Originally published in Flourishing September/October 2012
Some time ago (April 2011), in an article entitled Ideas Having Sex, I shared with you one of my favorite books, The Rational Optimist1, by Matt Ridley. In contrast to the financial media, who have a vested interest in promoting crises and conflicts, Ridley’s fundamental message is that optimism is the rational approach to life.
According to Ridley, who is a Scottish geneticist, human beings long ago learned the benefits of voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange. (You may have noticed that those who have not learned the art of such exchange are most often found to be criminals or demagogues.) The art of voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange, especially here in America, has become part of our cultural DNA. We call it “win-win”, and it explains why our unique experiment in economic freedom created a cultural and economic expansion that snowballed into an empire of benevolence and wealth.
Tom Gardner, co-founder of the Motley Fool newsletter companies, recently endorsed2 Matt Ridley’s theme, “Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution.” And the extension, “Most powerful of all is the exchange of ideas.” Paraphrasing Gardner: …while the exchange of hard goods is at any given moment a zero sum enterprise, an idea can be shared to an infinite degree – hundreds or even billions of people can benefit from a single idea. Moreover, ideas may combine with a virtually infinite number of other ideas, thus creating exponentially expanding human benefits; as, indeed, they already have.
Gardner points out that in today’s networked world, the benefits of voluntary exchange of ideas include greater literacy, greater transparency, more shared best practices, and deeper empathy and mutual awareness than ever before in human history. Our lives are richer because of the Internet and wireless communication technology.
I recently thought to download from Amazon’s Cloud Player to my iPod a song I’ve always enjoyed and taken inspiration from, Lacy J. Dalton’s hit single, The Boys of 16th Avenue3. It was written by Thom Schuyler in 1983, and recorded by Dalton in the same year. It celebrates the “million dollar spirit” of aspiring young musicians, who give up everything else to follow their dreams to Nashville. I hadn’t heard it for a long while, but when I played the song a few days ago, I was struck by this line:
There’s cowboys, drunks, and Christians,
Mostly white and black and blue.
They’ve all dialed the phone collect to home
From 16th Avenue.
Forget for a moment the remarkable fact that my iPod (for which I paid less than a hundred dollars) has more computing power than all the Apple computers on the planet in 1983; what struck me about those lyrics was—though I’ve placed more than a few collect calls in my time—that I can’t remember the last time I saw a telephone booth. And, who among us does not now carry a smart phone they can’t live without?
I have no opinion on the future of smart phones; the iPod, or of Apple, the company that makes and sells it; or of Amazon, the ubiquitous, world-wide Internet shopping mall. But I’m very sure that the future of the world economy is not in the hands of criminals or demagogues. These people do exist—indeed, they swarm—and they are an impediment to progress. But, the future is, as it has always been, in the hands of the creators—people who today may have, like the boys of 16th Avenue in 1983 or the cofounder4 of Apple in 1976—little else than a million dollar spirit, one good idea, and a burning desire to manifest their talents in the marketplace of voluntary exchange. Today, ideas are dispersed, democratized, and mated with other ideas at light speed; and many are then concretized in the lives of millions of people through investors like you and me, and the managers and marketers and laborers of the world’s great companies. The iPod is just one example.
The proliferation and mating of ideas has been expanding human horizons for nearly one hundred thousand years; and that omnipresent, long-term trend is not seriously threatened by today’s faux-populist politicians or by the vainglorious sideshow we call “network news”. Still, I can appreciate that despite decades, centuries, and millennia of accelerating improvement in the human condition, our contemporary politicians and pundits have the volume and circuitry to influence our thinking in ways we may not fully realize. For example, during every market setback, I hear people echoing CNBC and its ilk with questions like, “But, what if the economy/market doesn’t recover?” I know that some advisors, in response to such queries, are telling people to turn off the television, and that’s probably fine advice, as far as it goes. But, I still think it wouldn’t do any harm, and it might do much good, for investors to read—for calming, historical perspective—books like The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley. For another setback is surely coming, though we cannot know when or from what level. mh
2. http://newsletters.fool.com/ (subscription required)
4. Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, Simon and Shuster, October 24, 2011.