Matt Ridley is a British author who is best known for being one of the foremost critics of environmental dogma. (He calls himself a “lukewarmer,” in that he believes the world is getting warmer, but more slowly than most doomsaying environmentalists claim.) But he has an Oxford doctorate and has worked for The Economist for nearly a decade.
Oh, he’s Viscount Ridley, and inherited his title.
I first encountered his work in The Rational Optimist, where he argued that the world, far from heading towards apocalypse, was instead steadily improving, that each successive generation lives longer, earns more, and is healthier than earlier generations.
His newest book, The Evolution of Everything, has its basic premise that everything in the world is a spontaneous order, that all efforts by central planners to steer the world in one direction or the other always fail. It’s a book that, depending on the topic, includes history, philosophy, and science writing. It’s a provocative book that donors should study closely.
Space doesn’t allow me to fully describe Ridley’s thesis. But let me tell you about two chapters, on education and population.
We know what happens in “education.” A student goes to school, sitting in desks while the teacher lectures and the students fidget. Several subjects are covered every day, and students dutifully march from one classroom to another when the school bell rings.
Citing the economic historian Stephen Davies, Ridley says that Wilhelm von Humboldt, who devised “a programme of compulsory and rigorous education, the purpose of which was mainly to train young men to be obedient soldiers who would not run away in battle”, invented this system in Prussia in 1806. Germanophilic Americans, most notably Horace Mann, brought the system to America. (Charles L. Glenn’s The Myth of the Common School remains one of the best sources for how Horace Mann convinced Americans to adopt bad German ideas.) The British too decided this system of regimented education would rain civil servants who could be transferred from Melbourne to Ottawa to Madras and quickly adapt to local conditions.
Ridley quotes a quite honest statement that union leader Albert Shanker once made. (His source is Richard Kahlenberg’s biography of Shanker.) “It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy,” Shanker said. “A bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise our school system doesn’t improve; it resembles the communist economy more than our own market economy.”
But the problem is that these state schools crowded out private schools, which could offer innovations centrally planned government schools cannot. Consider education in the Third World. Newcastle University education professor James Tooley, in his books The Beautiful Tree and From Village School to Global Brand, provides many case studies where he shows how students in the Third World have a choice between a state school where the teacher drones (and even falls asleep!) and can’t be fired or disciplined, or private academies where teachers have to be successful or else students will leave and take their tuition money to a competitor.
Obviously, donors should find ways to support these private academies, whereas large donations to support public schools—such as the Annenberg Challenge of the 1990s, or Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to prop up the Newark public schools—usually fail. (I write about Zuckerberg’s efforts here.
Ridley is forceful in his condemnation of population control and eugenics. “I think there is some persuasive evidence that a direct, if meandering, intellectual thread links the Poor Laws, the Irish famine, the gas chambers of Auschwitz and the one-child policies of Beijing. In all cases, cruelty as policy, based on faulty logic, sprang from a belief that those in power knew best what was good for the vulnerable and weak.”
There are two types of eugenicists: the bad kind (smart people should marry each other) and the evil kind (people who think people they deem “unfit” should be killed or sterilized). Ridley provides an example of the latter that was new to me, taken from Robert Zubrin’s Merchants of Despair. Robert Bulwer-Lytton was the Viceroy of India in 1877. (He was the son of the author for whom the Bulwer-Lytton awards for bad writing were named.) India was at the time in the early stages of a famine; there was plenty of food, “but taxes and the devaluation of the rupee left the hungry unable to afford relief.” Bulwer-Lytton’s response was to herd poor people into concentration camps, feed them starvation rations (less than the Nazis gave the Jews) and prevent charities from offering aid. The result: 10 million Indians died.
Ridley traces the ideas of the eugenicists from the hard men of the 1920s whose evil ideas resulted in the deaths of six million Jews to their less nasty, but still very prescriptive successors in the 1950s, whose ideas resulted in the massive Indian sterilizations of 1975-6 and the one-child policy in China. He notes that many of these people-haters loved nature; Madison Grant, for example, was not only one of the most notorious racists of his era, who endlessly ranted about “mongrels,” but he was also the founder of the Bronx Zoo.
I write about the population controllers of the 1950s and 1960s funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations in Great Philanthropic Mistakes. Population rates did fall after 1970, but the result was not due to any scheme devised in London, Washington, or Turtle Bay, but because tens of millions of women voluntarily decided to have fewer children. They made these decisions without the assistance of well-meaning Western mandarins.
What poor people need—and what donors can provide—are not marching orders calculated in the ivory towers of the West, but “hope, opportunity, freedom, education, food, and medicine” because these gifts “not only will make them happier; it will enable them to have smaller families.”
Matt Ridley reminds us that when donors think they have all the answers—particularly when it comes to changing human behavior—they will almost certainly make mistakes. Humility and helpfulness are better skills for the program officer than are arrogance and self-importance.