Three Views of Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley's new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, is garnering rave reviews. Ridley, science writer and popularizer of evolutionary psychology, shows how it was trade and specialization of labor--and the resulting massive growth in technological sophistication--that hauled humanity from its impoverished past to its comparatively rich present. These trends will continue, he argues, and will solve many of today's most pressing problems, from the spread of disease to the threat of climate change. The Cato Institute has now presented three different looks at the book, with a review in the Cato Journal, another in Regulation, and an event at Cato with Matt Ridley himself. Powell on Ridley My colleague Aaron Powell published the first Cato review of The Rational Optimist with a piece in the Fall 2010 edition of the Cato Journal (pdf).
What The Rational Optimist makes clear, in perspicuous prose and enchanting storytelling, is that, just as biological evolution populated the world with the wondrous variety of life, exchange allowed one of those species to achieve a wondrous standard of living that will only improve and become more uniform as we trade and invent.
Powell doesn't find the book flawless, however. He identifies two problems that weaken Ridley's argument, the first dealing with the "circular and unconvincing" nature of his claim that trade caused our human ancestors to achieve humanity. The second concern is broader. Powell writes,
It would be easy to get the impression Ridley is Pollyannaish. If nuclear annihilation, super flus, and starvation are nothing to be worried about, what possibly could be? Unfortunately, Ridley’s response to this critique is less convincing than it could be, for he fails to adequately draw a line between when an anticipated disaster is real and when it’s just pessimism writ large.
Henderson on Ridley David R. Henderson reviews the book in the latest issue of Regulation (pdf). Like Powell, Henderson enthusiastically endorses the style and substance of Ridley's book, though without identifying the weaknesses highlighted in the former review. His only point of contention with The Rational Optimist is a "jarring misstatement" regarding trade and value. Henderson writes,
Given the important role of trade in Ridley’s theory, and given his obvious understanding of trade, it is surprising that he makes a jarring misstatement: “For barter to work,” he writes, “two individuals do not need to offer things of equal value. Trade is often unequal, but still benefits both sides.” The correct statement is: “For barter or trade to work, individuals must offer things of unequal value.” If I valued what I give up the same as what I get in return, there would be no point in trading. Trading is always an exchange of unequal values.
Henderson goes on to defend Ridley against the negative appraisal his book received in the New York Times. That review, written by famous foreign-aid critic William Easterly, attacked The Rational Optimist for its take on Africa and for failing to "confront[] honestly all the doubts about the ‘free market.'" "Really?" Henderson responds. "All the doubts? I do not know if such a book could be written with the requisite amount of evidence and have under 3,000 pages." Ridley on Ridley And then, of course, there's the source himself. In May, Ridley spoke at a Cato Institute book forum about The Rational Optimist. He discussed the core arguments of his book and concluded (optimistically) that technology and trade have now made it possible to stop trying to keep the world from getting worse, and instead focus on making it better. As with all Cato events, full video and audio are available for download on Or watch it right here:

Posted on September 30, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

P. J. O’Rourke on Tour

P. J. O'Rourke, Cato's H. L. Mencken Research Fellow, is touring the country to talk about his new book, Don't Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards. He'll be doing these Cato events:
September 30                 San Francisco, Palace Hotel October 7                         Los Angeles, Beverly Wilshire October 13                      Dallas, Ritz-Carlton October 14                     Houston, Four Seasons October 28                    Washington, Cato Institute
Pretty swanky digs for a guy who once wrote Holidays in Hell. And sorry, San Franciscans -- obviously I should have posted this a week ago. But if you're a Cato Sponsor, you read about it in Cato Policy Report and you got an invitation. You can find more book signings and media appearances at

Posted on September 30, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Eat Your Vegetables — If You Want To

