The Future and Its Enemies,
The Growing Conflict over Creativity,
Enterprise, and Progress

by Virginia Postrel

The Free Press, 1998

But it is not by the consolidation, or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected. Were not this great country already divided into States, that division must be made, that each might do for itself what concerns itself directly, and what it can so much better do than a distant authority. Every State again is divided into counties, each to take care of what lies within its local bounds; each county again into townships or wards, to manage minuter details; and every ward into farms, to be governed each by its individual proprietor. Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want bread. It is by this partition of cares, descending in gradation from general to particular, that the mass of human affairs may be best managed, for the good and prosperity of all.

Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography


While The Future and Its Enemies is not about Thomas Jefferson, and apparently does not even mention him, one of its principal themes, especially in the central chapter, "The Tree of Knowledge," is nevertheless profoundly Jeffersonian in just the sense expressed in the epigraphic quote above. Dispersed and implicit knowledge, a major topic of the Austrian economics of people like F.A. Hayek, requires dispersed authority. It is considered one of the major debates of American history, settled only by the Civil War, whether the United States is founded on a single sovereign people ("We the People"), or on multiple, contracting sovereign States. From Jefferson's statement, we can see that this is a false dilemma. Even stipulating that the United States consists of a single sovereign people, it must nevertheless be divided, for prudence and justice, just as it is divided -- indeed, better than the current division, in which federal authority has been improperly expanded. The summary reason that we see Jefferson give is explained, as it happens, in detail in this book, by the long time editor of Reason magazine, Virginia Postrel.

The most revealing thing about Postrel's book may be the title, which seems to reflect the title of Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies. The "future" (as, still, the Open Society) is the problem. Since it is so unpredictable, the future is threatening to some, an exciting challenge to others. Those to whom the future is threatening, because their cherished present may be disrupted, or because they will not be able to control what happens, Postrel calls the "stasists," since they want stasis. "Stasist" is similar to "statist," and this similarity is no coincidence, since Postrel is a libertarian, and stasists tend to be statists, appealing to politics for the power they need to inhibit change. Those for whom the future is wonderful because of the changes it promises Postrel calls "dynamists," since they see reality as dynamic, though the Greek word dynamis actually means "power." Dynamists, indeed, see power as something that resides in individual creativity, rather than in the collective and the state, as stasists tend to prefer. Dynamists see power in change, while stasists see power as something to prevent or control change.

Postrel further divides stasists into the "reactionaries," who simply like the past and hate the present, let alone the future, and "technocrats," who do not necessarily hate the future, but want it under their control, and dislike or hate the present for the extent to which it contains things that they don't want and would not have allowed if things were under their control. Although it is a division that Postrel does not make, we might further divide technocrats into "ideologues," who have some great theory about why they should be in control and what the future should look like, and "pragmatists," who have no special axes to grind, and no particular theory, but simply believe that a desirable future cannot be generated without someone in charge. Reactionaries, of course, can also be either ideologues or merely the naturally conservative, but we don't want to get carried away with elaborating Postrel's divisions too much. The thing about the "pragmatists" is that they may simply not understand that control is not needed -- indeed, that control is adverse to growth and development.

Postrel defines reactionaries as those "whose central value is stability" and technocrats as those "whose central value is control" [p.7]. As long as technocrats feel that things are out of control, they are natural allies of the reactionaries, even if they still think of themselves as believing in change in some manner or degree. Neither like the sort of Boom Town life that is the most agreeable to dynamists. A central aspect of the book is the visceral distaste that is revealed, in reactionaries and technocrats alike, for the vulgarity of dynamic popular culture and economic growth. Both factions have either a parochial or an elitist determination that others should live their way, which is why Postrel's first chapter is called "The One Best Way." Reactionaries tend to think that "the one best way" is already known from the present or the past, while technocrats think that it will be the fruit of their own planning and control.

The broad appeal of reactionary sentiments is frightening. "'The central concept of wisdom is permanence,' wrote E.F. Schumacher, the environmentalist guru, in Small is Beautiful" [p.9]. Permanence is a reactionary ideal if ever there was one, and stasists who favor it are perfectly happy if it condemns much of humanity (excepting most them, of course) to poverty and an endless future of mediaeval labor. The dynamist alternative is an endless prospect of change, "the infinite series," that threatens the valued present and past of all reactionaries, where the tidy certainties will be washed away by immigrants, other cosmopolitan outsiders, and the cultural and moral equivalent of McDonald's -- in short, "McWorld."

The one-time liberal philosopher, John Gray, now has repudiated modernity all the way back to, at least, the 17th century, and wants greens (i.e. reactionary environmentalists) and conservatives to unite in order to stop change (p.11). His most outrageous statement is to declare open-ended economic growth "the most vulgar ideal ever put before suffering mankind" [p.69]. It is suffering mankind, indeed, that needs the growth of wealth to alleviate the suffering. If suffering is endless, which arguably it may be, then the improvement of the human condition must indeed be endless. But Gray values something different:  "The idea of progress is detrimental to the life of the spirit, because it encourages us to view our lives, not under the aspect of eternity, but as moments in a universal process of betterment" [p.47]. This is mediaeval thinking indeed, to sacrifice modernity to an eternity that is not accessible to mundane human life. That is the concern of religion, which was in fact the best hope for ordinary people in the Middle Ages. Now we can expect more, as our lives can be truly "moments in a universal process of betterment" -- which, pace Gray, is a good thing, not an offense against God, or whatever it is Gray has in mind. A "vulgar ideal" to Gray is apparently just one that makes life better for the vulgar, i.e. the masses. This, it seems, is bad; but there are way too many people in the world anyway, who could not, of course, be fed and supported without modern technology. If they do not die off in the famines predicted by environmentalists in the 70's -- famines which never happened -- then, presumably, some other measures are needed.

