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The New Optimism

When you examine the data, life is better today than at any previous time in history. Matt Ridley, Johan Norberg and David Runciman argued the importance of optimism, chaired by Laura Kuenssberg.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? And why should it matter? After what for many of us has been an annus horribilis in 2016, pessimists seem to have all the best tunes. Terror attacks, horror headlines from Syria, a tide of hatred and resentment poisoning our politics: the world looks increasingly grim. But what about the actual facts? If you step back and examine the data, it’s clear that life is better today for the majority of people than at any previous time in history. And we’re not just talking about the developing world, where progress has been remarkable. Here in the West, most of us have never had it so good. Just look at the improvements in health and longevity, the breadth of entertainment available, and the opportunities to travel that we blithely take for granted.

In this special Intelligence Squared event, we examined two fundamentally opposing worldviews. In the optimists’ corner were Matt Ridley, author of the prize-winning The Rational Optimist, and Johan Norberg, whose latest book is Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. They argued that the progress that has been made over the past centuries – whether in education, child labour, poverty or violent deaths – is now running at an unprecedented pace and that there is every reason to think that it will continue for decades to come.

But is their essentially rationalist approach one that can really explain what appears to be the conflict-ridden world we live in? After all, many of us have never felt so gloomy and perplexed. This tension is not new. It has run through mainstream political thought since the Enlightenment. It set rationalists such as Adam Smith and J. S. Mill against those who sought to interpret the darker side of human nature such as Rousseau and Dostoevsky. They have been joined more recently by behavioural economists such as Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler. For these latter thinkers, rationalism will always fail to give a full account of human behaviour. Exploring this line of thought in our event was the acclaimed political scientist David Runciman. And steering the discussion was the BBC’s star political editor Laura Kuenssberg.

Optimist or pessimist? Some say that pessimism is dangerous, as it’s the emotions of fear and nostalgia that are fertile breeding grounds for populist demagogues. Others argue that too optimistic a view can blind us to the real threats facing our freedoms and democracy.



Laura Kuenssberg

BBC Political Editor

The BBC’s Political Editor since 2015. Before that, she was BBC’s Newsnight Chief Correspondent and Presenter. Formerly Business Editor for ITV and Chief Political Correspondent for the BBC.

Johan Norberg

Author and documentary filmmaker

Author and documentary filmmaker. Norberg is a frequent commentator in Swedish and international media, and has a weekly column in Sweden’s biggest daily, Metro. He is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington DC and the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels. His latest book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, has been widely praised, with Steven Pinker describing it as ‘An exhilarating book. With the combination of arresting stories and striking data, Progress will change your understanding about where we’ve come from and where we may be heading.’

Matt Ridley

Award-winning science writer

One of the UK’s most popular science writers, whose books have sold over a million copies and been translated into 30 languages. His book The Rational Optimist won the Hayek Prize and the Julian Simon Prize. He writes regularly in the Wall Street Journal and is a weekly columnist for The Times. As Viscount Ridley, he was elected to the House of Lords in February 2013. His other books include Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 ChaptersThe Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature; and most recently The Evolution of Everything.

David Runciman

Professor of Politics, Cambridge University

Professor of Politics at Cambridge University. His books include The Politics of Good Intentions, Political Hypocrisy, The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present and, most recently, Politics. He writes regularly about politics for the London Review of Books and the Guardian.