For this 15th anniversary edition, then, I thought I would look back at a book that was published way back in 1998. I did a little sleuthing and found an excellent one in my library, one that appropriately enough has its gaze firmly fixed forward: Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. On one level, Postrel’s book is a celebration of the technological wonders of the modern world. She writes eloquently about the benefits of everything from biotechnology to computers, from tampons to contact lenses. But on a deeper level, she is celebrating the creativity and enterprise that generate open-ended, unpredictable progress—and warning us against those who would stifle it or stop it altogether.
Pro vs. Con
Postrel refers to those who embrace the idea of an open-ended future as “dynamists.” Although they are a diverse group and certainly not a proper coalition, dynamists “share beliefs in spontaneous order, in experiments and feedback, in evolved solutions to complex problems, in the limits of centralized knowledge, and in the possibilities of progress.” While many libertarians will recognize themselves in such attitudes (Postrel herself was the editor of the libertarian Reason magazine from July 1989 to January 2000), so will others who consider themselves progressives, liberals, or conservatives, or who are frankly apolitical. Dynamism is a broad category, and it cuts across party lines.
So, too, is its opposite. People who are opposed to the idea of an open-ended future, Postrel dubs “stasists,” and they in turn fall into two broad subcategories: “reactionaries, whose central value is stability, and technocrats, whose central value is control.” Certain types of conservatives who long for the way they imagine the world to have been in the 1950s (or the 1850s) are examples of reactionaries, but so are certain environmentalists who long for the way they imagine the world to have been before the Industrial Revolution, or before agriculture, or before man. Technocrats, for their part, do not want to stop or reverse change; they just want to tame it, to bring it under centralized, expert control by subsidizing and regulating businesses, controlling international trade and immigration, and requiring their stamp of approval before anything new can be allowed to flourish.
In countering reactionaries, dynamists need to emphasize the great benefits that have accrued to humankind from things like penicillin, modern dentistry, and electric motors, which have eliminated many early deaths and much pain and backbreaking toil. In responding to the siren call of technocrats, dynamists need to explain why the future cannot be effectively controlled without crippling it, that in order for there to be much technological innovation and material progress, people need the freedom to experiment.
Reactionaries, says Postrel, used to be opposed to technocrats, but now “they attack dynamism, often in alliance with their former adversaries.” In response, one of her tacks is to celebrate dynamism as being, in fact, more truly natural than either stability or centralized control. She also cleverly counters the charge that people who value freedom are “atomistic” by pointing out that atoms are rarely found alone in nature; they form molecular bonds, and free people form social bonds without having to be coerced into doing so. In closing, she calls on dynamists to start seeing themselves as a real coalition, a coalition not based primarily on fear or self-interest, but rather “bound by love: love of knowledge, love of exploration, love of adventure, and, just as much, love of small dreams, of the textures of life.”
The World Today
A lot can change in fifteen years. In celebrating the gradual development of contact lenses through the messy, undirected process of trial and error, Postrel imagines what the future of this technology might be: “Someday we may expect our contact lenses to function as computer screens and navigation guides, to see infrared or enhance night vision. Or we may displace them altogether with laser surgery or other procedures, as yet undiscovered.” Laser eye surgery, which was still very new in 1998, has more than come into its own in 2013, as my friend and QL colleague Adam Allouba personally experienced just recently.
But if technology has not stopped evolving, the dynamist coalition Postrel envisioned to defend the future does not yet appear to have become a significant player on the political scene. Part of the reason is surely the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, which breathed new life into old Cold War, hawk-dove political divisions that had up until then been fading, and thereby forestalled any restructuring along dynamist-stasist lines. It also gave technocratic peddlers of fear on the right another excuse to exert more centralized control, as the 2008 financial crisis did for technocratic peddlers of fear on the left.
Part of the challenge for libertarians has been to show that both of these traumatic events were failures of rigid, centralized, bureaucratic control—and that flexible, spontaneous order can do better. Hopefully, given the work we do here at Le Québécois Libre, and the work done by Postrel and many others around the world, in another fifteen years, the kinds of lessons contained in The Future and Its Enemies will be more widely appreciated, and that dynamist coalition for an open-ended future will be a burgeoning reality.