The Future and Its Enemies
by Virginia Postrel
The Free Press, New York, 1998, 265 pp., $25.00 (hbk)
(ISBN 0 684 82760 3)
by Dr. Edward Younkins
Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and author of Capitalism and Commerce.
It has often been said that there are two types of people in the world – those who divide human beings into two types and those who do not. Virginia Postrel, editor of Reason magazine, in her brilliant, bold, and compelling new work, The Future and Its Enemies, defies conventional political boundaries of left and right and liberal and conservative to divide the world into stasists and dynamists. The book's thesis is that the most useful and pertinent intellectual vision is about those who want to stop, turn back, or regulate change and those who welcome the future. Ms Postrel's division is reminiscent of Thomas Sowell's unconstrained and constrained visions as thoroughly discussed in his Conflict of Visions and The Vision of the Anointed. Ms Postrel, herself a dynamist, is proposing a new political dividing line based on how one views and approaches the idea of change.
Stasists have an aversion to change and either abhor progress or want to control it according to their own vision. Stasists include those who long for the good old days, technophobes, technocrats, supporters of big government programs, and individuals whose investments or jobs are in jeopardy due to some specific innovation. They may come from the left (unionists, environmentalists, Luddites, etc.) or from the right (religious traditionalists, nativists, etc.). Stasists on the left want to regulate the market and the development of technology. Those on the right loathe change and have protectionist economic leanings.
Various types of stasists such as Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, the Unabomber, unionists, and environmentalists have joined to advocate the restriction of immigration and to oppose global trade. Ms Postrel observes that although stasis supporters are numerous, their visions of the ideal future are varied and incompatible making their alliances fragile and temporary.
Stasists want a regulated, engineered world – the future must be managed. Stasists are into social engineering as exemplified in Bill Clinton's bridge to the 21st century and Al Gore's information superhighway. They want to control and limit change. Ms Postrel notes that the growth of government is making it easier for stasists to get their way. Bureaucratic regulations enable stasists to prevent, delay, or control innovations and changes.
Scorning the idea of nested rules based on the diversity of human bonds, stasists believe they know the one, best way and demand that everyone live by their ideas. Not only do they want their detailed rules to apply to everyone, they also want specific rules and institutions to govern each new situation and keep things under control. They crave certainty and expect specific outcomes, knowable in advance, rather than general patterns and an open future. Politically-imposed statist plans tend to be very specific – they admit no unarticulated and tacit x-factors and no feedback and learning. Stasists prefer knowledge that can be articulated and easily shared. In addition, they strongly value and support the views of an articulate élite – someone needs to take control and make things right.
Stasists portray the market either as an impersonal machine or as a small cabal of powerful men. They tend to detest commercial bonds since a dynamic marketplace erodes the ability of political élites to enforce collective decisions.
Imagining life out of time, stasists want to simplify life and to hold it still. In addition, they take existing conditions as a fixed scratch line, considering neither how we got where we are nor how things might evolve.
Ms Postrel describes two types of stasists – reactionaries, whose central value is stability and technocrats whose central value is control. Whereas reactionaries wish to reverse change, restoring the past and holding it in place, technocrats desire to manage change, centrally directing progress according to a predictable plan. Reactionaries often ally themselves with technocrats – they unite in hostility against capitalism, the consumer culture, and globalism.
Reactionaries fear the infinite series – an open-ended progression of invention, learning, adaptation, and change. Some seek rules that would ban change. Others, such as Pat Buchanan, Jeremy Rifkin, and Kirkpatrick Sale, want to return to some imagined, more stable past. The power of reactionaries lies in their ability to alter the values enforced through technocratic structures or to create new technocratic agencies devoted to reactionary purposes.
Technocrats worry about the inability of the state to control dynamists and about a future that may be unpredictable and beyond the control of the elite. Technocracy is the ideology of the one best way. It follows that technocrats are for the future, but only if someone is in charge of making it turn out according to their plan. Technocrats want rules that will control outcomes. They establish standards and impose a single set of values on the future. They prefer setting goals once and for all and talk about comprehensive systems and national standards. They do not tolerate diversity and decentralised trial and error.
