on 27 December 1998
Books asking us to envision a "new" politics are a dime-a-dozen. Only one of them is worth reading and that is Virginia Postrel's The Future and Its Enemies. This book is a sublime expression of the idea that the laissez faire society envisioned by many "conservative" thinkers will lead to far more creativity, diversity, and innovation than could have been created by any policymaker's plan. The medium you are reading this on is proof of it. Years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine the idea of a transparent online marketplace where you could read a compilation of book reviews from both experts and ordinary readers, and if you liked what they had to say, have the book sent to you just by clicking a button. No Washington sage planned out a World Wide Web with sites like Amazon and eBay. It just spontaneously evolved when entrepreneurs began pushing the limits of new technology. The result of this decentralized process is pretty spectacular. This is exactly the point, argues Postrel. The best things in life always emerge in a laissez-faire environment. Though this may seem like common sense, it runs against the prevailing political wisdom, even in this era of supposed fiscal conservatism. "The era of big government" may be over, but Washington's appetite to control your life in new ways is still very much alive. Bill Clinton thinks he can plan out a good life for you through tax incentives for good behavior and public-private initiatives. Anyone well versed in Postrel's ideas knows this is folly. But Clinton's "third way" politics is only one manifestation of a growing reactionary movement to rein in and shape the future to fit some pre-determined mold. This is a movement that encompasses much of the political left, right AND center. Buchananites attacks free trade which bring lower prices and more convenience because it destabilizes the industrial communities of the past. Reactionary environmentalists and assorted leftists argue for small scale economic autarky, insularity, and stagnation for the sake of restoring us to some pristine state of nature (a state of nature in which the air was cleaner, but life expectancy was also a fraction of what it is today). On one hand are the stasists -- from Clinton to Buchanan to Ralph Nader, and on the other are the dynamists who embrace change and innovation, even if they can't control it.
on 3 May 1999
Having been born on June 1st, my astrologic sign is Gemini. The Twins constellation suggests a dual personality. Happy and sad, strong and weak, intelligent and passionate. A proverbial incarnation of the conflicting passions in life. Granting even the smallest credence to the influence of the stars on our lives, I've never met anyone - no matter their birth sign - who wasn't a complex, ever-changing, multifaceted and occasionally conflicted personality. If duality is the criteria, perhaps we're all Geminis. Dualism is a slightly strained effort to comprehend ourselves and society. The distinct emotional and intellectual features we can identify do seem to have degrees, from nearly nothing to the dominance of one characteristic over others. Occasionally, for short periods in our lives, one of those sentiments or inclinations will dominate all others. For good reasons, we'll be timid, even fearful, about our future. Then, in a new context, swing to the extreme of strength, even bravery, in pursuing our dreams. The same occurs with intellectual talents and inclinations. This duality never concerns us at the time, simply because we are fully in the context of our own sentiments. However, when we review them in the abstract, or in the society at large, they seem different.
In the abstract, we tend to personify those temporary inclinations as incarnate drives that propel us toward either good or evil. When we consider the extreme poles of emotion and intellect, we fault the devil for our failures and praise divinity for our successes. It seems to add sense to our world to imagine some insuperable force of dualism at work than to understand all the complexities in our lives or in society. So we enjoy neat dualist categories of rich versus poor, conservative versus liberal, strong versus week, libertarian versus totalitarian, arts versus science, or Republican versus Democrat.
In her new book, The Future And Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel (editor of Reason magazine) coins her own social dualism, the dynamists versus the stasists. Dynamists are, of course, the friends of the future, demonstrating creativity, enterprise and progress. Happy to have everything always changing all the time. With prolific empirical evidence, she makes the case for allowing these dynamic forces to flow freely. On the other hand are the stasists, those tired, old stick-in-the-muds, who want to suppress or control everything and everybody. Dynamists are our salvation and stasists are our damnation.
We would probably all agree, to one extreme or another, with nearly all the examples she presents, but Postrel's dualism suffers the same fault as any. Even the most dynamic among us wants to lay down in a comfortable bed at night, confident that our home is secure, dependent on some prolonged serenity for a peaceful sleep. Even the most temperate and cautious among us will indulge in a passionate art form or apply ourselves to solving a vexing problem. It's no surprise that we are all part-time dynamists or stasists, in nearly every respect. We are all Geminis.