This morning's question at Politico Arena is:
The New York Times reports that despite two decades of public health initiatives Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables. Healthy eating is a priority of First Lady Michelle Obama. Should those of us with less than Olympic-calibre physiques heed the first lady's dietary advice? Does this smack of Big Brother -- or more precisely Big Sister -- wading into personal decisions? Could voluntary preferences on food issues morph into government mandates?
Of all the "Washington elites" they surveyed, I was almost the only one to express skepticism about the First Lady's and the New York Times's expectations for the rest of us:
I was struck by that New York Times article on Saturday. The headline is "Told to Eat Its Vegetables, America Orders Fries." We Americans are just a constant trial to our elites. We cling not only to our religion and our guns but to our French fries. The government has TOLD us to eat vegetables, and yet we persist in eating tasty food. Soon we may be sent to our rooms without supper. And then the reporter wrote, in this news story, "Despite two decades of public health initiatives, stricter government dietary guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the ease of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables." America to the New York Times reporting staff: We'll decide the proper tradeoff between taste, price, nutrition and so on. "Enough vegetables" is a subjective decision, not a fact. More fundamentally, Why is it any of the federal government’s business how fit we are? We don’t need a national nanny. The federal government has an important role in our society. Its primary function is national security, and it hasn’t been doing a very good job. It should focus on that. Americans know that first they say you “should,” and the next thing you know they want to make it mandatory. Already people are talking about taxing junk food. And they’re filing suit against fast-food companies. We teach our kids to take responsibility for themselves and to Mind Your Own Business -- the government should take that advice. A lot of this is old-fashioned American Puritanism -- the idea that anything you enjoy is bad for you-- so they tell us don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t eat, recycle, practice safe sex, ride that bicycle. A subversive page editor at the New York Times inserted a pull quote (in the print edition) reading "Besides, the taste, trouble and cost, what's the problem?" Exactly. We Americans are sorry for being such a disappointment to the first lady and the New York Times. But not that sorry.

Posted on September 27, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Sorry I’m Late

It's Car Free Day in Washington, and the traffic on I-66 was the worst in memory. Update: Link fixed.

Posted on September 22, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Libertarianism on NPR’s Planet Money

It must be the week for libertarian podcasts. Right after my UnitedLiberty interview on the 2010 elections, NPR's Planet Money offers this podcast with Mark Calabria and me on libertarianism.   (By the way, "under libertarianism, you would be better-looking, you would be taller" is a joke....) When I did talk shows after the publication of Libertarianism: A Primer, I was always asked, “What is libertarianism?” I said then, “Libertarianism is the idea that adult individuals have the right and the responsibility to make the important decisions about their lives. And of course today government claims the power to make many of those decisions for us, from where to send our kids to school to what we can smoke to how we must save for retirement.” Here’s another way to put it, which I believe I first saw in a high-school libertarian newsletter from Minnesota: Smokey the Bear’s rules for fire safety also apply to government: Keep it small, keep it in a confined area, and keep an eye on it. For more on libertarianism, check out my entry at the Encyclopedia Britannica. For longer treatments, see Libertarianism: A Primer and The Libertarian Reader. For deeper thoughts, take a look at Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice. Find an 80-minute interview on libertarianism here and a short talk here.

Posted on September 22, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Interview on Libertarians and Election 2010

I answer a few questions from Jason Pye of UnitedLiberty in a 16-minute podcast here.

Posted on September 21, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

What Do Social Conservatives Want?

Social conservatives talk about real problems but offer irrelevant solutions. They act like the man who searched for his keys under the streetlight because the light was better there. Social conservatives tend to talk about issues like abortion and gay rights, stem-cell research and the role of religion "in the public square": "Those who would have us ignore the battle being fought over life, marriage and religious liberty have forgotten the lessons of history,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) at the Values Voter Summit. But what is the case for social conservatism that they've been making at the summit and in recent interviews?
  • Mike Huckabee: "We need to understand there is a direct correlation between the stability of families and the stability of our economy.... The real reason we have poverty is we have a breakdown of the basic family structure."
  • Jim DeMint:  "It’s impossible to be a fiscal conservative unless you’re a social conservative because of the high cost of a dysfunctional society."
  • Rick Santorum: "We can have no economic freedom unless we have good, virtuous moral people inspired by their faith."
Those are reasonable concerns, but they have little or no relationship to abortion or gay marriage. Abortion may be a moral crime, but it isn't the cause of high government spending or intergenerational poverty. And gay people making the emotional and financial commitments of marriage is not the cause of family breakdown or welfare spending. When Huckabee says that "a breakdown of the basic family structure" is causing poverty -- and thus a demand for higher government spending -- he knows that he's really talking about unwed motherhood, divorce, children growing up without fathers, and the resulting high rates of welfare usage and crime. Those also make up the "high cost of a dysfunctional society" that worries DeMint. But take a look at the key issues of the chief social-conservative group, the Family Research Council -- 7 papers on abortion and stem cells, 5 on gays and gay marriage, 1 on divorce. Nothing much has changed since 1994, when I wrote in the New York Times:
The Family Research Council, the leading "family values" group, is similarly obsessed. In the most recent index of its publications, the two categories with the most listing are "Homosexual" and "Homosexual in the Military" -- a total of 34 items (plus four on AIDS). The organization has shown some interest in parenthood -- nine items on family structure, 13 on parenthood and six on teen pregnancy -- yet there are more items on homosexuality than on all of those issues combined. There was no listing for divorce. (Would it be unfair to point out that there are two items on "Parents' Rights" and none on "Parents' Responsibilities"?)
Back then, conservatives still defended sodomy laws, as Santorum continued to do as late as 2003. These days, after the 2003 Supreme Court decision striking down such laws, most have moved on (though not the Montana and Texas Republican parties). Now they just campaign against gays in the military, gays adopting children, and gays getting married. Why all the focus on issues that would do nothing to solve the problems of "breakdown of the basic family structure" and "the high cost of a dysfunctional society"? Well, solving the problems of divorce and unwed motherhood is hard. And lots of Republican and conservative voters have been divorced. A constitutional amendment to ban divorce wouldn't go over very well with even the social-conservative constituency. Far better to pick on a small group, a group not perceived to be part of the Republican constituency, and blame them for social breakdown and its associated costs. But you won't find your keys on Main Street if you dropped them on Green Street, and you won't reduce the costs of social breakdown by keeping gays unmarried and not letting them adopt orphans.