Technocrats celebrate their knowledge and expertise and exude an air of omnicompetence. Seeking predictability and order, they see themselves as social engineers who formulate rational solutions to public problems. Political arguments tend to take place between technocrats advocating competing overarching schemes. Technocrats like to locate the spirit of America in national greatness achieved through bold federal projects.
Technocrats know how to stop things. Technocratic regulations stifle innovation and diversity, deprive people of the benefit of their own knowledge, and create roadblocks in the form of new rules to master, or anticipate, before acting.
Ms Postrel is at her best when she is describing the dynamist perspective – a world view in which she fervently believes. Dynamists prefer an open-minded society where creativity and enterprise, operating under general and predictable rules, generate progress in unpredictable ways. Dynamists appreciate evolutionary processes such as market competition, playful experimentation, scientific inquiry, and technological innovation. A dynamist is one who works creatively across barriers and obstacles and in areas once thought to be disparate to construct combinations based on the free play of imagination and discovery. Dynamists seek progress, rather than perfection, through trial and error, feedback loops, incremental improvement, diversity, and choice. They are learners, experimenters, risk takers, and entrepreneurs who understand the importance of local knowledge and evolved solutions to complex problems. Not surprisingly, dynamists are frequently attracted to biological metaphors as symbols of unpredictable change and growth, variety, experimentation, feedback, and adaptation.
The author explains that dynamism is for people who like process and pattern and an order that is unpredictable, spontaneous, and ever-shifting. Dynamists appreciate dispersed, even tacit, knowledge and recognise the limits of the human mind at the same time that they celebrate learning. They also prefer competing nested rule sets and want to limit universal rule-making to broadly applicable and rarely changed principles. Dynamists also permit many visions and accept competing dreams. To work together, they do not have to agree on metaphysical principles or what the future should look like.
Ms Postrel states that the central organising principle of dynamism is an open-ended process and that its central value is learning. Unconscious evolution can sometimes develop better solutions than can the best engineers. Dynamists, members of what Ms Postrel calls the party of life, look for solutions to emerge from the interaction of all the individuals. They share beliefs in spontaneous order, experiments and feedback, unintended consequences, an infinite series of evolved solutions to complex problems, the limits of centralised knowledge, and the possibility of progress. Dynamists care about protecting the processes that permit an open-ended future to unfold.
Dynamists learn from choice, competition, and criticism. Both new ideas and criticism are part of the process of trial and error learning. Dynamists also understand that cultures learn from experience.
Dynamists appreciate and accept the variety of human life and value the joys and possibilities of human life that can occur when people are free to experiment and learn. The dynamist moral vision emphasises individual flourishing and responsibility – it sees human nature fulfilled in learning, creating, and adapting to the world. Dynamists believe in the capacity of human beings, gradually and voluntarily, by trial and error, to improve their lives.
Ms Postrel discusses dynamists' attraction to systemic, process-oriented approaches and their appreciation for how simple units and simple rules can form complex orders without design and produce countless combinations. Patterns are shaped by decentralised actions, feedback, and responses. For example, dynamists see the market as a process, a decentralised system for discovering and sharing knowledge and for trading and expressing value.
Dynamism sees the past and the future as inextricably connected and progress as incremental – knowledge and experience are cumulative. Dynamists believe that we live in a world of options constrained by decisions already made and actions already taken – many before we were even born. They attempt to refine and improve our inherited ideas and determine more precisely the limits to their applicability. Dynamists view cultural trends as part of a decentralised, undirected process of experiment, feedback, and learning.
Progress, for the dynamist, is an infinite series – a process, rather than a product. For them, an opportunity is a problem no one has solved, addressed, or considered. Innovations are based on coming up with new combinations of ideas, testing them, finding their deficiencies, trying possibly better combinations, etc. Technological progress thus is a series of stages involving experimentation, competition, mistakes, and feedback.
