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Welcome to Matt Ridley's Blog
Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Refugee ideas

Political plurality allows innovations to flourish

My latest Wall Street Journal column, Triumph of the Idea Smugglers, argues that from time to time in history good ideas need rescuing from bad regimes. If Thales of Miletus had not infected Greece with rationalism after travelling in Egypt, and if 1700 years later, Leonardo Fibonacci had not infected Italy with Hindu numerals after growing up in what is now Algeria -- then these ideas might not have flourished.

The secret of human progress is and always has been to keep ideas moving, both so that they meet and mate with new ideas and so that they escape suppression at home. As the philosopher David Hume was the first to observe, China suffers from a geographic disadvantage in this respect: It is too easy to unify. When disunited it grows rich and innovative. But time and again emperors, from the Ming to the Maoist, have been able to establish tyrannical centralized rule and shut down trade, diversity and experiment.

Europe, with its centrifugal rivers, its peninsulas and mountain ranges, is very hard to unify by conquest. Ask Constantine, Charles V, Napoleon and Hitler. So European states could harbor commercial, intellectual and religious refugees from each other, keeping flames alive. The history of technology is littered with examples of Europeans who fled from one jurisdiction to another to a find a more congenial or generous ruler: Columbus, Gutenberg, Voltaire, Einstein.

Today, Chinese censorship notwithstanding, ideas can flit across borders quicker than thought. We can do with a few mouse clicks what Fibonacci had to take a leaky galleon across the sea to achieve.