Posted on September 20, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Dangerous Trade in Black-Market Cigarettes

NPR reports:
Black-market cigarettes are costing many states hundreds of millions of dollars a year in lost tax revenue. And the lucrative, illicit trade is attracting violent criminal gangs that can be lethally ruthless. The rewards, and the risks, of dealing in contraband cigarettes became quite clear recently in northern Virginia, says Capt. Dennis Wilson of the Fairfax County Police Department. Undercover investigators working with his department "had two cases where contacts that we were working with had asked us to murder their competition," Wilson says.
The problem is that exorbitant taxes in New York state and especially New York City can add as much as $60 to the cost of a carton of cigarettes. No wonder criminals including "organized crime groups with ties to Vietnam, Russia, Korea and China" are getting into the business of buying cigarettes in lower-taxed states and driving trailers full of them to the high-tax states. A Cato Policy Analysis warned about the problem of black markets and crime back in 2003, when the New York City tax was only $3.00 a pack ($30.00 a carton):
The failure of New York policymakers to consider the broader effects of high cigarette taxes has been a mistake repeated across the country in the stampede to maximize tax revenue from this demonized product. Too often, policymakers do not consider these effects in the erroneous belief that people do not respond to government-created economic incentives. The negative effects of high cigarette taxes in New York provide a cautionary tale that excessive tax rates have serious consequences--even for such a politically unpopular product as cigarettes.

Posted on September 20, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Social Conservatives Left Behind?

Lots of the criticisms of the tea party movement as "extremist" assume that the movement is some sort of "American Taliban" -- theocratic, censorious, antigay. The reality is that the highly decentralized tea party movement has done a remarkable job of staying focused on a specific agenda that is nothing like that. The Tea Party Patriots website proclaims its mission as "Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government, Free Market." Many tea partiers say that "tea" stands for Taxed Enough Already. Toby Marie Walker, lead facilitator for the Waco [not Wacko] Tea Party, told NPR Thursday, "Well, we focus around three main issues, is constitutionally limited government, free markets and fiscal responsibility." In fact, some social conservative activists are annoyed that President Obama's big-government agenda and the robust tea party response have focused the country's attention on the issues of spending, debt, and the size of government rather than cultural war. On that same NPR interview Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association complained that "the leadership of the Tea Party movement is at a fundamentally different place . . . when it comes to social issues" and demanded that the movement "send a clear note on the culture of conservative issues." Walker explained that the tea party isn't opposed to social conservatism, it just doesn't take a position on those issues: "It would be like asking the NRA to take up an abortion issue. That's not what the NRA is about. They're about gun rights." As she said:
I think that the Tea Party movement is more of a Libertarian movement. I think that that's one of the things that has been like a myth out there, that it's a Republican-based. But not all of us are Libertarians. You know, we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, all over the spectrum. And that's why we stick to the issues that brought us together.
In the Washington Times social conservatives complain about the tea party movement's emphasis on fiscal issues:
"There is suspicion among our social-conservative base that the new tea party/libertarian Republicans might soon view restrictions on abortion as they would any government proscription of private conduct," said former Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating. [Not clear if this is also the position of his current employer, the American Council for Life Insurance.] "Some of my law enforcement friends have expressed similar views about a worrisome second look at drug laws," Mr. Keating added. "Perhaps it is fringe thinking and a fringe worry, but it is still a worry." In fact, many libertarian-minded Republicans - among them Senate nominee Rand Paul of Kentucky - have raised questions about the wisdom of the country's strict laws on drug use.
Saturday's Wall Street Journal quotes me in a discussion of the Values Voter Summit and social conservatives' griping about the tea party:
[Christine] O'Donnell's appearance at the Values Voter Summit in Washington put a spotlight on the challenge facing social conservatives, prominent in GOP politics earlier in the decade, as they try to hitch themselves to the fiscal insurgents of 2010. They may be ideological soul mates, but that doesn't mean they'd govern the same way. "My sense of the average tea party-endorsed candidate this year is that what motivates them is their concern over spending and the national debt," said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute. "If a gay-marriage ban came before Congress, they'd probably vote for it, but that's not what motivates them." Mr. Boaz predicted tea-party congressional freshmen would push for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, not an amendment to ban gay marriage. "I don't think there's likely to be a lot of social activism coming out of them," he said.... A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in June found that just 2% of those identified as tea partiers put social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage at the top of their priority lists for federal action. 
The tea party is not a libertarian movement, but (at this point at least) it is a libertarian force in American politics. It's organizing Americans to come out in the streets, confront politicians, and vote on the issues of spending, deficits, debt, the size and scope of government, and the constitutional limits on government. That's a good thing. And if many of the tea partiers do hold socially conservative views (not all of them do), then it's a good thing for the American political system and for American freedom to keep them focused on shrinking the size and cost of the federal government. Liberals spend too much of their time being deathly afraid of the religious right. Brink Lindsey described contemporary American politics as a “libertarian consensus that mixes the social freedom of the left with the economic freedom of the right” in his book The Age of Abundance. Over the past 50 years, social conservatism has lost its battles against civil rights, against feminism, against sexual freedom, against gay rights. It hasn't even managed to reduce the illegitimacy rate.  The real challenge in American politics today is to constrain and reverse the past decade's accumulation of money and power in Washington. And in that effort the tea party movement is on the front lines.

