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Embrace Dynamism: The Future and Its Enemies at 25

As I write in the introduction to a Southern Economic Journal symposium (commemorating the anniversaries of Ludwig von Mises’s “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth” and F.A. Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society”): “the roaring (20-)20s are a decade of anniversaries and milestones. Last year was the 60th anniversary of The Calculus of Consent by James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. This year, for example, will be the fiftieth anniversary of Israel Kirzner’s Competition and Entrepreneurship, and we will celebrate at the Association of Private Enterprise Education conference in April.

It’s also the 25th anniversary of another book that has not gotten the attention it deserves in either academic or popular circles: Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. It appeared in 1998, toward the end of her time as editor-in-chief of Reason magazine.

The Future and Its Enemies encourages readers to embrace dynamism, an outlook that embraces progress, but not “progressive” progress. It embraces not the articulated, planned progress of intellectual and political elites but the freedom-fueled progress of the Bourgeois Deal. Dynamists hear the bourgeoisie say “leave me alone and I’ll make you rich” and enthusiastically nod “OK” as they embrace an ever-changing world of more and better.

It’s a vision stasists find terrifying and possibly immoral (“more”? “better”?). Postrel’s stasists are “the enemies of the future” who “aim their attacks not at creativity itself but at the dynamic processes through which it is carried.” She continues:

In our post-Cold War era, for instance, free markets are recognized as powerful forces for social, cultural, and technological change–liberating in the eyes of some, threatening to others. The same is true for markets in ideas: for free speech and worldwide communication; for what John Stuart Mill called ‘experiments in living’; for scientific research, artistic expression, and technological innovation. All of these processes are shaping an unknown, and unknowable, future.

Not surprisingly, dynamists and stasists have radically different visions of how the world works, or should work. As Postrel writes,

Stasists seek specifics to govern each new situation and keep things under control. Dynamists want to limit universal rulemaking to broadly applicable and rarely changed principles, within which people can create and test countless combinations. Stasists want their detailed rules to apply to everyone; dynamists prefer competing, next rule sets.

Stasists might object that they don’t oppose progress per se. They want orderly, expert-directed progress toward a consciously chosen, rationally designed better world. They truly wish to build a society where people “follow the science,” and where priests in lab coats tell people how to live based on what’s in the latest issues of Science and Nature. “Stasists,” Postrel writes, “demand that knowledge be articulated and easily shared.”

Dynamists, on the other hand, “appreciate dispersed, often tacit knowledge.” If they have a patron saint, it’s Friedrich Hayek, who explained how the fundamental problems facing central planners are epistemic, not computational. We won’t be able to compute or design our way into paradise because social order is not that kind of problem. Dynamists like their political power like they like their social knowledge: decentralized.

Dynamists take a dim view of regulations that institutionalize One Right Way to do things. One example from The Future and Its Enemies sticks out: Vidal Sassoon, “the renowned British hairdresser whose precision cuts freed straight-haired women from the confines of permanents, teasing, and gobs of hairspray.” As Postrel writes,

New York’s state cosmetology regulations allowed no such innovations. To practice his trade there, Sassoon was supposed to take a test based on the sort of hairdressing he hated… With high-profile stunts like giving actress Mia Farrow a $5,000 haircut on a Hollywood sound stage, Sassoon made the state regulators look ridiculous for questioning his authority over his own work.

Sassoon beat City Hall, or at least the state cosmetology regulators.  I’m reminded of arguments about ridesharing in the middle of the 2010s. We take Uber, Lyft, and similar services for granted now; had they been strangled in the crib, would we know what we’re missing? How many Vidal Sassoons have been squashed by rules and regulations that codify How We’ve Always Done It?

Stasists embrace tests administered and overseen by experts. Only after the experts approve will the public be allowed to try something. Dynamists, on the other hand, embrace market tests where every dollar people spend is a vote for or against new hairstyles, new soft drinks, and old ways of doing things. Summarizing Sassoon’s experience, Postrel writes “The real test of Sassoon’s new ideas was in competition for respect and customers–and there he won a decisive victory.” To dynamists, Sassoon’s customers, not his regulators, are the rightful judges of whether he should be a hairstylist, a longshoreman, or a short-order cook. Consumers’ money talks loudly, and to dynamists, that is as it should be.

If I may be so bold, a 25th-anniversary edition might be in order. The progress we’ve made in the last twenty-five years shows that the dynamist tree bears sweet fruit. New readers can get copies of their own shipped to their houses for a few dollars, much more easily than they could when it was first published. They can even download electronic versions to their dedicated e-readers or to the supercomputers they carry around in their pockets. Or they can skim through it using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature or by scrolling through the Google Books preview embedded below. The Future and Its Enemies is a well-written, lucid argument for decentralized progress and the intellectual, political, and commercial liberty that makes it possible. It’s a celebration of “Free Minds and Free Markets,” to borrow Reason’s slogan. It teaches a message that resonates today, just as it did a quarter-century ago.

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