A trial and error process invests no one with decision power, assumes no one is omniscient, acknowledges human differences, and permits diverse approaches. This process recognises the human condition including both the limits and potential of the human mind.
An infinite series of progress allows for learning, diffused expertise, and the search for x-factors – the unarticulated knowledge that can only be elicited by experience and experiment. So-called tacit knowledge is expressed in relationships and habits transmitted through webs of economic and social connections. Tacit knowledge, a special case of local knowledge, is embedded, in the things, customs, services, and routines we encounter daily. Tacit knowledge sometimes only travels through apprenticeship. The paucity of articulated knowledge increases the value of turning local (including tacit) knowledge into easily shared information or products. Local knowledge is dynamic, constantly adjusting to new ideas, information, and events. It exists as dispersed bits of incomplete and sometimes contradictory knowledge which all separate individuals possess. Prices are an important signal of changes in local conditions.
Ms Postrel argues that dynamist systems, ranging from a solitary organisation to an entire civilisation, requires rules that are compatible with knowledge, learning, and surprise. Dynamists look for rules that let people forge new bonds, invent new institutions, and find better ways of doing things. According to the author, dynamist rules: (1) allow individuals (including groups of individuals) to act on their own knowledge; (2) apply to simple, generic units and allow them to combine in many different ways; (3) permit credible, understandable, enduring, and enforceable commitments; (4) protect criticism, competition, and feedback, and (5) establish a framework within which people can create nested, competing frameworks of more specific rules.
A dynamist vision thus calls for general rules on which actors can depend – a reliable foundation on which to build complex, ever-adapting structures that incorporate local knowledge. New schemes of rules will be voluntarily subscribed to, allowed to evolve, and able to incorporate detailed knowledge of the particulars. These new schemes of rules will operate as separate nested systems within the general rules.
Ms Postrel explains that contracts treat individuals as free and equal generic units, creating their own bonds. Only by treating individuals in this manner can overarching rules allow people to take advantage of their own ideas. Contracts allow people to incur reciprocal responsibilities and commitments, to make promises others can rely on, and to establish reasonable expectations for future actions. When people cannot make binding, enforceable commitments, dynamic progress is severely hampered.
Well-functioning legal systems are especially important when strangers interact in commercial and other situations. The goal of contract law is not to inspire legal disputes but to settle or avoid them. The idea of contract fosters dynamic progress by encouraging specialisation and allowing an extended order to develop.
The author notes that rules should protect criticism, competition, and feedback by allowing the freedom to challenge established ideas and to offer alternatives. Nested rules recognise the diversity of human bonds by permitting individuals to choose the specific rules under which they prefer to be governed.
Ms Postrel and other dynamists view nature as a dynamic process, not as an end. An evolving, open-ended nature may impose practical constraints, but it cannot dictate eternal standards. She explains that stasis is neither natural nor desirable and that there is no static standard for the natural. If nature doesn't define its own purposes, and if even natural states may incorporate human artifice, then nature cannot be a guide even to its own moral and proper destiny, much less to human life. Change and self-transformation are among the truest expressions of our enduring human nature.
Dynamists celebrate the pleasures of achievement – work that is its own reward. According to Ms Postrel, play is what we do for its own sake. It is how we try new things, how we learn, and how we create new combinations. Freedom is an essential aspect of play. So are rules. all games have rules that require us to stretch our minds and bodies. Whereas play depends on some kind of underlying order, fun stems from finding originality within constraints. If combinations explain the near endless supply of new ideas, play explains where those combinations come from. Play is a spur to our most creative and significant work. The progress of civilisations depend on people who make play out of work – they create the variations that become the source of progress and the discoveries that drive the infinite series.
A dynamist society imposes no single order beyond the basic rules that allow for plentitude and experimentation. A dynamist system enables people to create their own corner of the universe – their own pockets of stability and nested rules within the broader dynamic world. Dynamist social systems recognise the human need for voluntary association and community and thus allow for people to continually invent ways to provide themselves with stability amidst change.