Posted on September 18, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Attacking Rand Paul by David Boaz

Kentucky attorney general Jack Conway went on TV Tuesday with an ad attacking Rand Paul for . . . endorsing freedom. The ad shows a clip from a 2008 panel show in which, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, there was a "wide-ranging discussion that involved such things as the wisdom of motorcycle helmet laws, the lottery and expanding gambling. In response to a question about whether he favors more gambling, Paul said he opposes 'legislating morality' and then added: 'I'm for having … laws against things that are violent crimes, but things that are non-violent shouldn't be against the law.'" The ad features that last sentence and then cuts rapidly to uniformed sheriffs criticizing Paul's position. But note that they never really criticize what Paul actually said. His comment came in the context of a discussion of motorcyle helmet laws, gambling, and the state lottery. The sheriffs suggest that Paul wants to legalize selling drugs to a minor, mortgage fraud, burglary, theft, and promoting prostitution -- and they say that we should "treat criminals like criminals." But of course, of the activities mentioned, "promoting prostitution" is the only one that a libertarian would be likely to legalize. (Paul has never said he would do that.) Burglary, theft, fraud, and selling drugs to children are clearly crimes, and it's dishonest to suggest that Rand Paul would change those laws. Conway may be a slick Louisville lawyer, but he may find that Kentucky voters won't find such claims credible. Paul might have been been wiser to use a term like "victimless crimes" or "actions that don't violate anyone's rights" in discussing "things that . . . shouldn't be against the law." Obviously burglary and theft violate rights and have victims, while gambling and riding a motorcycle without a helmet don't. And libertarian legal theorists might question the wisdom of putting nonviolent offenders in jail; it would often make more sense to demand restitution and fines for economic crimes, for instance, rather than putting the offenders in expensive and overcrowded prisons. But Rand Paul was making sense in 2008 when he said that a free society shouldn't punish people who aren't harming other people. And the attorney general of the Commonwealth of Kentucky should be embarrassed to broadcast such a dishonest twisting of Paul's statements. If Conway thinks people should be imprisoned for gambling and riding a motorcycle without a helmet -- the issues Paul was discussing -- let him put up an ad saying so. And then see whose side the people are on in an honest debate. It's actually striking that in a conservative state, Conway did not mention any of the normal "victimless crimes" -- not gambling or helmetless riding, not pot smoking, not even pornography. He apparently thought he could only win this issue by claiming that Rand Paul held the ridiculous position that burglary, theft, and fraud shouldn't be illegal. Let's give two cheers for the social progress that his decision reveals.

Posted on September 15, 2010  Posted to Cato@Liberty

About David Boaz

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