‘The Fatal Conceit’ is not what you’d call a light read, but worth the effort if you can keep up your concentration. Hayek will always command historical interest, having been such a philosophical influence on Thatcher. As an economist of distinctly capitalist bent, he here puts the theoretical boot into socialism. You’ll either find it a compelling case or a tirade; but it rehearses the respective arguments tidily, whatever your perspective. My only reservation is that the book sounded rather like an essay, and would guess that the original print version contains references to back up the many assumptions.
Narrator Everett Sherman does a nice job, with a calm, mature voice that fits the content well, and a leisurely pace that gives you time to take in the sometimes complex arguments. Be aware that there are a few re-recorded passages that have been spliced in rather obviously.
In many respects, Hayek is on the same ground here as Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’, albeit with an academic rather than a fictional orientation. Given a choice, my opinion would be that, in terms of brevity, precision and humanity, it has to be Hayek.
Having liked all Ridley’s science books, I was worried to hear about this one. I suspected that he, a Tory peer, was lurching into political writing in defence of climate-change denial. So I put off reading it for three years; but I wish now that I hadn’t. Though presenting an optimistic view at odds with most scientists, it produces a shipload of facts, data and evidence in support – enough to have me questioning my own assumptions. If you’re convinced that the world’s going to hell in a handcart and you won’t hear otherwise, stay well away. But if you can entertain conflicting ideas simultaneously, this one’s for you.
As for Ridley’s thesis: hearing the historical evidence, I found it hard to dispute his case that the world's never had it so good. His argument that pessimism is over-cooked is also convincing - in principle. For me, the big flies in the ointment are his PC beliefs that all people are the same, and that you can’t get enough of them. And some of his suppositions already look doubtful. Since the book was written, the UN has admitted that its estimated 9bn population peak was wildly optimistic. It’s also clear that the regions where populations are exploding are the very least equipped to engage in the trade- and innovation-led salvation Ridley proposes. Despite all that, it makes a change to hear a dissenter rattling Al Gore’s cage.
I disliked the choice of reader, L J Ganser. Ridley, an Eton- and Oxford-educated aristocrat, talks in an appropriately understated manner. To hear him narrated like a New York car-salesman feels all wrong, especially as the text gives many clues to its English provenance. Some homework wouldn’t have hurt: not knowing that Samuel Pepys rhymes with ‘keeps’ is one of many crass blunders; but, for a real laugh, you’ll need to hear the economist Jeavons’s moniker mangled yourself.
In short: get it. You’ll be either entertained or exercised, and certainly informed. And you’ll never take the doomsayers’ word at face value again.
This is a book that everyone working in spheres concerned with influencing human behaviour, from marketing to politics, should be obliged to read. For many, it will be the first time they’ve had exposure to evidence-based insight into how the mind really makes decisions. But you needn’t be a self-defined expert: anyone who’d like to understand why so many decisions are awful will love this.
If you already know a bit about behavioural economics, there may not be much here that’s a revelation. Kahneman has been publishing since the 1970s, and much of his earlier thinking was brought to life by Stuart Sutherland’s ‘Irrationality – the Enemy Within’ in 1992. More recently and publicly, Kahneman acolytes Sunstein & Thaler cleaned up with ‘Nudge’. I got the impression that maybe this book is the author’s last-gasp effort to cash in his own chips. But that doesn’t take away from this rarity, a popular-science book that’s not self-help drivel but has peer-reviewed experiment running right through it, forming a terrific compendium of insights into how and why our brains routinely screw up.
One word of caution: novices to the area shouldn’t take the System 1/2 model as gospel. One mental failing Kahneman highlights is ‘What You See Is All There Is’ – in other words, we neglect all accounts but the one we’re being presented with. This book risks providing precisely such a trap. Psychologists have been adept over the decades at devising highly plausible and repeatable models that establish their fame and fortune but turn out to have little scientific grounding. It’s notable that, though neuroscientific experiments have indeed demonstrated how sensory data may be processed in parallel by slower or faster networks, Kahneman mentions surprisingly little such evidence. A complete model might need for example to embrace individual differences in the density of neural connections in the prefrontal cortex: in other words, some of us just think logically a lot more often than others do.