Ordinary People

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Matt Ridley on the Evolution o... Alison Wolf on Women, Inequali...

In this week's episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomed back 2015's most popular guest, Matt Ridley, to talk about his new book, The Evolution of Everything. Their wide-ranging conversation left me with a lot more questions than answers, which I think is a hallmark of a great conversation. Still, I'm now passing along some of things I've continued to wonder about to you.

Give some thought to the prompts below, and let us know your thoughts in the comments. You keep us learning and inspired. As always, we love to hear from you.


1. The idea of evolution is often associated with progress...But should it be? And more particularly, does morality actually make progress, or does it instead simply adapt itself to people's current attitudes? If the latter, where do those attitudes come from?

2. To what extent does Ridley successfully make the case that his is an "anti-elitist" message?

3. This is a big one, and one that Roberts and Ridley disagree on...So we want to know what you think. Could mankind have become as moral as it is today absent the historical influence of religion? Make your case.

4. Roberts asks Ridley (with a hint of exasperation?) why their (free-market) ideas are so unpopular if good ideas emerge so naturally? How does Ridley reply, and how convincing is he? What else can you think of that might account for the unpopularity of capitalism?

5. At the end of the conversation, Ridley calls himself "a free-market anti-capitalist." Is that an oxymoron? How would Ridley explain the term?

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Matt Barton writes:

1) "Progress" is subjective, isn't it? The result of an evolutionary process is adaptive change, but this can be regarded as progress only if the changes result is some "improvement"... Hayek addressed this nicely in "The Creative Power of a free Civilization"... He points out that "progress", which is the result of evolutionary adaptation, is not always well-regarded...

2) I don't know about anti-elitist, but his message is (and should) directed against those afflicted with "the Fatal Conceit" - the constructivist rationalists who would see human society through the collectivist lens and seek to shape it to fit their wishes... This is not necessarily a view characteristic of the elite...

3) I think this is a moot point... People are moral creatures by virtue of the fact that they live in groups... As long as there are groups of people in which they follow moral rules, there will be mechanisms that teach and enforce these rules... Setting aside consideration of the mystical aspects of religious belief, religion arises from the rational impulses of human instinct - the attempt to infer designer from what appears to be design... A natural consequence of this is assumption that moral rules are sanctioned by the designer of the observed order, and thus, religion and the enforcement of moral rules are linked...

4) Hayek had this thoroughly covered in Fatal Conceit... Free market ideas are inconsistent with the instinctive morals of the small band - the concrete society that was the crucible of human social interaction... The learned morals of the market, which allow for the formation of the extended order - and their unpopularity, are the essence of "Civilization and it's Discontents"...

5) This is nonsense - again, as Hayek already explained, Capitalism is not exclusively for the benefit of the capitalist... What he should have said is that he is a "free market anti-syndicalist"...

On balance, I was disappointed with this podcast - mainly because Ridley is rehashing ideas that were already so thoroughly explored by Hayek forty and more years ago... I appreciate his attempt to bring more attention to spontaneous order in an age of rampant constructivist rationalism, but I would have appreciated more a thorough exploration of Hayek's original observations rather than examining Ridley's rehash...

Mike Wilkinson writes:

Thanks for the starters, Amy. On issue 4, I wonder about possible linkages between society's continued confidence in the Big Man Theory and the unpopularity of "free-market capitalism".

Roberts and Ridley discuss the popularity of the Big Man Theory, in spite of several major developments, particularly in the technology industry, being obviously evolutionary in nature. Ridley claims that many of these Big Men just happened to be in the right place, at the right time.

Is the issue that many in society believe in the Big Man Theory have parallels to the unpopularity of "free-market capitalism"? (I use the quote marks because I feel this would more accurately be described as classical liberalism.) To those who feel that a small number of people can make a big difference, wouldn't bigger government be a natural thing?

I might argue that classical liberals are more likely to accept evolutionary development. This makes them much more willing to question the need for a larger state. Yet, when they do so, it goes right past the rest of society who continue to think that larger government will make a difference.

I'm very interested in hearing what others make of this idea.


Mark Crankshaw writes:
What else can you think of that might account for the unpopularity of capitalism?

This tendency was discussed in detail by Ludwig von Mises back in the fifties in a book entitled 'The Anti-Capitalist Mentality'. Rather than summarize, I encourage those interested to give it a read and I will provide a link to a free copy at Mises.org: The Anti-Capitalist Mentality

Trent writes:

Could mankind have become as moral as it is today absent the historical influence of religion?

The logical inference from this question is that mankind is relatively more moral today than it was in the past. That means that there has to be some objective or absolute standard by which morality is measured.

As Adam Smith showed with his theory of the impartial spectator (which both Russ and Mr. Ridley agreed with), mankind's preferred behavior, or morality, changes over time as mankind's preferences evolve/emerge. That sliding scale has to be compared to some objective standard of morality to determine whether or not mankind is becoming more moral.

I'd argue that religion alone provides that objective moral standard. Otherwise, all you're measuring is how mankind feels - we feel we're more (or less) moral today, compared to previous generations.

On another point, I share Russ' view that religious people seem to be under attack by "intellectuals" more today than in recent history. And I think it is related directly to this issue of objective/absolute standard of morality vs. what society wants it to be.

Consider Smith's model when applied to a believer. On one hand, you're guided to behave by what you're taught in the Bible; God is, of course, the impartial spectator. At the same time, you're guided to behave by what society accepts/regards as moral; the impartial spectator is the constructed representation of society. So believers are always faced with decisions about behaving as God wants them to vs. how society wants them to.

Whenever there's a gap between society's morality and religious morality, believers feel increased pressure to conform to society, and society's leaders feel more comfortable attacking believers for them not conforming to society's morality. Of course, there's nothing new about society attacking believers; the Apostle John cautioned fellow believers to not be surprised that the world hates you for your beliefs. In any event, I'd argue that the before-mentioned gap has increased in recent history; and in so doing there's both increased pressure on believers to conform and increased attacks by society on believers.

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