Such measures might call for the technocrats, who tend to dominate public political discussions anyway, since they are the ones who think that political action is necessary for progress, while the dynamists don't think so and are just off doing things (rather than asking for power to make others do what they want). By default, technocrats thus tend to dominate political life:

Ever since the Progressive Era, when Theodore Roosevelt defined the mission of public officials as "to look ahead and plan out the right kind of civilization," technocrats have dominated American politics. And technocrats know how to stop things. [p.16]

Since it is impossible to "plan out the right kind of civilization," and tyrannical even to try, the technocrats do a much better job of stopping things than anything else and so become the natural allies of reactionary stasists. The "one best way," tends to fail miserably when true visionary technocrats get a chance to put their ideas into action. The Swiss architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, or Le Corbusier (1887-1965), created a whole style of architecture, of isolated, self-contained sky scrapers surrounded by empty parkland, that has produced nightmares every time it has been tried. If Brasilia is an example of the radiant future, we are in trouble. Disillusionment with such technocracy leaves the "one true way" by default to conservative and reactionary ideals. Nevertheless, the technocratic urge continues:

Consider this statement from a CNN interview:  "As the president said, we need a comprehensive system, one that's been worked out, that's affordable and has national standards." Is this a legislator discussing national health insurance? A governor promoting education reform? An environmentalist proposing recycling mandates? The speaker is, in fact, a magazine editor talking about child care, but the prescription would fit just about any subject. [p.17]

No example could more clearly violate the fundamental principle enunciated by Jefferson in the epigraph. Childcare is the business of individual families, the lowest level of social organization and authority short of individual persons, but the Clinton Administration has made it a concern of the federal government, which has no constitutional authority in the matter whatsoever. Yet many, including Republicans, simply assume that because it is a "problem," then some national political solution is required. There is a bit more to it, of course. The Left, and establishment feminism, does not like families in the first place and would just as soon that children were mainly raised in state childcare facilities, supervised and indoctrinated by ideologically reliable caregivers. The public schools are about the best they can do at the moment. The characteristic dissimulation of the Left means that this is never admitted in public, but it is clear enough in the radical literature and is rarely contradicted by "progressive" policy prescriptions, which are wholly consistent with such an end.

Unfortunately for ideological technocrats, their stasist allies tend to be conservatives and other reactionaries:

They cannot agree on which one static, finite world -- which one best way -- should replace the open-ended future. Ultimately, they are undone by the totalitarian quality of their position. They cannot truly triumph unless everyone's future is the same. [p.26]

Nevertheless, the truly totalitarian aspirations of leftist technocrats, by dominating public discussion, can do great damage.

Technocracy declares that if automobile air bags are a good idea for some people, they must be required for everyone. If they turn out to injure children and small adults, planners may make an exception, but only if given a "good reason." [p.18]

So some small children and women have been decapitated because whether to use air bags or not was, in Jefferson's words, "directed from Washington." Although auto companies warned that the air bags, as they existed, could actually be dangerous, this was dismissed by the likes of Ralph Nader as an example of the "greed" of corporations. Even after a public furor over such deaths and injuries, the last thing the politicians and "consumer advocates" want to do is leave the decision to individuals. Citizens must, at the least, go the State, hat in hand, tugging the forelock, and ask permission, with "good reason," to have the air bags disconnected. Rarely is the peonage of the modern citizen more dramatically demonstrated.

"no innovation without evaluation," "no innovation without regulation," and "no innovation without participation" ...

Technocracy... asks people with new ideas to justify them to boards and commissions... It rewards the articulate and the politically savvy, punishing those who lack smoothness, connections, or the time, patience, and legal counsel to endure endless meetings. [p.22]

The fruit of this approach can be examined in places like Russia and India, where "safeguards" of bureaucratic evaluation have stifled change and growth. It didn't much matter that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian dictatorship and India a rather turbulent democracy. Power is the problem, and freedom and property rights, when it comes to business, can be destroyed by a democracy as easily as by dictatorship. Reactionaries who promote technocracy are well aware of this, since stifling change and growth is their purpose. True technocrats, whether ideological or pragmatic, naively believe, against the accumulated evidence, that they can effectively promote "good" change and growth. That is the difference between the technocrat Newt Gingrich, who was destroyed by his political naivete, and the ideologue/reactionary Ralph Nader, who garnered half a million votes for president in 1996.

Technocracy as a stalking horse for both reaction and ideology is evident in Postrel's discussion of the breast implant controversy. She says, "Breast implants offend every reactionary impulse" [p.23], but they also offend the anaesthetic political moralism of feminism. When the FDA imposed a moratorium on silicone-gel implants in 1992, it:

...represented the culmination of a campaign by feminists and antitechnology activists, notably Sidney Wolfe of the Health Research Group, who did not approve of the devices and who promoted the notion that they posed serious dangers. [p.23]

When it turned out that silicone posed no demonstrable threat (a good thing, since many other medical prostheses are silicone, and the substance is even used to lubricate hypodermic needles) and that the whole campaign had been driven by anecdote and junk science, the technocrats, like FDA head David Kessler, a health-Nazi if ever there was one, nevertheless could not lose face by backing down.

"If members of our society were empowered to make their own decisions about the entire range of products for which the FDA has responsibility...then the whole rationale for the agency would case to exist," wrote Kessler. [p.24]

No shit. The only reason that "members of our society" are not "empowered to make their own decisions" is that the government, without Constitutional or moral foundation, has usurped our authority over our own bodies and now exercises tyrannical powers. The only thing that the great coalition of stasists can agree upon, reactionaries and technocrats, ideologues and pragmatists, is that the locus of authority over our bodies and wills does properly reside with the government.

