Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Future And Its Enemies, by Virginia Postrel

I thought I had already read this (it came out in ’98), but it must have been merely a thorough review. No idea where, at this point. Her essential point: any system of importance is too dynamic to control – the drive for stasis is futile, and possibly damaging. The words dynamism and stasis occur throughout, as she multiplies examples from a dozen realms to illustrate that organizations and governments that acknowledge dynamic reality survive, while those which seek stasis founder.

She is quite persuasive. I had trouble fighting my way through it, but I think this is because its idea is only partially congenial to me, not because it is poorly-written. (I don’t think it’s brilliantly-written, but it is engaging enough. Fun examples. Perhaps it is a bit repetitive.)

In politics, she faults both liberals and conservatives, each embracing an impossible static vision and attempting to enforce this on others. That is standard libertarian fare, but she chooses examples well: Nixon’s proposed plan to ration gasoline to a rather precise 33 gallons/month for urban dwellers, 37 for urbanites, which we can now see is an insane attempt at two-size fits all that has no relationship to reality; NYC bureaucrats deciding how much security banks should put around ATM’s (as if the banks can’t figure out better what will keep their customers feeling safe and happy). Politicians dislike messiness, and going back to the age of Teddy Roosevelt, believe it is their job to figure out the One Best Way that the nation should live by. I have long said, when politicians want to solve something, they always want to have comprehensive immigration reform, or health care reform, or jobs programs, and that, more than anything else, is what makes them dangerous.
Every new idea seems to spark a campaign to ban or control it: breast implants and mobile phones, aseptic juice boxes and surrogate mothers, Japanese cars, and bovine growth hormone, video games and genetic engineering, quality circles and no-haggle car pricing, telecommuting and MRI’s, data encryption and book superstores – the list goes on forever.

Most political arguments thus take place between competing technocratic schemes. Should there be a mandatory “family viewing” hour on TV, or ratings and a V-chip? Should the tax code favor families with children, or people attending college? Should a national health insurance program enroll everyone in managed care, or should we regulate health maintenance organizations so they act more like fee-for-service doctors? The issue isn’t whether the future should be molded to fit one static ideal. It’s what that static ideal should be. There must be a single blueprint for everyone.
Environmentalists, with visions of village or even primitive economies, draw her especial ire. Well, I’m always on board with people kicking Bill McKibben,* Al Gore, and Jeremy Rifkin. But she notes that technocratic (both GOP and Dem versions) visions are equally worrisome, if applied across the board. But I kept coming up against emotional difficulties, because there are other stasisist visions that appeal to me. I’m a cultural continuity kind of guy, and some cultural values – definitions of marriage, core curriculum, for example, I might want to at least encourage, if not require. Postrel will have none of it. We can have such agreements by contract between individuals but not by fiat. I kept objecting, throughout the book “is no American, or even local community to be protected in the slightest against the vagaries of current fashion? It is no good to say certainly, groups may agree to abide by such principles voluntarily if they wish, but the reality is that a new person can move in if she wants, and the prior agreements cannot be easily enforced. “ See, for example, how much of the debate on same-sex marriage revolves around others being required to recognize it. Special carve-outs for religions are promised, but such things are unstable. OTOH, perhaps Postrel is not pointing out her desired end, but the inevitable one under the American Constitution, or western values of individual freedom generally. My desire for visible enactment of what has gone before – giving the ancestors a vote, as it were – may be illusory. I can force it on my children until age 18, influence others and organizations via persuasion and whatever claim I may have on them, and am otherwise not in control. Nor are any of us, except temporarily or by chance. Having children is the most dynamic intervention one can put upon the world, yet it makes one desire stasis. I suspect my sons are more comfortable with dynamic visions than I am, the youngest three intuitively (such ideas in the abstract have no hold over their minds), the older two because I think we have trained them in both visions, whereas we were only trained in one. The older son, with two young daughters, can expect to have suspicions of dynamism and sympathy for stasis, at least in part. The second son- well, I don’t know what moving to dynamic Houston but being employed by semi-stasisist Methodists in The Woodlands does to one, but I think he has more of a natural comfort with dynamism than the rest of us. (OTOH, Watership Down? Redwall? He defies easy categorization, I think.) More Postrel: I really liked parts of this book.
…if, like Allen and Werbach, you want to stifle agribusiness and shut down Wal-Mart; if, like Schumacher and Sale, you want to make people less footloose and and limit the size of cities; if, like Rifkin you want to ban genetic engineering (or McKibben – enjoy, CF and schizophrenia sufferers! (AVI note)) or, like Buchanan, you want to keep out foreign people and foreign goods; if, like Frank and Bennett, you want to rein in advertising and control popular culture, you can find powerful allies – and a friendly political system. If exhortation and polemics aren’t enough to rally the public to voluntarily adopt your favored form of stasis, government help is available…technocrats know how to stop things.
*recently, and predictably, trying to sell the idea over at Sojourners, that vetoing the Keystone pipeline is a Christian idea, because otherwise we’d be destroying the earth and rewarding corporations, both of which were big items on Jesus’s list of sins, doncha know. I oversimplify, but not by much.  That neither the destruction, reward, nor sin is entirely true is apparently completely irrelevant. It’s how it feels to McKibben. And presumably, one or more people at Sojo.

1 comment:

Texan99 said...

I am personally so conservative about things like sexual mores that I'm practically Victorian, but politically it sounds like I'm right in this author's camp. It's not that I don't think it's valuable for society to protect and enforce institutions like marriage, but that it's practically impossible to do so by force. I'd settle for not using government resources to bail out people who make terrible choices along those lines. But of course there's always the problem of how far we're willing to go to rescue the innocents who get caught in the crossfire, like children of divorce or children of unwed or clueless parents.

Re the pipeline, my husband read an amusing content this weekend, suggesting that if the XL were a high-speed rail, not only would everyone love to assist it in rampaging across Middle America, but we would be shoving tax money at it.