How do you feel about the future?

Sun Journal

Innovation: Virginia Postrel says most of us are not neutral. We're either stasists or dynamists.

March 12, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Wal-Mart happens. So do Post-it Notes and beach volleyball. And the Internet, of course, happens and keeps happening.

So what? So let it be, says writer Virginia Postrel.

Perhaps that does not seem such a striking statement, but Postrel warns that there are those who would have it otherwise, who would stand in the way of the creations she celebrates as the good works of a free, innovative society.

Her new book, "The Future and Its Enemies," presents a struggle of forces that has in many respects already rendered meaningless the old dichotomies of "liberal vs. conservative" and "left vs. right."

In such arenas as international trade, immigration, environmental protection and biotechnology there appear signals of a fresh dispensation -- one that pits the cautious, controlling enemies of the future against its bold, optimistic advocates. "Stasists" vs. "dynamists," in Postrel's classification.

Strange bedfellows appear in the post-Cold War landscape.

Patrick J. Buchanan and Ralph Nader lock arms against free-trade agreements. The Sierra Club calls for immigration curbs to slow American population growth -- and gets applause from prominent conservatives. Jeremy Rifkin, the old-left war protester, is joined by members of the Southern Baptist Convention in railing against genetic patents in biotechnology.

Something's up. Postrel, editor of the libertarian magazine Reason and self-styled "dynamist," sees it in no uncertain terms. It's dynamism, "the party of life," vs. technocrats, government planners, regulators, environmentalists and assorted killjoys. These "stasists" want to manage the future, says Postrel, and labor under the delusion that it's possible to do so. They long for an idyllic past that they see being plowed under in the rush of techno-capitalism.

"You see it in public debates constantly, new ideas being treated as crazy," says Postrel. "Telecommunications is a perfect area. We're seeing a lot of innovation, but in the early 1980s there was deregulation and a lot of opposition. There was a real division about what this is about."

Postrel, a 39-year-old resident of Los Angeles, speaks by phone from the road, on tour promoting the book. Hoarse and tired and suffering from a slight cold, she does not sound at this moment overwhelmingly dynamic. She is stirring it up, though, arousing praise and criticism across the country. She has written the book, staged a conference in California and, of course, launched a Web site.

A native of Greenville, S.C., Postrel studied English and economics at Princeton and worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, then Inc. magazine. Along the way she embraced the empiricism of British economist-philosopher John Stuart Mill and the free-market advocacy of economist Friedrich Hayek.

It was Hayek who stood against the rising tide of moderate socialism in 1944 with "The Road to Serfdom." In 1979 he wrote "The Political Order of a Free People," which includes this line: "We must shed the illusion that we can deliberately `create the future of mankind.' "

Twenty years later, Postrel, Hayek's philosophical descendant, says that not only have we yet to shed this illusion, we have fashioned from it elements of government policy and regulation.

"Accustomed to technocratic governance," Postrel writes, "we take for granted that each new development, from the contents of popular entertainment to the latest in medical equipment, deserves not only public discussion but government scrutiny. Every new idea seems to spark a campaign to ban or control it: breast implants and mobile phones, aseptic juice boxes and surrogate mothers. The list goes on forever."

As Postrel tells it, the disconnect between stasists and dynamists has a lot to do with attitudes about knowledge. Specifically, how much is knowable? The stasists make God-like claims on knowledge: the present, past, future, the sum of possibilities. The dynamists -- whom Postrel always shows in more flattering light -- are more humble.

"Dynamists may dream great dreams but they make modest claims," writes Postrel. Their preferred method, she says, is trial and error, and trial always against competition. Hence, she derides the decision to open the new $4.9 billion Denver International Airport after closing the old Stapleton Airport in Denver. The new airport -- a creature of big ideas and big budgets -- became famous for all sorts of problems, but it could never be tested in the context of a market because travelers had no alternative but to use it.

"We are," Postrel writes, "fallible and largely ignorant. We have not discovered the one best way to live, nor are we likely to. But we can, and have, improved our lot, building on the discoveries, insights and experiments of the past."

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