Postrel's second chapter is strikingly entitled "The Party of Life." This turns out to be a quote from F.A. Hayek, "the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution" [p.30]. The reactionaries and their clueless technocrat allies are opposed to life in the sense that stagnation and decay are what must attend efforts to end growth and development. We also get the stasists exposed for their callousness and contempt for the opportunities that growth allows:

To just casually wave that off and consign the world's population to being yoked up behind a water buffalo in a rice paddy is profoundly anti-humanitarian. [p.31]

Since the stasists tend to self-righteousness about the values of "traditional communities," it is important to note that traditional communities tend to be rural, and that much of humanity is still stuck behind that water buffalo. But of all the great material in this chapter, the most striking and memorable passage may be this:

Consider a strange fact about doughnut shops in California:  More than 80 percent are owned by Cambodian immigrants. Doughnuts are not a Cambodian food; indeed, Cambodians don't even like them that much. [p.49]

But one Cambodian immigrant found that he could start a business and make a good living out of doughnuts, and others followed him. There is one relevant thing Postrel doesn't mention, that economic success in American history has gone to ethnic groups with traditions of starting businesses. Thomas Sowell's Ethnic America [Basic Books, 1981] is the locus classicus for that information, though a fact as revealing as Postrel's occurs in Is Reality Optional? [Hoover Institution Press, 1993]:

More than one-fourth of all the hotels and motels in the United States are owned by people from India. [p.33]

This did not surprise me after putting up at an Indian owned motel in Artesia, New Mexico, in 1982. What this confounds is the fixation of the left and media on jobs, with the expectation that a good job, at a big fat company, with ample benefits, is the highest aspiration for Americans. And since the left and media don't really like big fat companies, they long for the day that companies would be so big and so fat that they could be taken over without much fuss by the government, the biggest, fattest corporation of all. That was the future contemplated by the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith.

Unfortunately for that future, big fat companies turned out to be stupid and wasteful, just like big fat government. IBM was almost brought down by a Lilliputian swarm of high-tech, upstart start-ups. As Postrel says, no one would have thought to look to rural Arkansas for the company that would surpass Sears in mass retailing -- but that is where Wal-Mart started and that is what it did.

Yet for forty years and more almost everything that American government has done has been to make starting and running businesses harder and costlier. This has had an evil effect on Americans, since it has promoted, as intended, the idea that success means a good job, especially a job with the government, rather than starting a small business. In consequence, a disproportionate number of small businesses seem to be started by immigrants. In Los Angeles since 1970, it has been possible to see waves of immigration reflected in the proprietors of gas stations and liquor and convenience stores:  Arabs, Iranians, Koreans, Indians, Armenians, etc. It should be no surprise that 80% of millionaires in the United States made their own money (compared to 84% in 1892), and that half of those are immigrants (cf. The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley & William D. Danko, Longstreet Press, Atlanta, Georgia, 1996, p.3). The entrepreneurial spirit of native born Americans comes to be compromised by the welfare state technocrats, not to mention the likes of environmentalist reactionaries and others, whose whole purpose is to seize initiative and power for themselves, in whose hands it stagnates. They do their best to promote the idea that everyone is a victim of irresponsible corporations, who should be controlled, if not replaced, by the government, so that we all can pass from being helpless victims of corporate greed to being happy peons of paternal government largess. This is not only a deception but, more importantly, a misdirection, since it simply ignores the true path to wealth, innovation, and independence:  self-employment and entrepreneurialism. Postrel's startling Cambodians, like Sowell's Indians, are living testimony to that path.

Postrel's Chapter Three, "The Infinite Series," covers in greater detail issues already touched upon here, with some of the quotes from Gray above. Of enduring interest is a fact mentioned by the way:

By the glasnost era in 1990, Soviet economist Victor Belkin was telling Americans that the Soviet gross national product was at best 28 percent of U.S. GNP, about half the Central Intelligence Agency's estimate. Once you factored in waste and extremely low-quality goods, he said, the Soviet standard of living was about that of China, much lower than U.S. analysts had believed. [p.68]

This is given in the context of Postrel's discussion of the quality and variety of consumer goods, with a quote from a Russian woman, "I didn't even know what a tampon was before the democrats came to power" [p.68]. The stasists often express nothing but contempt for consumer goods, and the variety of brands:

The Calcutta-based Consumer Unity and Trust Society denounces the spread of consumerism, with its tooth brushes, ceiling fans, and refrigerators, to India's poor. [p.69]

The Soviet Union should definitely be remembered as containing the kind of life that stasists would produce, intentionally or unintentionally, if they had their way. The Soviet Union, now, also should be remembered for what it was, since the truth is today almost ten years old and the crowd of Soviet apologists and sympathizers (who can be recognized by their continuing love of Castro) is busy forgetting and obscuring the truth. Calcutta itself has been in the hands of a Communist government for some time, and it must be said that they have done an excellent job of keeping, with a heavy bureaucratic blanket, West Bengal in poverty. That a "Consumer Union" should be expressing disdain for "consumerism" is revealing, both of the unconcern of such people for amenities like tooth brushes and tampons and of the danger that "consumer advocates," like Ralph Nader, often pose to the goods actually desired by consumers.

This passage leads Postrel to the issue of the stasists who like to accuse capitalism of being too successful for its own good (e.g. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell). All the production of consumer goods produces a culture of "hedonism" in which the old bourgeois (even "Puritan") virtues of hard work, etc., disappear, destroying capitalism. Since Bell is identified as a socialist by Postrel, this must not be a complaint but simply a Marxist analysis of the "contradictions," as the title of his book says, that will lead to a better society -- though not, apparently, a society of even greater abundance, as Marx himself would have wanted. Reactionaries like Gray, however, can offer precisely the same analysis as a moral complaint and moral condemnation.

What such critics, whether socialists or conservatives, overlook is the self-corrective nature of the free market. Postrel herself, who seems more concerned with exposing the stupid moralism of condemning consumer goods and consumer culture, does not put great emphasis on this, but it is key to a full response to the criticism:  People who lose the bourgeois values of hard work, enterprise, etc. cease to be successful in real capitalism. The money made by the grandfather (e.g. Joe Kennedy) is simply squandered by the grandchildren (e.g. multiple Kennedy cousins). We could even apply the analysis of Ibn Khaldûn (1332-1406), who described the decline of dynasties in his Muqaddimah. Thus, in capitalism, the old and complacent (Sears, IBM) and overcome by the young and innovative (Wal-Mart, Microsoft). This is why so many small businesses are started by, and millionaires are, immigrants, who are hungrier and, indeed, harder working. Corruption there is, but the "cultural contradiction" does not belong to capitalism. The free market imposes a discipline that can only be escaped through a non-market, i.e. a governmental, intervention. Immigrants from places with governments too poor or corrupt to indulge the citizenry, are ready to make it on their own. But in America, when people say that we are "one paycheck away from homelessness," they do not mean this as an exhortation to hard work, frugality, and prudence, or even for the charitable provision for the helpless -- they mean it as a call for government intervention, to prevent any ill consequences of laziness, profligacy, and imprudence.

