Be optimistic, yet beware the grand planners!

Political seasons forever foster the characterization of the times as in desperate need of repair. The populace is wooed into believing that progress has been stymied by the shenanigans of the wooer’s opposing party. Not that progress is not indeed often stymied by political processes, but to accept the notions that we are to be rescued from some impending collapse by increasing taxes on employers and by the delivering of “free” college educations to all (for two examples), or that life in these United States is not presently “great” for the majority of its citizens, is to be the pawn of the politician.

Matt Ridley, in the epilogue to his 2015 book The Evolution of Everything elegantly sums up reality. Here are a few snippets:

There are two ways to tell the story of the twentieth century. You can describe a series of wars, revolutions, crises, epidemics, financial calamities. Or you can point to the gentle but inexorable rise in the quality of life of almost everybody on the planet: the swelling of income, the conquest of disease, the disappearance of parasites, the retreat of want, the increasing persistence of peace, the lengthening of life, the advances in technology. I wrote a whole book about the latter story, and wondered why it seemed original and surprising to do so. It was surely gloriously obvious that the world was a much, much better place than it had ever been. Yet read the newspapers and you would think we had lurched from disaster to disaster, and faced a future of inevitable further disaster. Glance at school history curriculums and you find them utterly dominated by the disasters of the past – and the crises of the future. I could not quite reconcile in my mind this strange juxtaposition of optimism and pessimism. In a world that delivers an endless supply of bad news, people’s lives get better and better.

Now I think I understand, and it has been the purpose of this book partly to explore that understanding. To put my explanation in its boldest and most surprising form: bad news is manmade, top– down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves. The things that go well are largely unintended; the things that go badly are largely intended. Let me give you two lists. First: the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Versailles Treaty, the Great Depression, the Nazi regime, the Second World War, the Chinese Revolution, the 2008 financial crisis: every single one was the result of top– down decision-making by relatively small numbers of people trying to implement deliberate plans – politicians, central bankers, revolutionaries and so on. Second: the growth of global income; the disappearance of infectious diseases; the feeding of seven billion; the clean-up of rivers and air; the reforestation of much of the rich world; the internet; the use of mobile-phone credits as banking; the use of genetic fingerprinting to convict criminals and acquit the innocent. Every single one of these was a serendipitous, unexpected phenomenon supplied by millions of people who did not intend to cause these big changes. All the interesting things are incremental, says the psephologist Sir David Butler, and very few of the major changes in the statistics of human living standards of the past fifty years were the result of government action.

It is a fair bet that the twenty-first century will be dominated mostly by shocks of bad news, but will experience mostly invisible progress of good things. Incremental, inexorable, inevitable changes will bring us material and spiritual improvements that will make the lives of our grandchildren wealthier, healthier, happier, cleverer, cleaner, kinder, freer, more peaceful and more equal – almost entirely as a serendipitous by-product of cultural evolution. But the people with grand plans will cause pain and suffering along the way.

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