Postrel documents a broad assortment of dynamic social and political heroes. And she's always correct. Fostering an environment that allows playful novelties and astounding innovations is a good thing. Many people do marvelous things in wondrous ways. But Postrel begs off any ethical criteria or political guidelines for creating such an environment. In a stiff journalistic commentary, she skips thorough a continuous string of authorities and copious references that get in the way of her clear convictions about justice, liberty and rights, which are always evident in her writing and editing of Reason magazine. Her book itemizes a range of opinions about dynamic rules and guidelines, but lacks the vitality of a central ethical premise. At times, she almost proposes that the means justify the ends, that dynamism forces always lead to favorable outcomes.
The dynamic versus stasist dualism falls far short of being an inspirational nostrum. Dynamic human conduct can be a boon to our lives, or a scourge. People can do terrible things with disastrous consequences in a very dynamic way. Temperance, caution, and skepticism can be stasist virtues when it comes to the beneficial evolution of the human condition. Perhaps the other dualisms are equally unsatisfactory. In the context of our lives, we all push and pull, swing and sway, between extremes. Since we're all Geminis, both facets make the whole life, where moderation is the norm, if not the rule.
In spite of the grand premise, there emerges some passion and delightful exuberance in Chapter Seven, "Fields Of Play". Postrel almost succumbs to a hearty delight in composing an ovation to whimsy. While explaining that play - not necessity - is the mother of invention, her dry commentary approaches exuberance. The creativity, enterprise, and progress that flows from the joy of simple exploration and learning is worthy of a book on its own. When it's all said and done, the future will be decided by the whimsy of our children. Perhaps she can dedicate it to the Geminis of all ages.
------- William Westmiller is California Coordinator of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He was a Candidate for the Republican Nomination for (CA24) Congress, and is a former National Secretary (and California Chairman) of the Libertarian Party.
on 14 April 1999
Do you worry when you hear, "We're from the government and we're here to help you"? This wonderful book is for you. The author elegantly explains how bargaining away our freedom and allowing big government to run our lives is not only wrong, but how terribly destructive it is to society. This is an important book. The lines between GOP'ers and Dem's have blurred. Postrel brings us a new and more useful distinction: "dynamists" who understand that freedom creates the future through a chaotic process of failure and success, allowing those almost magical, random leaps of human creativity and inspiration that drive progress... and the bad guys, anti-progressive "statists" who disallow both failure and success and all hope for advancement, innovation, and human betterment. Yes the future is both promising in its potential and frightening in its uncertainty -- but who would bargain away its promise for the false security of the present? Want to climb the mountain and see what America and Americans could be? Read this book. See the future. You'll get a tingle. And be a better, freer person. I'm giving out copies to friends right and left.
This fascinating book by the author of Reason magazine explores the conflict between stasis and dynamism. Those who long for stasis want an engineered, regulated world. They include leftists and reactionary rightists. For them, it is all about stability and control and they are distrustful of technology.
Dynamists, on the other hand, seek a world of constant creation, competition, spontaneity and discovery. Whereas proponents of stasism believe that progress requires a blueprint, dynamists consider it as an evolutionary process. It boils down to the craving for predictability versus the enjoyment of surprise. Stasists and dynamists disagree not only about short-term policies but also about the way the world functions.
The book is a type of manifesto outlining the dynamist vision. It integrates the work of many scholars in describing how dynamist systems operate. The author explores how progress occurs in a dazzlingly wide variety of areas, from fashion to computers to movies and many others. Her arguments are quite convincing as she demonstrates how open-ended trial and error is the route to human improvement.
The Future And Its Enemies is quite an engaging read as it discusses the processes by which creativity brings about progress, prosperity, freedom and happiness. Its charms lie in the way that it points out the connections between different aspects of life, dealing with subjects as disparate as hairdressing, computer games, philosophy and bio-ethics, amongst others.
In this impressive work, Postrel has made a valuable contribution to the literature of freedom. Her refreshing angle and original insights clearly show that the organic growth of society is superior in every way to planning by arrogant political elites. Hayek and Mises would have been proud of her!
on 18 May 1999
If there's a better book published during the last few years, I don't know of it. With this book, Virginia Postrel takes her place along side Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Ayn Rand as the 20th century's greatest heroines of liberty. Postrel's book is scholarly, very well researched, and clearly written. Like the philosophy she advocates, her book is dynamic. It is a unique combination of ideas drawn from a wide range of fields -- including, but not limited to, economics, history, management, law, political science, psychology, and biology. Moreover, as others have commented, Postrel's distinction between "dynamists" and "stasists" is wonderfully useful. This fresh distinction shows clearly that the tired distinction between "liberal" and "conservative" is not only useless, but downright poisonous to constructive discourse.
