Matt Ridley vs. Bill Gates
Posted by rswanson on Nov 29, 2010 at 8:56 am
Matt Ridley and Bill Gates sparred last weekend in the Wall Street Journal. The “Weekend Journal” featured two pieces, one by Ridley, the other by Gates, which debated Western policy regarding poverty in Africa and climate change. Matt Ridley was first a science writer and author of “Genome” and “The Origins of Virtue.” His new book is called “The Rational Optimist.” The book takes aim at overblown pessimism about global problems, and says that often interventions design to prevent or overcome problems usually make matters worse. The debate between Ridley and Gates features each man’s opinion about what will be most helpful in overcoming African poverty and the utility of pessimism. Ridley states that Africa needs “growth, not pity and big plans.” Gates says, “Africa needs aid, not flawed theories.”
Prosperity has come from man’s ability to exchange both goods and ideas with one another, according to Ridley. He acknowledges that aid can be effective in meeting some needs, like providing medicine and education. However, he goes on to say, “What I do take issue with is economic aid designed to stimulate economic growth. For example, a 2006 study by Simeon Djankov of the World Bank (now deputy prime minister of Bulgaria) and his colleagues concluded that ‘foreign aid has a negative impact on the democratic stance of developing countries and on economic growth by reducing investment and increasing government consumption.’ Economic aid diverts resources into projects that fail, puts money into the pockets of corrupt government officials and crowds out the efforts of entrepreneurs. In one example, only 13% of educational aid to Uganda reached schools; the rest was siphoned off by rent-seeking officials.”
Gates, defends the utility of a pessimistic outlook in some cases saying that pessimism can lead to innovation. He also says that Ridley is too dismissive of current large-scale problems. About Africa he says, “Development in Africa is difficult to achieve, but I am optimistic that it will accelerate. Science will come up with vaccines for AIDS and malaria, and the “top-down” approach to aid criticized by Mr. Ridley (and by the economist William Easterly) will fund the delivery of these life-saving drugs. What Mr. Ridley fails to see is that worrying about the worst case—being pessimistic, to a degree—can actually help to drive a solution.”
The debate is worth a closer look. What do you think? Is there a “both/and” solution that is overlooked in this Journal discussion?
—Matt Ridley’s many books include, most recently, “The Rational Optimist” and “Francis Crick.” His website is rationaloptimist.com