The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

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The Book in One Paragraph

Humans have an innate tendency to trade goods and services, which drives human progress and prosperity. As people continue to specialize in their skills, prosperity will likely continue to increase in the future.

The Rational Optimist Summary

This is my book summary of The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. My notes include quotes, big ideas, and important lessons from the book.

  • Progress and prosperity comes from trading goods and services, sharing ideas, communication, and collaboration.
  • Food, energy, light, communication, transportation, plumbing, and shelter are all becoming more cheaply available as time goes on. 
  • “Think of this: never before this generation has the average person been able to afford to have somebody else prepare his meals.”
  • Humans are different than other animals because they’re capable of sharing ideas, knowledge, and information. Humans specialize in functions, services, and trades, which allows people to get really good in a specific field and share their skills with the rest of the world in a way that benefits others.
  • “Specialization encouraged innovation, because it encouraged the investment of time in a tool-making tool. That saved time, and prosperity is simply time saved, which is proportional to the division of labor.”
  • Despite what the news may lead us to believe, data shows that the world is becoming a safer place to live by most objective measures. “Random violence makes the news precisely because it is so rare, routine kindness does not make the news precisely because it is so commonplace.”
  • Technology now allows us to grow more food and feed more people with less land. This technology will likely continue to improve more in the future.
  • Free trade among towns, cities, countries, and continents produces prosperity.
  • “As I write this, it is nine o’clock in the morning. In the two hours since I got out of bed I have showered in water heated by North Sea gas, shaved using an American razor running on electricity made from British coal, eaten a slice of bread made from French wheat, spread with New Zealand butter and Spanish marmalade, then brewed a cup of tea using leaves grown in Sri Lanka, dressed myself in clothes of Indian cotton and Australian wool, with shoes of Chinese leather and Malaysian rubber, and read a newspaper made from Finnish wood pulp and Chinese ink.”
  • Even the poorest among society today have a much higher quality of life than the richest did 100 years ago.
  • “The cornucopia that greets you as you enter the supermarket dwarfs anything that Louis XIV ever experienced (and it is probably less likely to contain salmonella).”
  • “Some are worse off than they were just a few months or years before. But the vast majority of people are much better fed, much better sheltered, much better entertained, much better protected against disease and much more likely to live to old age than their ancestors have ever been. The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going rapidly upwards for 200 years and erratically upwards for 10,000 years before.”
  • “Because it is a monopoly, government brings inefficiency and stagnation to most things it runs; government agencies pursue the inflation of their budgets rather than the service of their customers; pressure groups form an unholy alliance with agencies to extract more money from taxpayers for their members. Yet despite all this, most clever people still call for government to run more things and assume that if it did so, it would somehow be more perfect, more selfless, next time.”
  • As countries become wealthier, healthier, and more educated, birth rates tend to decline.
  • Only a small percentage of people need to generate life-changing inventions to drive an entire economy forward. 

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