It’s probably a fair criticism of my writing in recent years that it disproportionately targets conservative viewpoints and leadership. I’m labeled by many as a liberal, a troubling label to me because, while I advocate some liberal stances, as far as my analytical framework and worldview go, the liberal-conservative dichotomy really misses the whole point. So I want to offer something different—perhaps more constructive. I want to promote two conservative thinkers who I believe to be brilliant, who have a mountain of substance to contribute to conservative thought, and whose works, without reservation, are foundational to my worldview.
The first individual is Matt Ridley. Ridley is a scientist, businessman (albeit a failed one), and an author. Most of his writings have been about genetics and environmental science. On the surface, that Ridley would possess such a juggernaut of influence over my economic world view might surprise many. First, and most obvious, Ridley is not an economist in the traditional sense, he is a biologist. But more striking—believe me, this irony surprises even me—Ridley is a pretty dogged libertarian.
A complete reading of Ridley’s The Rational Optimist ought to be a prerequisite to every living person’s next opinion. Boiled down, Ridley attempts to do three things in his book, two of which he succeeds. First, he removes whatever nostalgia we may have romantically and naively acquired. Life on Earth is better than it ever has been. Not only is life better, but, by almost every measure, it’s almost embarrassingly better.
Having thoroughly convinced that the world is better, he moves to the question of why? As convincing as his thesis that the world is at its best and is improving still, Ridley attributes the upward trajectory of mankind to one remarkable thing: trade. The Rational Optimist is certainly about economics, but at its heart, it’s a book on anthropology. From that, Ridley interweaves his third and, least convincing thesis—that government is the problem. Ridley’s suspicion of government is less convincing than his enthusiasm for trade. I, for one, do not believe government to be the enemy of the market economy. But I do believe a healthy market economy to be essential to a healthy human spirit. Ridley establishes a tight correlation between the two. You will never be more astounded at the potential of humans than from reading The Rational Optimist. You will never be more convinced at our ability to overcome challenges. And you will never be more struck by how wired the human and humans are to trade.
The second is Niall Ferguson. Ferguson is an economic historian at Harvard, a columnist for Newsweek, a prolific author, and speaker everywhere. He was named among the world 100 most influential people by Time Magazine. Probably his most famous work is The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World.
While Ridley’s work is convincing to the proposition that trade has been essential to the well-being of humans, Ferguson’s work is convincing to the proposition that our modern system of finance is essential to our unrecognizable world that Ridley aptly describes. In this respect, Ridley and Ferguson should be read together. And not surprisingly, Ridley references Ferguson’s work in his.
Listen. I never could have imagined a book about financial history being even remotely interesting.
Not only was it interesting (Ferguson is witty and superbly articulate) it was paradigm-changing. By modern finance, I mean bond markets, stock markets, credit, insurance, banking, insurance, and hedge funds. The financial banks are the new railroads. Our standard of living is completely dependent on their well-being. This is a point that libertarians critical of the bank bailout would do well to acknowledge.
And the best thing about The Ascent of Money is that you don’t even have to read it. You can watch the PBS documentary and get as much as I did from reading the book.
Ferguson makes a sport out of criticizing Paul Krugman and has endorsed Mitt Romney. In Romney, Ferguson sees someone who understands the volatility of the bond market and its potential to make or break a country. Ferguson is right about bond markets, but seems to be ignoring the successes of the 90s when our budgets were balanced, our economy was booming, but yet our taxes were just a bit higher than they are now.
In that sense, I disagree with Ridley and Ferguson regarding the precise political implications of their works. But I cannot help but be profoundly influenced by the broad perspective they have helped instill. Pick up a copy of The Rational Optimist and The Ascent of Money, I don’t care what your political or economic persuasion.
On second thought, don’t follow Niall Ferguson. Since I wrote this article more than a year ago, the man has gone out of his way to be wrong about, frankly, everything. One could confidently govern a nation by inviting Ferguson’s opinion and then doing the exact opposite.