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The FUTURE AND ITS ENEMIES: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress Paperback – December 8, 1999
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Today we have greater wealth, health, opportunity, and choice than at any time in history. Yet a chorus of intellectuals and politicians laments our current condition -- as slaves to technology, coarsened by popular culture, and insecure in the face of economic change. The future, they tell us, is dangerously out of control, and unless we precisely govern the forces of change, we risk disaster.
In The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel explodes the myths behind these claims. Using examples that range from medicine to fashion, she explores how progress truly occurs and demonstrates that human betterment depends not on conformity to one central vision but on creativity and decentralized, open-ended trial and error. She argues that these two opposing world-views -- "stasis" vs. "dynamism" -- are replacing "left" and "right" to define our cultural and political debate as we enter the next century.
In this bold exploration of how civilizations learn, Postrel heralds a fundamental shift in the way we view politics, culture, technology, and society as we face an unknown -- and invigorating -- future.
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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.
The author likely has a point about individual and non-government directed successes. What she ignores are the thousands of years of state directed projects that still rank amongst the greatest achievements of all time. I would point out not only the Interstate highway system, the Panama Canal, the lend lease program of recent times. I would also point out that there are examples of state sponsored works of literature (the Aeneid)and music (the music composed for the courts of Europe) which are rather famous. The art and architecture of "stasist systems" include Versailles and the Peterhof. Not too shabby.
I'm not suggesting statism (which is really what the author is talking about while using the term "stasist") is superior to anything in particular but for all the successes of the dynamist approach, their opponents have a few laurels to rest upon too. Why is that? What kind of a book could have discussed the ups and downs, the drawbacks and advantages of both her approach and the state directed and controlled systems she loathes, and why are they important?
This book really doesn't address these questions and I think the author should have addressed them in at least the span of a chapter (while consolidating others). It's an argument that she either avoids for some reason or didn't consider, but "stasists" can mount a powerful rejoinder to her work, and a few reviewers here do just that.
In some important ways, this book disappoints. I think it has some merit and persons interested in free markets, free enterprise, and entrepreneurship might find this work very useful, if far from comprehensively advancing the author's arguments. I rate this book three stars. Were it not so verbose and repetitive, I would probably have gone four stars, yet written a similar review. Interesting? For the first 125 pages, yes. Valuable? Perhaps, but not as a comprehensive or forceful manifesto for libertarian ideas.
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