Gates v. Ridley on Progress, the Plight of Africa, and Climate Change

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates reviews Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist in the Wall Street Journal.  Gates is quite favorable.  He endorses Ridley’s overall thesis, but thinks Ridley is too dismissive of some current problems, including underdevelopment in Africa and climate change.

Having shown that many past fears were ultimately unjustified, Mr. Ridley finally turns his “rational optimism” to two current problems whose seriousness, in his view, is greatly overblown: development in Africa and climate change. Here, in discussing complex matters where his expertise is not very deep, he gets into trouble.

Mr. Ridley spends 14 pages saying that everything will be just fine in Africa without our worrying about negative possibilities. This is unfortunate and misguided. Is his optimism justified because things always just happen to work out? Or do good results depend partly on our caring and taking action to prevent and solve problems? These are important questions, and he doesn’t answer them. . . .

“The Rational Optimist” would be a great book if Mr. Ridley had wrapped things up before these hokey policy discussions and his venting against those he considers to be pessimists. . . . .

The key question that Mr. Ridley fails to address is: What’s wrong with worrying about and guarding against threats that might become real, large problems? Parents worry a great deal about their children’s safety. Some of that worry leads to constructive steps to keep children safe, and some is just negative emotion that doesn’t help anyone. If we all agree to join Mr. Ridley as rational optimists, does that mean that we should stop worrying about trends that might cause problems and not take action to anticipate them?

Mr. Ridley devotes his attention to just two present-day problems, development in Africa and climate change, and seems to conclude, “Don’t worry, be happy.” My prescription would be, “Worry about fewer things while understanding the lessons of the past, including lessons about the importance of innovation.” . . .

The WSJ has also published Ridley’s response, which concludes:

Am I saying that we should cease worrying about trends that might cause problems? Of course not. I am arguing that we should worry about real problems, including Africa’s plight, but that we should do so in the knowledge that we have solved many such problems before and can do so again. I am certainly not saying, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Rather, I’m saying, “Don’t despair, be ambitious”—though I admit it’s not nearly as snappy a song lyric.

UPDATE: Here’s my take: I’m more with Ridley than Gates in that I have more faith in the potential of bottom-up, decentralized institutional arrangements to drive progress and generate solutions to vexing social problems.  Yet I think Ridley creates too stark a dichotomy and is occasionally Pollyannish about the likelihood of human progress over any given time frame.  I accept that the world will be a better place 500 years from now, but if it’s not a better place 50 or 100 years from now — that is, not a better place for my children and theirs — the sunny long view is not so reassuring.

On the specific issue of climate change: To believe the human contribution to global warming is a sufficiently serious problem to justify government intervention is not to endorse centralized government control of the energy sector or top-down technology policy.  So long as the atmosphere is treated as an unowned, open-access commons and greenhouse gas emissions are unpriced, there will be insufficient incentive to develop GHG-reducing technologies.  There are government policies that could address this problem, ranging from technology-inducement prizes to a fully-rebated carbon tax, that would increase the incentives to develop the sorts of innovations Ridley believes will eventually save the day without creating innovation-stifling bureaucracies or centralized control of economic activity.  I may agree with Ridley that government intervention is inferior to decentralized market discovery 99 times out of 100, but I still care about getting that one percent right if we can.