This is one of my favorite books of all time.
on 21 February 1999
Who knows where Virginia Postrel is leading us with this superoptimistic,richly detailed and refreshingly exuberant updating of some of F.A. Hayek's work on self-organizing systems? Surely not into a political campaign or a legislative agenda. For those who are so inclined, Maslow's The Farther Reaches of Human Nature would make a nicely complementary read. Tom Peters, of course, is a dynamist soul mate. Ms Postrel is such an optimist that it seems mean-spirited to wish that she would have devouted a chapter to the tradeoffs this creative destruction imposes on humanity.
on 12 June 2011
Virginia Postrel's book is aimed at launching a new word - "Dynamist". This is a view of the world that she says has rarely been fully articulated.
As the editor of Reason magazine, contributor to Forbes ASAP, Wired and a careful technology observer she has concluded, I think very correctly, that the old political terms of "Right" and "Left" have been superseded. We live in a new world in which the fundamental division is between people who welcome change (Dynamists) and those that don`t (Stasists). She follows Hayek and quotes him, identifying Dynamists as "the party of life, the party that favours free growth and spontaneous evolution". The idea is a wholehearted acceptance of evolution through variation, feedback and adaption with a basic framework of laws that "protect the soundness of the system without guaranteeing an outcome".
Stasist government planning troubled Hayek and he was one of the few voices speaking out against it in the 1940`s and 50's. It was the fashionable pseudo-scientific TRUTH that was embraced in everything from economics (Beatrice Webb: "I had laboriously transformed my intellect into an instrument for research. Child bearing would destroy it..."??) to urban renewal projects (concrete dead zones) and psychology (Skinner- if you can`t measure it it doesn't exist).
Postrel sees this technocratic attitude firmly in power ever since Roosevelt's Progressive Era when he instructed public officials to "look ahead and plan out the right kind of civilization", with the emphasis on "plan". The idea that things could evolve and develop alone was strongly opposed by technocrats who tried to anticipate events and still do so, producing enormous regulatory foul ups such as the S&L problem, the California power crisis or the Crédit Lyonnais bankrupcy in France - to quote only more recent examples.
She identifies another kind of stasist that has been around for a longer time, namely Reactionaries who have their roots in farming/ landowning societies with fixed status, obligations, tradition, church and life governed by the seasons. Interestingly she shows how this view has metamorphosed into the green movement and ironically into parts of the very industrial societies that destroyed landowning power. She quotes Lasch on the parochialism of urban ethnic neighborhoods: "Lower middle-class culture, now as in the past, is organized around the family, church, and neighborhood ......The people of Charlestown ........had renounced opportunity, advancement, adventure, for the reassurance of community, solidarity, and camaraderie".
All this ties in with anti NAFTA anti WalMart anti computers and a general desire for stasis.
Some criticism of a very good book:
- Slight criticism: The Friedmans in "Free to Choose" have similar ideas and aren't mentioned. Also Schumpeter is quoted approvingly as usual for his "creative destruction" view of capitalist change. When will someone mention that in the same book he rejected the idea and went on to strongly support socialist technocratic planning?
- Moderate criticism: Aren't reactionary tendencies integral to us. ie.they are tied to our emotions. How do we handle this? Also dynamism can overshoot badly in the economy - see Soros (Alchemy), being an open invitation to the technocrats to come in and fix it.
- Serious criticism: She says, "Dynamists would argue for the human value of saving what they love, for prairies as a connection to history and species preservation to serve our aesthetic and moral sense." She is anti monopoly but doesn't humanity really have a monopoly hold over other species ? Also the Dynamist view drives us at full speed into Kurzweils quote,"few serious observers who have studied the issue claim that computers will never achieve and surpass human intelligence." This may be desirable or undesirable but it is a consequence of free evolutionary growth that she doesn't consider.
on 12 April 1999
This wonderful new book reimagines the modern political spectrum. On the one hand are dynamists--they celebrate open-ended change, playful experimentation, and technological innovation. On the other hand are stasists-they wish to control and direct change and fear harm from cultural change and unfettered technological innovation.
Like all "there are two kinds of people" analyses, I have heard people criticize Postrel's thesis for not covering all cases. But no such analysis ever passes that test. The real questions are: Does it offer new insight? Is it useful? Postrel's dynamist/stasist (note: not "statist") analysis succeeds resoundingly on both counts. It is just as insightful and useful as the old left/right, liberal/conservative, statist/libertarian divides were, and still often are.