We should not be surprised that the critics of capitalism as its own worst enemy do not recommend a return to the discipline of laissez-faire. They never liked anything about capitalism anyway, and their criticism is just a disingenuous pretext. Their recommendations, indeed, are for more government intervention in the market, to make things more "fair" (i.e. soften the consequences of imprudence further), or to hamper and slow, or stifle and stop, innovation altogether. The "cultural contradiction" is some introduced by such recommendations, and the socialist and reactionary stasists want nothing better than to enlarge the contradiction until the discipline and dynamism of the free market is destroyed altogether, leaving them lords of the miserable result, as Castro is king of a ruined Cuba.

The strategy of softening the consequences of imprudence is of a piece with Postrel's subsequent discussion (pp.71-72) of "disapproval of risk taking." Stasists hate risk, just as they hate any uncertainties, and not only want to do what they can to prevent risk but want to prohibit anyone else from taking it. Thus the 10% risk of getting lung cancer from smoking must be inflated to 100% in the public consciousness, just to justify anti-smoking hysteria (cf. Jacob Sullum, For Your Own Good, the Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health, the Free Press, 1998). While non-smokers have about 0% chance of getting lung cancer (even the radon risk is exaggerated), stasists do not want a society where anybody can do things with a substantial chance of injury. That life always involves balancing benefits and risks is an intolerable proposition to the inherent moralistic anhedonia of most stasists:  The pleasure of smoking does not count as a benefit to people who cannot take such pleasures seriously, and who apparently see any extension of life as more worthy than any vices or indulgences that might shorten it. Indeed, it is so inconceivable to stasists that rational persons might trade a few years of life for the pleasures they enjoy that such persons can only be seen as victims of addiction or of deceptions through advertising. Hence the furor over whether tobacco companies "knew" that smoking was bad and were maliciously concealing it from the public. Anyone living on planet Earth in 1964 "knew" that tobacco companies were just protecting themselves, but now, evidently, there are many smokers, looking to cash in, who weren't. Just as interesting in this is the evident assumption that if tobacco companies admitted that smoking could cause disease, then they would be morally bound to go out of business. Nonsense. Nevertheless, activists are busy trying to get the principle established in law that a business cannot sell anything (tobacco, guns, alcohol, perfume, peanuts) that might prove dangerous in any degree to anyone. This promises to turn technocratic and reactionary foolishness into mass insanity, if it isn't the case already.

Postrel's Chapter Four, "The Tree of Knowledge," is founded on the principle that power must be dispersed, as Jefferson said, because knowledge is dispersed. The most important dispersal of knowledge is the knowledge of what each of us wants. The way politics works, it really doesn't matter what the losers want, at least if they represent no interest group that a politician has a hope of courting. But what I want in my own life usually has nothing to do with any interest groups, which is why command economics doesn't have much of a hope of satisfying it -- no less than the situation in the Soviet Union or West Bengal. This is an important point:  capitalism is often reproached as allowing for "winners" and "losers"; but real winner and losers are in politics, where the losers can even be legally robbed or imprisoned by the winners, while in the market winners and losers only occur among producers -- consumers always benefit from the winners of competition.

The losers in the market are those who simply guessed wrong about what people wanted, or about the future. Postrel's example of what people want is in the excellent case of fashion, a huge industry that touches the lives, and the skin, of everyone, but which is easily ignored, sneered at, or condemned by the moralists. There is literally no predicting fashion, and designers always run the risk of introducing something that simply won't go over. That the public doesn't just jump up and salute the designers is evident in the circumstance that bare breasts and bralessness have become rather common in fashion shows but are really not to be seen on the street, or even at upper end fashionable venues, like the Oscars. Postrel's example of failure to predict the future is also striking, that in 1983 Forbes put Bill Gates on a list of "names you are not likely ever to see in The Forbes Four Hundred" [p.85]. Now Gates, of course, isn't just on the list, he is at the top -- the richest man in the world.

On the next page (86), Postel uses a key word:  mandarin. The technocrats want to be mandarins, the bureaucratic rulers of classical China. The stasist and technocratic urge is nothing modern or even just Western. We have see the whole business played out in Chinese history, and all the evil consequences of stagnation and foreign conquest that resulted.

When knowledge is dispersed and uncertain, those who have the best chance of dealing with that are those who are aware of it. Western civilization, as it happens, has a long tradition dealing with the consequences of our ignorance. This begins with Socrates and continues down to Popper and Hayek. Thus, when Postrel says:

At the simplest level, only people who know they do not know everything will be curious enough to find things out. [p.88]

She may not be aware that this echoes Plato in a quote from the Symposium given here at the top of the epistemology index. Those who are ignorant, and do not know that, do not desire that which they do not think they are lacking. Similarly, in the Meno, Plato says that "my argument makes them energetic and keen on the search," that if there is knowledge, then we can find it out. The stasists however, and Plato in his own theory of philosophers as proper mandarins and technocrats, tend to think that they know enough, and that even if there is more to know, we might be better off not knowing it -- even leading to proposals that some avenues of inquiry, into genetics or physics, for instance, be prohibited.

If stasists are impatient and incredulous about dispersed knowledge, they are overtly hostile to what goes along with the practice of dispersed knowledge, specialization. Specialization, and the division of labor that goes with it, is dehumanizing to the reactionaries, and to the technocrats of a socialist bent. Everybody should be "fully human" by all doing the same things, especially by being self-sufficient and independent. This seems like a strange aspiration for people who often then turn around and complain about the "atomistic" individualism of capitalist society. As Postrel says, "The alternative to specialization is the great reactionary dream: a return to peasant life." But peasant life, although independent, is often not self-sufficient, since crop failure always meant famine -- "as 'self-reliant' and starving North Korea attests" [p.98]. Only modern intensive agricultural production and modern transport make it possible to avoid famine. When a drought area can be fed with food from thousands of miles way, we have an interdependence that enables people to be "fully human" in a sense that even Marx could have agreed with:  They are then free of worry about the necessities of life, rather than always poised on the edge of starvation. They are then free to do something else, like specialize in producing something new that people might like. This, unfortunately, would make for the exuberance and novelty of modern life that the stasists don't like:

"The frivolity of strawberries in January, asparagus in December, and wheat or soybean products that taste like chicken is simply never acknowledge," writes [Wendell] Berry. [p.98]

No, it is the sour, nasty, moralistic anhedonia of people like Wendell Berry that he cannot acknowledge. Novel products, including agricultural products, that contribute to the aesthetic variety and pleasure of life are what make living more than just a matter of the necessities. That traditional societies were often desperately short of the necessities ironically becomes a moral ideal for reactionaries, who apparently can't stand it to see other people enjoying themselves in comfort.

