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December 31, 1998

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The Future and Its Enemies
    by Virginia Postrel


The invention of the personal computer brought in one of those brief periods of explosive creativity when twenty-year-olds with no paper qualifications could make fortunes by inventing useful goods. Being a software developer in 1980 was like being a steam locomotive engineer in 1820, or an aircraft designer ninety years later. Nowadays, of course, you need four graduate degrees and a king's ransom of liability insurance before anyone will let you design a plane. This has good and bad results. Good: planes are much safer than they were in 1910. Bad: nobody with the least flicker of imagination or creativity makes a career designing planes — which is why planes look just the same now as they did thirty years ago. Soon, no doubt, you will need a Commerce Department license to write computer programs.

There you have the trade-off between security and freedom, which every parent of small children wrestles with daily on a more intimate scale. In The Future and Its Enemies Virginia Postrel makes the case for "dynamism": freedom, risk, and an "open" future, unplanned and unknown, emerging from the unfettered creativity of the human mind. The other side of her dichotomy is populated by "stasists": reactionaries who dislike or fear change and technocrats who believe they can manage and direct change by dint of planning and social engineering. Ross Perot, with his charts and graphs and teams of experts ready to descend on and solve every one of our problems, is a stasist. So is Pat Buchanan, dreaming of a return to the 1950s. So is our next President, Al Gore, whose dim-witted technocratic power-fantasies are quoted here to hilarious effect.

Ms. Postrel writes editorials for Reason magazine, flagship of the Libertarian movement; but she makes a point of saying in her book that "dynamists aren't just libertarians with a new name." It seems to me, however, that the difference sets — dynamists who are not libertarians and vice versa — must be very small, so I do not think it unfair to say that this is for the most part a libertarian tract. The Future and Its Enemies is an ideas book, though, not an issues book. There is almost nothing here on those knotty topics that separate off libertarians from the rest of the intellectual Right — immigration, for example, or drug legalization. Ms. Postrel's aim is only to provide a defense of adventurous, optimistic attitudes to social and technological change. That she has done very admirably, with passion and vigor.

If the book has a fault, I think it is that Ms. Postrel underestimates those enemies in its title, and the power of their appeal to our baser natures. Human society is nothing but the human soul at large, and we humans are very slothful creatures. A survey of those parts of the human race who have been given the opportunity to spend their whole lives doing nothing useful — the British aristocracy, for example — shows that the overwhelming majority embrace that opportunity with enthusiasm. So with our institutions. Every culture, in every age, has thrown up mechanisms to thwart and deny the potential of the gifted and energetic minority, from the trade guilds of medieval Europe to the National Education Association. It is not difficult to see why. Ms. Postrel herself gives the game away. "A dynamist world is not a place of hedonistic lotus eaters, but of continual striving — not simply to survive, but to improve." It all sounds so strenuous. What, no lotus eating at all? I like Ms. Postrel's book, and agree with her large thesis; but I hope she will not mind me saying that I think she has been spending too much time with software entrepreneurs — people who work twenty-hour days and build fortunes doing something they love to do. She might try strolling round the back offices of the large company I work for, where the item of software most commonly to be seen running on employees' workstations is Solitaire.

It should be heartening to read an author like Ms. Postrel, one who speaks out clearly against the thickening tangle of laws and regulations that reach ever deeper into our personal lives and private exchanges. Yet The Future and Its Enemies, though very worthy in itself, left me feeling glum. We are not short of books advocating liberty, wealth creation and open-mindedness. What we are short of is any large public sentiment in favor of those things. I agree with Ms. Postrel that we currently have too many laws, and way too many lawyers; but how many of our fellow citizens are of the same mind? In the recent elections in my state, one of the candidates for the U.S. Senate boasted — boasted! in paid ads on prime-time TV! — that he was a man with "a passion to legislate." He won handily.