An idea walks into a bar. She meets another idea. They get together, and nine months later (or maybe it’s nine minutes or seconds? It’s not clear how it works with ideas), a new idea is born. A baby idea with the best traits of both parents.
When this happens a lot, everyone gets smarter and the world gets better.
Did you know that ideas have sex?
It’s a weird concept, but the more I think about it, the more right it seems. I learned it from British journalist Matt Ridley.
Ridley, author of “The Rational Optimist,” says the reason life gets better is that ideas have sex.
“Ideas spread through trade,” he told me. “And when they meet, they can mate, and you can produce combinations of different ideas. I think a good example is a camera pill, which takes a picture of your insides on the way through. It came about (during) a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer … a process very similar to sex in biology, because through sex, genes meet and recombine, and you get new combinations of genes. That’s what causes innovation in biology, and innovation in culture.”
And life improves.
“Our living standards have shot up in my lifetime. The average income of the average person, corrected for inflation, is three times what it was when I was born (in 1958). And life span is 30 percent longer.”
This didn’t happen because of central planning. It’s the spontaneous market generated from free individuals that sets and keeps it in motion.
Ridley goes on to argue that even sex between the ideas of dumb people produces better results than those of a brilliant central planner.
“If you look at human history … lots of people in a room who are talking to each other, however stupid they are, can achieve a lot more than a lot of clever people in the room who never talk to each other. So it’s not individual intelligence that counts in how well a society works. It’s how well people communicate and exchange ideas with each other.”
In light of this, it’s not hard to understand why Ridley calls himself a rational optimist. He reminds me the late, great economist Julian Simon, author of “the Ultimate Resource,” who for years stood virtually alone in explaining the benefits of population growth, free exchange and the mixing of ideas.
“I was fed up with the pessimists,” Ridley explained. “When I was a student in the 1970s, the grown-ups told me that the future of the world was bleak, that the oil was running out, that the population explosion was unstoppable, that famine was inevitable. I feel kind of cross that nobody said anything optimistic to me about how these resources might not run out. They might become more abundant because of human ingenuity. They might actually get cheaper rather than more expensive and that it might be possible for us to live higher living standards and actually do less damage to the environment as we do so, that the air might get cleaner, the rivers might get cleaner!
“All of these things have happened. We’ve got healthier, happier, cleaner, kinder, cleverer, more peaceful and, indeed, more equal, if you look at the picture globally over that time.”
In a debate, Bill Gates pushed back against Ridley’s optimism. Gates argued that worrying about the worst case can help drive a solution.
Ridley doesn’t buy it.
“If you look at where the solutions come from, they come from optimistic people living in rich places, like Steve Jobs, or Archimedes in ancient Greece, or Leonardo in Renaissance Italy. … It’s the pessimists who are the complacent ones these days, because they’re the ones saying: ‘This is as good as it can get. We can’t make it any better.'”
But we can make it better. All it takes is rule of law and limited government. If government will just stay out of the bar, and stop bossing the patrons around, ideas will meet and mate and produce wonderful things.