Another aspect of dispersed knowledge, as described by Hayek, is that it is often implicit. Bureaucratic oversight requires that things be articulated that sometimes cannot be. Some people are doers, not talkers, but technocracy only allows doing after the talking, putting the pure doers at a disadvantage, not only vis à vis talkers who can do, but talkers who cannot do, which is much more common. As Postrel puts it:  "Working without details, let alone intimate knowledge, they [Congress] pass laws that force us to explain the unexplainable, to give 'good reasons' for choices we can barely articulate to ourselves" [p.92]. The glib, rather than the competent, thus can predominate. Since the glib then fail, but can obscure their failure with clever rationalizations, this helps contribute to the circumstance that technocracy tends to produce stasis rather than progress.

An excellent example of this is Postrel's case of railroad regulation:

At a distance, it is easy to think that other people just don't know what they're doing -- especially when you can override their decisions by decree rather than through persuasion or competition. In a famous 1910 case, Louis Brandeis convinced the Interstate Commerce Commission to deny the railroads any increase in freight rates. The railroads pointed to rising wage costs, general inflation, and a need to upgrade their roadbeds -- arguments that might very well have prevailed. But Brandeis declared that while it was true that costs were rising, the railroads could economize:  "Scientific management," the efficiency techniques pioneered in manufacturing by Frederick W. Taylor and others, would make up the difference. An expert witness testified that scientific management could save the railroads $1 million a day, a figure that became a popular slogan and won Brandeis the case. But, recounts Thomas McCraw in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, Prophets of Regulation,

Subsequent events in the railroad industry all but proved that scientific management had much less relevance for transportation and other service industries than it did for manufacturing...And by the time of the war emergency of 1917-18, the railroads had fallen into such desperate financial straits that the federal government temporarily took over the entire industry. After a brief study, the government instituted by fiat very large across-the-board rate hikes about the size of the combined increases the railroads themselves had requested in the years between 1910 and 1918. It would have been hard to devise a clearer demonstration of the insubstantiality of Brandeis' argument of 1910.

Against Brandeis's topsighted expert, the railroads' managers were insufficiently articulate. [pp.103-104, boldface added]

Brandeis, who could head the railroads towards bankruptcy with a clever argument, it might be noted, was soon on the Supreme Court, injecting such ideas into the "Progressivism" of the era. The Court has really never looked back, as later it ruled that economic regulations would not be reviewed as long as they served a "rational purpose" -- this even though economic regulation, including the rates set by the Interstate Commerce Commission, were "takings" of property rights, violating the Fifth Amendment, and restrictions on personal liberty, really violating the Thirteenth Amendment. Freedom means that you can do things for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reasons. And, where knowledge can be implicit, there is even a good reason for that, even in the face of articulate theories of the public good.

Postrel articulates this herself in the following chapter ("The Bonds of Life"):

This, then, is the first characteristic of dynamist rules:  They allow individuals (including groups of individuals) to act on their own knowledge. [p.119]

This chapter (Five) is about the nature of rules in a dynamist society. A couple of distinctions apply. Although Postrel doesn't use the terms, she is contrasting a nomocracy with a teleocracy, where the former ("rule of law") defines how the game is to be played, without consideration for the results, while the later ("rule of end") aims for certain specific results and tries to legislate them into existence (requiring technocracy). Nomocracy treats people the same, because it is indifferent to who they are or what they end up with. If certain people are different, and deserve a certain result, then we creep into teleocracy. That intersects another distinction, which Postrel does invoke (p.126), between status and contract, the former where the law recognizes who people are, the latter where all are the same in status and their differences depend on contract, on the agreements that they make. A whole society based on status was, of course, to be found in feudalism.

Not surprisingly, then, one of the most effective ways to attack dynamism is to suggest the superiority of status over contract. Reactionaries invoke the warm sentiment of fixed status roles that are, by definition, respecters of persons. Wrapped in enough evocative language, they can make the traditional constraints of class, race, sex, and geography -- not to mention premodern medical care and backbreaking agricultural labor -- sound positively humane. In a passage typical of this genre, the philosopher John Gray declares that humans' "deepest need is a home, a network of common practices and inherited traditions that confers on them the blessing of a settled identity.... Human beings are above all fragile creatures, for whom the meaning of life is a local matter that is easily dissipated:  their freedom is worthwhile and meaningful to them only against a background of common cultural forms. Such forms cannot be created anew for each generation." (Emphasis added.) [p.127]

So we have the rationale for abridging freedom for the purpose of maintaining a "settled identity," without necessarily asking people if they actually want to give up their freedom for that purpose.

The nomocracy of capitalism does give persons a certain status, the dignity of respecting their autonomy. This is the basis of contract, which also respects autonomy -- i.e. voluntary agreements are enforced by law. Such rules turn out to be productive of wealth, very simply because people agree to the best deals they can get, using their own knowledge of what they want. If their persons and wealth are legally protected, and their contracts are legally shielded from force and fraud, then we have laws that rapidly generate growth and progress. The opposite is what we find in many countries where wealth stagnates:

In his influential 1989 book The Other Path, the economist Hernando de Soto and a team of researchers identified barriers to legal entrepreneurship or home ownership in Peru's cities:  To comply with all the laws to start a small garment factory, they found, required 289 days, eleven different permits, and $1,231 ("thirty-two times the monthly minimum living wage"); acquiring state-owned wasteland on which to build modest homes, along with the necessary building permits, would take eighty-three months -- just shy of seven years -- and more than half million dollars...

Concludes De Soto, "What we have here is bad law." Peru's highly bureaucratic mercantilist regime represents a perfect melding of reactionary goals and technocratic means; it maintains a traditional social hierarchy through complex regulations administered by experts. [pp.131-132]

This is what the stasists, both reactionaries (deliberately) and technocrats (inadvertently) want for America.

