The Future and Its Enemies by Virginia Postrel
The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress
by Virginia Postrel
Free Press. 272 pp. $25.00
As the editor of Reason magazine and the author of a consistently spry column in Forbes, Virginia Postrel has been an original and unrelenting critic of the politicians, bureaucrats, and self-appointed social guardians who put more faith in their own meliorative powers than in the wisdom of free markets and individual choice. In so doing, she has helped to rescue libertarian thought from the margins of American politics and the uncrowded corners of economics and philosophy departments.
But Postrel’s new book is no mere brief for the ideas of such leading lights of libertarianism as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. The Future and Its Enemies is an ambitious work of political and cultural commentary. Casting aside the ideological labels that have long dominated our public discourse, Postrel aims to do nothing less than redefine how we see American politics—a goal, alas, that she falls decidedly short of reaching.
In recent years, according to Postrel, the line separating liberals and conservatives has been blurred to the point of irrelevance. The issues and controversies of our day have sparked surprising new alliances that defy the familiar divide between Left and Right. Erstwhile political opponents now often find themselves on the same side of the barricades.
The source of this shift, Postrel argues, is a deepening conflict in American society between two basic outlooks on the future. Arrayed on one side are the villains of her account: those who fear and resist change, seeking “stability and control” in a “regulated, engineered world.” These “stasists,” as she calls them, run the political gamut from Right to Left, from cultural reactionaries to technocrats, but increasingly they form a common front. Curtailing immigration into the U.S. has thus become a priority not only for right-wing populists like Patrick J. Buchanan but also for left-wing environmental groups like the Sierra Club. Likewise, the new coalition against free trade embraces such disparate types as New Right organizer Paul Weyrich, consumer-movement founder Ralph Nader, and the anti-technology activist Jeremy Rifkin.
The white hats in Postrel’s account sit atop the heads of those who, by contrast, celebrate the future in all its promise and uncertainty. Counting herself among these “dynamists,” Postrel follows Hayek in calling them “the party of life.” Believers in the possibility of progress, they are devoted to learning and experimentation, free markets and technological innovation. “Dynamists,” Postrel writes, “do not expect, demand, or desire a world that stands still.”
How this disposition works out in political terms is clear enough. Dynamists are advocates of limited, decentralized government, and they resist all but the most essential regulation of the private sector. They endorse schemes of privatization for Social Security, education, and even the national parks. And they are deeply suspicious of moralizing politicians, believing, for instance, that Congress has no business mandating V-chips to screen out objectionable television shows or passing laws to curb Internet pornography.
For Postrel, however, dynamism represents far more than a set of public policies or attitudes toward government. It is a philosophy of life, reflecting the fact that “change and self-transformation are among the truest expressions of our enduring human nature.” The key to happiness, according to the “dynamist moral vision,” thus lies in endless opportunities “to stretch ourselves” and “to try new things.” This life-affirming ethic can be seen, Postrel maintains, in everything from the spontaneous emergence of beach volleyball as an Olympic sport to the widespread use of new technology like in-vitro fertilization to the complex evolution of reggae music.
Such developments may be greeted by stasists with indifference or alarm, Postrel observes, but dynamists rightly see them as evidence of society’s astonishing variety and resilience as well as of history’s ultimate purpose. “We live in an enchanted world,” she concludes, “a world suffused with intelligence, a world of our making. In such plenitude . . . lies an adventurous future.”
What is one to say of this sweeping analysis and the agenda that goes with it? First and most obviously, there is the problem of labeling. It is not just that Postrel’s clumsy coinages are unlikely to find their way onto the Sunday political talk shows. More fundamentally, her division of the political world into stasists and dynamists is misleading, even—one suspects—intentionally diversionary. The Future and Its Enemies seems like nothing so much as an attempt to repackage libertarianism, giving it the appealing name of “dynamism” while throwing together into one “stasist” camp those who happen to oppose it in some way, however different their grounds for doing so.
This may explain why Postrel’s taxonomy is so unhelpful once one looks beyond the handful of highly contested issues, like immigration and free trade, on which some elements of the Left and the Right have indeed come together in recent years against mainstream “dynamist” opinion. As any reasonably informed observer knows, these coalitions have been temporary and tactical, and have reflected no sort of fundamental consensus. When it comes to the great majority of our most divisive issues—abortion, affirmative action, military spending, gay rights, school prayer, the scope of free speech, medical ethics, the role of the courts—the supposed unity of Postrel’s stasists and dynamists vanishes.
As for dynamism itself, Postrel’s error, like that of libertarianism more generally, is to assume that the same principles of change and absolute openness must apply across every realm of life. By this logic, if dynamism deserves to be celebrated when we see it at work in the entrepreneurship of Silicon Valley—as surely it does—then it must be no less desirable in our families, our culture, and our politics. This is, to say the least, an exceedingly superficial philosophy.
Is one really an “enemy of the future” for wanting public authorities to limit access to Internet pornography, or for thinking that assisted suicide and human cloning are bad ideas, or for resisting the campaign to legalize drugs? For Postrel, any impediment to these developments—and thus to the fullest possible range of individual choice—is immediately suspect. For most other people, the fruits of “progress” have to be sorted with care, and sometimes demand that we exercise a measure of collective moral and political judgment.
Postrel’s failure to make such distinctions gives The Future and Its Enemies a deeply unsettling quality. Beneath the book’s free-market enthusiasm lurks a strongly relativistic view of American life. For Postrel, change often appears to be an end in itself. She seems to care little about the actual content of American character, so long as it is “dynamic.” Amid page after page devoted to spontaneity, imagination, and creativity, one finds next to nothing about such bedrock American values as self-restraint, moderation, and patriotism, or how we might go about cultivating them.
By failing to give credit to these “stasist” qualities, Postrel offers a crude picture of contemporary society, missing its many subtle tensions and ambiguities. Indeed, it is precisely because Americans maintain a richer, more complex view of the changes swirling around them that the future remains in far less peril than Virginia Postrel would have us believe.