Paul Jacob

Pessimism is the lazy stepchild of vigilance.

There. I’ve said it. That’s the one bit of wisdom for today.

Why bring it up? Well, there’s another new book out that I want to read, but probably won’t, for lack of time. It’s The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley.

Ridley is one of those biology journalists who relate recent advances in the life sciences to how we think and feel and move about on the planet. You know, one of those Learn From the Baboons guys.

I’ve not read his new book. I am pretty sure I’ve read bits of at least one of his previous works, as one reads books one doesn’t finish not because they aren’t good — or even great — but because, well, there’s that meeting at one, office crisis at two, a half-hour to write at five, and the kid’s softball game at six.

But his new book looks important. At the very least it hits on a theme important to me, an important theme for all of us: Prosperity and progress.

I consider myself an optimist. But right now, pessimism is all the rage. And I’m not just talking about the general economic climate. I easily fall into it, too. Our government and its leaders, the politicians and bureaucrats, have got themselves caught in a behavioral trap. They just can’t stop spending above revenues, increasing government indebtedness, and in general doing stupid things (like setting up a new entitlement program right as the old ones become insolvent).

But there is hope. At least Ridley says so, and I’m inclined to believe him, in part because he doesn’t fall prey to false hopes. He doesn’t even buy the false hope of “government funding” where it is applied to his field, science:

There is no evidence that government, by funding blue-sky science or in any other way, is specially good at making innovation happen. Most innovation happens through the tinkering of technologists, not the thinking of scientists. And government is poor at picking winners, great at picking losers.

Civilization in its distributed form, the widespread lattice of social networks partly pinned down by the phrase “the market,” works far better at the selection process. And it provides spurs to progress, the carrot of profit (success) and the stick of loss (failure). And it will probably do this even if hobbled by our misguided and increasingly corrupt politicians.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.