it was the early adoption of trade (your sea shells for my salt) that started the positive human trajectory. He supports this thesis with vast anthropological, DNA and archaeological evidence and the footnotes that go with it. Without a large enough trade area, humans revert to the most primitive level of habitat. Tasmania is his example.
He shows how commerce created agriculture and not the other way around. He, like me, appreciates the global explosion of knowledge, skill and technology that the Phoenicians brought to the world.
I love his way of talking about the collective brain. He points out that we are all so specialized that it takes hundreds of different skills just to make a pencil and none of us could possibly do it from scratch. We are, via commerce, a collective brain.
Government power and over-reach usually kills whatever it touches, it doesn't generate innovation except by accident. There are many problems with patent and copyright law that need to be corrected.
(c) I would guess that Ridley has 50 metric examples of improvements from commerce. A kilowatt-hour of electricity cost an hour of work in 1900 and five minutes today. Rockefeller with his innovations in petroleum products saved the whales of the world. Vanderbilt reduced rail costs from $1.00 per unit per mile to $.10 between 1870 and 1900 and reduced rail costs increased food supplies worldwide multi-fold. The murder rate has dropped from 35 per 100,000 in Christopher Columbus's Spain to 20 per 100,000 in Shakespeare's London to 4 per 100,000 in the U.S. today.
In summary, this is the book to have to complement what you read on this blog. Every chapter makes us challenge his ideas and with reflection to rethink our own views in a fresh mode.
*Ridley got a sentence on credit cards wrong. But he used several sources that are wrong. I'll explain it in the next blog.