Of all the excellent material in this chapter, one final thing that might be noted relates to knowledge again. Technocracy, to protect itself, does its best to suppress knowledge that might be necessary for local transactions. Thus:

And employment law has seriously eroded the ability of former bosses to give truthful references, especially about employees who have been fired. Saying anything bad can result in a defamation suit, while a positive reference can be grounds for a wrongful dismissal case... Refusing to give references is increasingly common in all sorts of businesses... [p.136]

The restrictions on voluntary association, on contract at will, and on other traditional liberties, introduce technocrats into the running of every business, on what employees can say to each other (through sexual harassment law), and even on what employers can say about the quality of former employees (through this kind of labor law). It is all intended to strip people of their autonomy and substitute politicized moralistic overseers (i.e. commissars) into every relationship. Soon no one is worrying about profit (heavens no!) and everyone is worrying about political (and legal) correctness. The logical result is Stalinism -- where only the politics of each action counts. To hell with productivity, efficiency, property rights, freedom, or economic growth. Better to starve in Hell than rule in Heaven!... Or, wait a minute, is that quite right?

Postrel's Chapter Six, "Creating Nature," has one fundamental point:   Nature itself is dynamic. This is contrary to the vision of reactionary environmentalist zealots, who see nature at a static, unchanging "harmony" and "equilibrium," which we better not tamper with in any way, lest it change and destroy the Earth -- hence the "Save the Earth!" slogan. Although anyone might well worry that human activity may warm the Earth or change sea levels, the truth is that the Earth has been considerably warmer, and considerably cooler, and sea level has been both much higher and much lower, in the past, long before humans existed or were doing much of anything. Once upon a time, in the Cretaceous, the Gulf of Mexico came up to Denver. 10,000 years ago, when the Sahara Desert was grassland, the Earth was so much warmer that geologists called it the period of "climatic optimum." That term is no longer used since environmentalists could not complain about global warming one moment and yet say that a warmer Earth was "optimum" the next.

A striking example Postrel gives is of the "Hutcheson Memorial Forest," which was bought by Rutger's University in the 1950's as a wilderness preserve. All they had to do was leave it alone. Unfortunately, it began to change while it was being left alone:

But the oaks did not reproduce; maples began to take over. By examining fire scars in the stumps of dead trees, Rutgers researchers discovered the artifice behind their cherished nature. Before Europeans arrived in New Jersey, Indians had burned the underbrush every decade or so, presumably either to drive game or make travel easier. "These frequent fires cleared the understory, favored oaks over maples, and created the open forest of tall trees believed by naturalists in the early sixties to be original, constant, and unaffected by human influence," writes [Daniel] Botkin. [p.155]

Fire still poses a terrible dilemma to technocrats, if not environmentalists. Fires are natural, and before the 20th Century forest fires, set by lightning or by human agency, mainly just had to burn themselves out. This turns out -- no surprise -- to be an important part of ecosystems. The success of forest fire prevention has endangered plants and animals that depend on the burning. For instance, the old redwoods of the Sierra Nevada have fire-resistant bark, while their greenery is high up the trunk. Thus, when the forest burned, the redwoods were safe. Now, the redwoods have been attacked by insects which have thrived in the unburned debris on the forest floor, and the surrounding pines have grown so high that, when they burn, the redwood greenery could be reached by the flames. The redwoods are therefore endangered as never before, but the more time that passes before the next forest fire, the more endangered they will be. As elsewhere, postponing the burn makes it dangerous as never before when it does happen. Thus, when the U.S. Forest Service decided it would be better to let fires burn, the first thing that happened was a fire that became a conflagration that burned over most of Yellowstone National Park. Even as I write (May 2000), a "controlled" burn set by the Forest Service in Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico got out of hand and has burned a good part of the city of Los Alamos. The role of forest fires makes a hash of most environmentalist whining about "old growth" forests. Meadows in forests are always evidence of old fires, and only fires would ever clear out the old dead wood and undergrowth in "natural" forests. Except for unusual species, like redwoods, old trees die and then either rot or burn. The "old growth" forest seen in the 1992 movie Last of the Mohicans, doubling for primaeval Upstate New York, was actually a new growth forest in North Carolina, no more than 30 years old, in an area that had been logged bare in the 19th century -- the fate of many forests before humans found coal, oil, and natural gas to burn instead of wood.

Since nature itself is dynamic, the ideal of stasis comes from humans instead. It is humanity, not nature, that is reactionary. Some environmentalists regard the whole human species as inherently evil because humans probably hunted to extinction many large mammals of the Ice Ages, like mammoths. More recently, lions in Europe and elephants in the Middle East were eliminated in historic times. However, while Egyptians killing elephants perhaps can be assimilated to the ideology of the modern conquest of nature, Pleistocene hunters hardly would have thought they were doing anything of the sort. They can be morally condemned as evil only if blind Nature had never done anything of the sort previously. But, of course, Nature does the same thing all the time. Not only were the dinosaurs, and much else, eliminated in a geological blink of an eye at the end of the Cretaceous (defining the boundary), but even more species, if not as famous, were eliminated at the end of the Paleozoic. If humans eliminated mammoths, dinosaurs themselves seem to have eliminated the previously dominant "mammal-like reptiles" -- whose only survivors were the tiny mammals that could emerge after the asteroid, or whatever, took out the dinosaurs.

Since nature is so malleable, reactionary environmentalists can only derive comfort from Creationists, whose belief in fixed species is the only thing that would dignify the weight that stasist "bioethicists" give to unaltered human nature, the "natural norm" [pp.161-163]. The horror of genetic engineering is that "our given human nature no longer commands respect" [p.163]. The rest of Postrel's excellent discussion of this issue can be passed over, with on final note:

Contrary to [Patrick] Buchanan's personification of them, neither "mankind" nor "science" is a unitary actor. Both are complex, natural systems, composed of diverse individual human beings. Neither is under central control. The same is true of the "society" that [Jeremy] Rifkin warns might "decid[e] that a certain skin color is a disorder." In a dynamist society, there can be no such decision, because there is no single authority to make it. [p.168]

This is revealing because of the tendency of stasists, both reactionaries and technocrats, to think in authoritarian terms. "Society" for them means governments, which lay down laws and regulations, where "a certain skin color" very well could be classified as a "disorder." They are thinking, in Popper's terms, of a "Closed" society. Postrel's Open, dynamic, liberal society, on the other hand, has a decentralized, Jeffersonian distribution of authority and decision. It is for individuals to decide what they like, about skin color or whatever. If stasists fear government making such decisions, they always seem to fear individuals making those decisions for themselves even more. They want to have a hand in it, if only to say that such decisions cannot be made, period -- and to use police force to make sure.

