Somewhere in Africa more than 100,000 years ago, a phenomenon new to the planet was born. A Species began to add to its habits, generation by generation, without (much) changing its genes. What made this possible was exchange, the swapping of things and services between individuals. That gave the Species an external, collective intelligence far greater than anything it could hold in its admittedly capricious brain. Two individuals could each have two tools or two ideas while each knowing how to make only one. … In this way, exchange encouraged specialization, which further increased the number of different habits the Species could have, while shrinking the number of things that each individual knew how to make. Consumption could grow more diversified, while production grew more specialized (Matt Ridley, ‘The Rational Optimist’, 2010: 350).
The weight that we can place on exchange and specialization as explanations of human progress depends importantly on the extent to which advance of knowledge and innovation can be attributed to exchange and specialization. It is possible to go some distance in explaining technological progress as a consequence of specialization. As Bill Easterly points out in his NYT review, however, many breakthroughs come from creative outsiders who combine technologies generated by different specialties.
Ridley mentions that government actions of various kinds in different countries have often inhibited innovation, particularly the introduction of new products and new ways of doing things that threaten the survival of established patterns of production. The implication is that freedom is a necessary condition for progress comes through clearly in Ridley’s recent contribution to Cato Unbound:
I can’t help thinking that this sounds more like rational pessimism than rational optimism. According to Ridley, the industrial revolution is largely a story about coal – and progress since then has been possible mainly because of abundant cheap energy from fossil fuels. He notes that his optimism wobbles when he looks at the politics of carbon emissions reduction and the potential this has to load economies with further rules, restrictions, subsidies, distortions and corruption (p. 347).
Cartoon by Nicholson from “The Australian” newspaper: http://www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au/
The optimistic note on which Ridley ends his book comes from his view that innovation is such an evolutionary, bottom-up phenomenon that it will continue as long as exchange and specialization are allowed to thrive somewhere in the world.
In the end, it would seem that the gains from innovation, exchange and specialization all depend on liberty – liberty is the key to human progress.