Not the least of the reasons that the older spectrums have been useful is because people fit themselves into these categories. For the past decade, however, many have been decidedly NOT fitting themselves into the older categories. Postrel is the first to identify who they are and what they care about most. Many of these people are leading the high tech industry and will soon, I hope, be leading our nation. Her insight into how they think is part of what makes this book important.
To one familiar with her writing, it is no surprise that Postrel devotes an entire chapter to the idea of "play." Postrel writes with great humor and lively intelligence. She has an unmatched talent for drawing deep insights from modest, everyday occurrences. Her point of view takes in donut shops and computer companies, nail salons and biotechnology, high culture and pop culture.
The book is well-footnoted and researched, but displays the enviable ability that Virginia demonstrates in her Forbes and Reason columns: Unlike most writers, who make difficult topics (urban planning, technological development, philosophy) the prose equivalent of boiled spinach, she makes them just plain fun.
By the way, this book is not merely descriptive. Postrel is a dynamist and thinks you should be too: They're interesting, flexible, creative, free-spirited, and more fun at parties.
on 11 April 1999
This book really amazed me a number of times by gradually weaving together many apparently disparate ideas about creativity and control, fear and play, ingenuity and stasis, into a beautifully coherent worldview. Fantastic and fun use of examples (with extended footnotes to boot), clearly thought out arguments, and something I'll call an "added spark" distinguish this work from the background (and not a few reviews), even the better half. This is a mind-changing book.
Surely frustrating to critics of self-determination and voluntary association, this is at heart an apolitical masterpiece in every way except its unavoidable implications--and a few examples. It goes one level below politics and explores the attitudes that give rise to them. What it finds is two loose bodies of thought and effort: STASIS, which either deplores most change or seeks to dictate its shape in advance from the powerful top of society down; and DYNAMISM, a less organized--but less conflicted--mindset adopted by sundry thinkers and doers, which tolerates change, prefers low-level rule-making followed by evolved commitments, and thrives on play, local knowledge, trial and error, and a few other key traits--all teased out by the author in delightfully straightforward language.
Postrel plainly states that the contrast is not black and white. Not all "dynamists" disavow all "stasist" notions. Dynamism is not a formula for utopia. And not all historical accomplishments flowed from perfect, dynamic settings. Human minds, after all, are manifold--a fact which strengthens dynamist processes but blurs partisan boundaries. And people can accomplish great things in all kinds of settings. The question is, what kind of society promotes the best that we humans can come up with and has, overall, the most benign side effects. If we ask only "How can we, collectively, do great things?" there are many answers. This is not in dispute. Even the most tyrannical societies have produced some wonders. But if we ask further, "How might we allow everyone's best to emerge, recombine in ways we do not anticipate, and do ever greater things?" then Postrel has a much narrower answer for your consideration.
on 11 November 1998
This book promises a new way to think about otherwize puzzling phenomena. It doesn't disappoint.
I enjoyed the book immensely, and thought its pronouncements on the bizarre alliances between "right" and "left" quite enlightening.
The book's central theme involves a conflict between what Postrel calls "stasism" and "dynamism," where the former view involves a blend of both reactionaries (whose primary value is social stability) and technocrats (whose primary value is control - "one best way for everyone"). This analysis enables us to understand the weird overlaps between reactionary environmentalists, who think that the only threat ecosystems face is human-caused instability, and conservatives, who fear cultural instability ("I refuse to let you affect my life.")
Then there are the technocrats, who, as Postrel ably describes, think that if one day care center has an in-house play area, then all of them should. Postrel quotes with merry abandon, laying bare the code in which technocrats talk (they love phrases like "national standards," "comprehensive plans," etc.).
These then are the future's enemies, and they tend to share either a distrust or ignorance of what Postrel, following F.A. Hayek, calls "localized" or "tacit" knowledge. Hayek described such knowledge as "the knowledge of specific circumstances, time, and place" -- that is, the sort of knowledge no technocrat in Washington could ever master, no matter how big his computer. The existence of this sort of knowledge is the reason why large-scale plans foisted on everyone, regardless of circumstances, tend to fail, and why markets, with their endless ability to customize and tailor products to even the most obscure of needs, tend to succeed.
Hayek wrote of these things many years ago, but even he disparaged his own writing skills. (Nonetheless, I am hard-pressed to think of a greater social thinker in the 20th century than Hayek.) It is a good thing that there are people like Postrel to take up the banner.