Postrel's Chapter Seven, "Fields of Play," is a direct attack on the anhedonia which has already been noted as a feature of stasist political moralism. Play is frivolity, and adults should put away childish things. The chapter begins with a wonderful anecdote of Newt Gingrich stepping out of his customary technocratic persona and waxing enthusiastic, at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego, over beach volleyball.

The pundits howled -- those on the left with laughter, those on the right with pain.

Gingrich had broken their codes of conduct. He had introduced something trivial into the solemn ceremonies of a political convention. Into the parade of children with AIDS and former welfare mothers who had gotten religion, he had brought a brash, bronzed reminder of fun... [p.172]

Gingrich surely did not realize it, but his convention speech was not only weird. It was heretical. It represented a direct attack on one of the sacred texts of contemporary stasists, Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. In that work, Bell argued that by encouraging the spirit of play, capitalism would destroy itself. [p.173]

Again, as in the discussion above about hedonism destroying capitalism, one is not sure whether someone like Bell considers this a good thing or a bad thing. But, in any case, this is a somewhat different issue. Play is not necessarily hedonism. Play is active, and it can be just as active and creative as any deadly serious Puritanical work ethic. Indeed, play could even be expected to be more creative. The activity of any inventor who is enthusiastic and hot on the trail of discovery will appear more play-like than work-like. The grim, politically correct atmosphere of the stasist, technocratic Soviet Union produced little or nothing in the way of invention. Technocrats, if anything, tend to think that everything has already been invented (because they can't think of anything new), and have occasionally said so.

Beach volleyball, of course, does not sound like serious invention. But sport is invention, and a very large industry. Volleyball is not as important part of that industry as football, but it has its place. These kinds of human activities are more hedonistic, at least for the spectators, than something like computer technology, but they are contributions, not just to the charm of human life, but to the economy. But sport, let alone complete frivolities like fashion, brings out the anhedonic and anaesthetic worst in the moralistic stasists:

Creating such embellishments [i.e. in weaving and needlework], which is also found in pottery, basketry, cosmetics, hairstyling, and jewelry, is the traditional play of women. If offers the challenge of innovation within established patterns, allowing an "influx of mind" that turns practical necessities into ingenious luxuries. This creativity is the ancestor of "the world of fashion" that [Daniel] Bell obsessively condemns as "illusions, the persuasions of the witches' craft." In damning the decorative arts, Bell damns the search for beauty and satisfaction that inspires them. [p.182]

Bell's anaesthesia, like that of establishment feminism itself, seems to have its misogynistic aspect -- "witches' craft" indeed! Sport and fashion are among the most despised things in the world, right behind prime time television sitcoms, to the anhedonic moralists. Yet this is all part of the splendor of capitalism. The "dark Satanic mills" are now somewhat less the object of reactionary fury than the shopping malls and sports stadia that divert young and old, male and female, in modern society. Play is the stasists' ultimate nightmare in many ways, as a combination of industry and pleasure, creativity and enjoyment. Another perfect example of this would be cooking, which produces the necessity of food but can be aesthetically elaborated without limit. When the manufacturing sector of the economy requires as little labor as agriculture (about 2% of the work force now), most of the economy will be about play, decoration, and embellishment.

Postrel's final chapter, "On the Verge," starts with some appalled descriptions of booming cities, London in 1771, Atlanta in 1891, and modern cities in 1993.

Cities on the verge, topsy-turvy, a "human-hash." Symbols of upheaval and disorder, of settled ways overthrown and disparate people tossed together. In such metropolitan jumbles, we find E.F. Schumacher's dreaded "footloose" society:  "a big cargo ship in which the load is in no way secured." Stasists recoil from these "young and rushing" places, fearing that squalid conditions will endure indefinitely -- or, worse, that social dynamism and economic growth are themselves permanent. To avoid what John Gray calls "the overdevelopment of the city, its deformation as a megalopolis," reactionaries would forever yoke the world's peasants behind a water buffalo. In the name of order, technocrats limit building and restrict growth. [pp.191-192]

Rather than the upheaval and vigor of the Boom Town, stasists romanticize what Marx called the "idiocy" of rural life. Yet when only a small percentage of the population can take care of agriculture, even rural life, with satellite dish, modem, Federal Express, and the SUV that can make it into Fort Collins on a Saturday night, can be made not much different from a lot of urban life. What stasists hate the most, of course, is feeling out of control. And growing cities, and the forms of urban life even spreading to the farm, are definitely out of control.

Stasist critics, who ignore the complex creativity of verges, often scorn the places and legal institutions that make such new associations possible. Above all, they detest commercial bonds. Against both evidence and theory to the contrary, they insist that commerce is atomistic rather than social, that contracts break rather than forge bonds. "Markets are contractual," write [Benjamin] Barber, "rather than communitarian, which means they stroke our solitary egos but leave unsatisfied our yearning for community, offering durable goods and fleeting dreams but not a common identity or collective membership -- something that blood communities spawned by Jihad, reinforced by the thinness of market relations, do rather too well." A technocrat opposing his vision to dynamists and reactionaries, Barber prefers "deliberative" processes that put a premium on centralized articulation and promise carefully engineered results. He sees "community" emerging less from shared interests, experiences, or beliefs than from politics. [p.198-199]