Ms Postrel discusses a fascinating range of cases to illustrate how free individuals have formulated solutions and found opportunities that never would have been thought of by technocratic planners or reactionary thinkers. These examples include post-it notes, the Internet, computers, shampoo, fashion, medicine, contact lenses, fisheries, movies, etc. In all these areas she demonstrates how and why openended and unplanned trial and error is the key to human progress.
Dynamist thought draws from many intellectual disciplines including: classical liberal philosophy and legal theory, free-market economics, political science and public administration, the study of organisations and business strategy, information systems, decision theory, cognitive psychology, human information processing, science, technology, ecology and evolutionary biology, etc. Notable dynamist thinkers include Friedrich Hayek, Herbert Simon, Aaron Wildasky, Daniel Botkin, and many others.
Dynamist thinkers like Ms Postrel will probably like the new movie, Pleasantville, that tells the story of twins (a brother and sister) who are magically transported via a TV remote control out of their dysfunctional ‘90s home into a monochromatic fantasy world of a ‘50s-type sitcom called Pleasantville that reminds one of Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriett. These teen-aged visitors bring spontaneity to this ordered little world thereby changing the sitcom's universe from black and white to colour in more ways than one. As feelings are felt for the first time by the Pleasantville characters, strange but beautiful splashes of colour begin to appear apparently randomly (since we don't know the underlying interacting factors) in their black-and-white world. As the townspeople are introduced to passionate emotions and new ideas, colour starts to enter their world. The teen-agers awaken new ideas in the citizens, making them question things that they had taken for granted. Some embrace the new vision and colour scheme, while others fear its influence. There is a split between those who want to retreat from change, knowledge, and human responsibility and those who want to embrace them. By the finale, all traces of black-and-white along with the 50's utopian and sanitised values have been replaced with a functional community with its full range of social concerns and citizens who are colourful, liberated people with free wills.
Dynamists thinkers should also like the 1991 film Mindwalk – a philosophical, socio-political, and scientific dynamist conversation between a physicist, a poet, and a politician. The scientist is an idealist (and a dynamist), the poet is a romantic, and the politician is a pragmatist. The three discuss the systematic makeup of the universe. The physicist argues against mechanistic solutions and convinces the others of the interconnectedness of all things – there are world within worlds, organisms within organisms, systems within systems, etc.
Some readers of this review (and Ms Postrel's book) may balk at her seemingly purely material conception of progress. After all, man's most profound questions and problems are existential, moral, and spiritual. As such, true progress would be oriented toward the right ordering and perfection of the soul. Perhaps Ms Postrel should have spent some time explaining that by making life easier, safer, and more prosperous, progress and technology permit persons to spend more time to pursue higher level concerns such as character development, love, religion, and the perfection of one's soul in order to achieve union with God in an eternal community of insight and love.
Ms Postrel's vision of dynamism presupposes a libertarian institutional framework that guarantees man the freedom to seek his material and moral well being and happiness as long as he does not trample the equivalent rights of others. Only then will a person be able to use his rationality and free will to choose, create, and integrate all the values, virtues, and goods that can lead to his moral well-being. This, of course, includes the rational assessment, choice, and use of technology itself.
One caveat needs to be made. Ms Postrel fails to emphasise that the world is not conveniently divided into stasists and dynamist. The ability to accept and embrace change is one trait among many and is normally distributed throughout the population. In addition, individuals may tend to be more stasist or more dynamists, but do not totally reject change or accept change in all aspects of their lives – no one is purely or consistently a stasist or a dynamist. Change acceptance varies across a continuum and situationally. Nevertheless, her distinction does demonstrate the relative ability of each vision to promote human flourishing in the real world.
This well-written, readable, and insightful work defies conventional political boundaries by arguing that a more politically relevant categorisation is achieved by defining how individuals and groups view the future. Ms Postrel's book is a must-read for anyone interested in commerce, technology, public policy, and the search for truth in a dynamic world.