Tuesday 4 February 2014

Don't wait around for the hidden hand - it's you...

I heard a fascinating radio debate on the BBC just before Christmas in the programme The History of Britain in Numbers.  It was between two writers – the green campaigner Andrew Simms and the science journalist Matt Ridley.

Before I go further, I should reveal that Andrew is a friend and his book Cancel the Apocalypse is published in a cheap paperback format this week. He is also right.

But the title of the book gives away why this debate was interesting. Neither Simms nor Ridley could be described as a conventional catastrophist. On the face of it, both believe that human ingenuity will respond and find solutions.

Matt Ridley is the author of The Rational Optimist who was also chair of the ill-fated Northern Rock.  This is what he said about the catastrophists:

"But, surely, after many centuries of the pessimists being proved wrong, again and again, we would learn to take their prognostications with a grain of salt. True, we have encountered disasters and tragedies. But the promised Armageddons, the thresholds that cannot be uncrossed, the tipping points that cannot be untipped, the existential threats to life as we know it have consistently failed to materialise. Even the climate threats are now fading."

Ridley is also well-known as the scourge of disaster theories. He lists the disasters predicted which never happened, the unnecessary fear conjured by horrific predictions which never come to pass. But he doesn’t spell out the conclusions to be drawn from that.

So let's spell them out now.  Why don’t most disasters happen? The answer as Matt Ridley implies, or seems to imply, is that the market sorts it all out – provides the necessary technology and behaviour change.  Either that, or there are never any real threats.

Either way, his solution appears to be to do nothing.

But the implication that nobody ever does anything is wrong. The reason that most disasters don’t happen is not because no disaster can happen. It is that people take evasive action – they take precautions. They do something about it before zero-hour. They use their imagination and intelligence.  They steer out of danger.  They defend the nation against dictators.  They salt the roads.

There is a whole set of similar explanations provided by those on the market fundamentalism end of the argument. Why don’t disasters strike? Because people take evasive action.

Why does the environment improve when people’s living standards improve? It doesn’t just happen magically. It improves because people have the economic power to fight for it.

So Ridley needs to look at the underlying causality. The hidden hand of the market is not some alchemical force – it is driven by people, enabled or inspired to act. It is about what they do.  Because, when all is said and done, all is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Rational optimists are like an oblivious aristocrat waking up after a storm.  “I told you the tower wouldn’t blow down,” he says, apparently oblivious that his servants have been taking precautions to shore it up.

So don’t believe this stuff about disasters never happening. It isn’t automatic. People get off their bottoms and do something to prevent them; they don’t wait around for the hidden hand.  Everything else is Panglossian.

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