This is characteristic of communitarian thinking. A "community" does not mean a voluntary association but a political organization that can use the police to enforce Rousseau's "general will" against dissidents. The only community they recognize is one backed by force. When libertarians are reproached for exalting "atomistic" individualism, the possibility of free association in civil society is simply ignored. We might say that an association that cannot kill or imprison its members simply doesn't count for them as "community." Collectivists and communitarians, whether conservative or "progressive," hate this characterization, just as they hate to think that when "we," in a political sense, decide something, this means that men with guns are going to be kicking down doors and seizing, if not shooting, people. Just as Joseph Ellis falsely accuses Jefferson of floating off in a realm of theory where real world problems don't count, communitarians don't have to dirty their edifying reflections with the thought of no-knock search warrants, bulging prisons, and Rampart Division police framing, or murdering, suspects. In general, they don't really trust or like the police all that much (they were four-square for Rodney King), but then they don't seem to understand that their preference for political power and government always empowers the police more than anyone else. This is how "liberal" politicians, like California Senator Dianne Feinstein, end up proposing one Police State measure after another (e.g. national identity cards, a national registry of legal workers for employers to call for permission to hire, "gun control" citizen disarmament, etc.). On the other hand, the radical political correctness enforcers on college campuses know that they want unlimited power to put their Stalinism in place. When they can be the police, then a police state is the perfect "community."

Much of the rest of Postrel's chapter is about politics.

The sterile verge between stasists and interest groups provides a host of shifting arguments and techniques for opposing change. Each side gives the other cover. The ideologues keep the interest groups from sounding crass and selfish, while the interest groups keep the ideologues from sounding mean, elitist, or just plain nuts. Stasists bring idealism, while interest groups offer anecdotes, money, and political clout. [p.205]

This is why, after the theoretical and practical triumph of free trade over mercantilism in the 19th century, mercantilism has returned strongly in the 20th. Even while the benefits of free trade are often publicly acknowledged, even by the likes of Bill Clinton, the interest group agitation for protective or retaliatory tariffs is constant and, in time honored political fashion, the practice of protective tariffs and trade barriers often simply continues in unacknowledged practice. Some think that in the long run this is irresistible:

Thanks to alliances between antichange ideologues and established interests, writes the economic historian Joel Mokyr, "technological creativity has proved rare and ephemeral," a quality marking golden ages that pass all too quickly. Mokyr is a pessimist, arguing that no society when left on its own will remain creative for long... [p.207]

Where we cannot in fact predict the future, we cannot know how rare and ephemeral technological creativity will be. The United States came charging back from the doldrums of the 1970's to dominate the world afresh in the 80's and 90's, yet the evils that always hamstrung the Soviet Union and that stifled the growth and creativity of Western Europe in much of the 90's have also been growing in the United States, and strongly praised and promoted by the press, academia, and the law. To many Americans, becoming like France, where the government has all but destroyed private job creation, would be a wonderful thing.

Postrel notes, as I have already here, how the growth of a great civilization was once entirely taken down:

Even more striking is the history of China, for centuries the most innovative society on earth...

Then in the fifteenth century it all stopped. Even the books disappeared. Voyages of exploration were forbidden, and the records of earlier voyages burned. By 1500, building a seagoing junk with more than two masts was punishable by death; a half-century later, going to sea to trade was considered a form of treason. Long-established technologies for mining, silk reeling, and telling time were forgotten. The state took over some foreign trades and shut down others, eliminating the unpredictable verges of the merchant cities. "By the time Europeans came to China in some numbers in the sixteenth century," writes the historian David Landes, "two hundred years of indigenous rule by the Ming had screwed the bureaucratic lid on tight." [pp.208-209]

The triumph of the mandarins, the treason of the clerks, is the most sobering lesson.

...Joseph Schumpeter, who coined the term "creative destruction" to describe economic competition, argued that the progress and prosperity created by markets would eventually doom them. Capitalism's success, he predicted, would support more and more intellectuals, who would then intensify and channel the popular discontent with economic turbulence and, in the process, destroy entrepreneurial freedom. [p.211]

This is, indeed, a grave danger, as we can tell today, where about the last refuge of Marxists and socialism is on college campuses. Liberal higher education, far from creating enlightened citizens, which was Jefferson's hope, usually simply results in willing bureaucrats, both subservient and resentful -- the type of people fully prepared to expand the police powers of the state, naively and credulously believing (after a lifetime of state school indoctrination) that it will steal stuff for them just from others. This threat is not the result of capitalism undermining its own bourgeois virtues through hedonism, but the reactionary threat of those who never liked capitalism, or bourgeois virtues, deceiving enough of the public to empower their anti-market programs. The likes of Hillary Clinton [pp.210-212] are not just technocratic stasists but full fledged authoritarian statists:

She complains that the First Amendment, by protecting media from technocratic direction, allows, "a relentless, unstopping, message of consumer, materialistic pleasure." [p.210]

Here we have a good example of ideological cover for interest group politics:  the cover is the reactionary critique of capitalistic hedonism and consumerism, but the interest group is just the hard, vicious fascism of someone who is going to complain about the First Amendment. Outside the Stalinists of university campuses (including, gasp, law schools), or conservatives and feminists complaining about pornography, the First Amendment does not come in for much criticism in America. Alan Dershowitz, a staunch defender of Bill Clinton during his impeachment, nevertheless recognizes the appalling lack of commitment by the Clintons to civil liberties. The assault by the likes of the Clintons on civil rights and the Constitution, however, is not enough to disillusion Dershowitz with them, or with the kind of politics they represent:

...hard-working, highly organized lobbies seeking political power:  the power to end other people's experiments and guarantee their own security. [p.212]

While the Empire Strikes Back, with establishment intellectuals, largely at public expense, busy, in effect, trying to recreate Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, the greatest hope for freedom is just the truth, as we find it here in Virginia Postrel's book. There is little enough of that to be seen in the mass media; but then, mercifully, most people don't trust the mass media anyway, and talk radio and the internet have opened bleeding wounds in the monopoly of the statist media. They hate it, but it is still out of their control so far. The Future and Its Enemies, although a conventionally published book, adds to the library of classics that stand behind the libertarian talk show host or the free market website. Far from the obscurantism of academic deconstructionism, Postrel writes a clear and convincing presentation, a loaded weapon for anyone who want to join the ranks of the fight against the forces of stasis and state.

Dynamist.com

Reason Foundation

Political Economy

Reviews

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2000 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved