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This is a fundamental text for anyone who wants to understand our politics today.  Postrel has taken a discerning look at the seemingly tatterdemalion political fabric and identified two basic philosophical groupings  that obtain across traditional political boundaries--stasists and dynamists.  The most important factor that differentiates these two groups is their attitude towards the future.  Stasists, like Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Newt Gingrich, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, Jeremy Rifkin, etc., are basically afraid of the future, unless they are allowed to shape it. These are the bureaucratic elites, social planners, trade unionists and technocrats who believe that they are capable of making better decisions than the general populace.  Dynamists, like Jim Glassman, Tom Peters, Milton Friedman, FA Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, Calvin Coolidge, etc, assume that we should allow people the maximum freedom to experiment, and are unafraid of the shape that the future will take.  They tend to be libertarian and market oriented.

    Stasists seek specifics to govern each new situation and keep things under control.  Dynamists
    want to limit universal rule making 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, nested rule sets.  Such disagreements have
    political ramifications that go much deeper than the short-term business of campaigns and
    legislation.  They affect our governing assumptions about how political, economic, social,
    intellectual, and cultural systems work; what those systems should value; and what they mean.

You will have noticed that the Stasists are an odd mix.  But Al Gore's environmental vision and Pat Buchanan's protectionism and Ralph Nader's consumer regulation and Newt Gingrich's tax code tinkering are all part and parcel of the same hubris.  Each of them thinks that he is capable of determining what the future should look like and then setting up an intricate thicket of governmental rules and regulations to get us there.

My favorite part of the book comes when Postrel explodes the central metaphor of the 1996 Clinton campaign, I've been waiting for someone to say this for a while.  Bob Dole, in his mostly beautiful acceptance speech, the best parts of which were written by the novelist Mark Helprin, promised to be a bridge to the past.  This image makes sense because what he was saying, indeed what conservatives generally say, is that there are values and traditions that we had once, but have lost, to our own detriment.  He was saying that he could reach back across the past several destructive decades and help us salvage what was best about America in the past.

Clinton seized on this image & promised to be a bridge to the 21st century--contrasting the forward leading Democrats with the backward looking Republicans.  But this metaphor makes almost no sense.  Is he suggesting that we bypass the next several years?  Are we to somehow rise above human experience & land in the year 2007 or something?  Obviously not.  What his metaphor really means, though you haven't heard it from the press, is that he will decide what the future should be & then erect an enormous static structure (laws, rules, regulations) that can only lead us to that one place.  This imagery actually revealed much more about the two parties than most critics understood.  Thankfully, Postrel remedies the situation.

Here and in the other critiques of the Stasists, Postrel is at her best.   Consider the following withering attack on the snobbery implicit in much Stasist thought:

    Stasist social criticism--which is to say essentially all current social criticism--brings up the
    specifics of life only to sneer at or bash them.  Critics assume that readers will share their
    attitudes and will see contemporary life as a problem demanding immediate action by the
    powerful and wise.  This relentlessly hostile view of how we live, and how we may come to
    live, is distorted and dangerous.  It overvalues the tastes of an articulate elite, compares the
    real world of trade-offs to fantasies of utopia, omits important details and connections, and
    confuses temporary growing pains with permanent catastrophes.  It demoralizes and devalues
    the creative minds on whom our future depends.  And it encourages the coercive use of political
    power to wipe out choice, forbid experimentation, short-circuit feedback, and trammel progress.

This is wicked & powerful stuff.

The book is less successful, as it must be, in laying out the Dynamist alternative.  A program based on limitless experimentation obviously can't provide a road map or a program for the future.  But I think Postrel and the Dynamists would do well to look back to Bob Dole's metaphor.  There are certain values that we should seek to carry forward with us--family, marriage, Church, patriotism, charity, etc.  This is not to say that experimentation or freedom that contradict these values should be stifled, merely that as a society we must remain capable of making judgments about which institutions have desirable qualities that we seek to preserve and then we should foster an environment in which they may flourish.  Take as one example the issue of gay marriage.  It may be that regardless of what we do now, twenty years from now marriage will be open to every conceivable coupling of mammals.  However, as we look around us now, we are certainly capable of making the judgment that monogamous male/female non-kin marriage has been a valuable institution in the Western world and should be protected.  Towards this end we can adopt government policies that benefit married couples.  But at the same time, even as we deny gays the "right" to marry and the benefits that accrue, we can allow them to create alternative institutions and see how their experiment develops--perhaps they could enter into some form of contractual status, which would provide certain ceremonial trappings, legal obligations and the like.  The open experimentation the Dynamists advocate does not require that we abandon our Western heritage.  It seems to me that this sort of a blend of libertarian Dynamism with a values based conservatism could provide a winning political formula.

At any rate, the book is thought provoking without being tedious and could very well be the best book on politics that you read for quite some time.  I encourage you to give it a try.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Virginia Postrel Links:
-REVIEW: of The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness by Virginia I. Postrel (Anne Hollander, New Republic)

Book-related and General Links: (Web Companion to the book)
    -Future and its Enemies Website (from Reason)
    -Reason Online (she's the editor)
    -Gergen Dialogue (The Newshour)
    -Review from Salon Magazine
    -REVIEW: The Future and Its Enemies by Virginia Postrel (Daniel Casse, Commentary)

    -Cato Institute (libertarian think tank)
    -Friedrich Hayek Scholars Page
    -Karl Popper Web
    -Polyconomics (Jude Wanniski)

If you liked The Future and Its Enemies, try:

Bork, Robert H.
    -The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law

Chambers, Whittaker

Friedman, Milton
    -Free to Choose

Fukuyama, Francis
    -The End of History and the Last Man

Hayek, Frederick
    -The Road to Serfdom
    -The Constitution of Liberty

Howard, Phillip K.
    -The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America (read Orrin's review, Grade: B)

Isaac, Erich and Rael
    -The Coercive Utopians: Social Deception by America's Power Players

Murray, Charles
    -Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980

O'Rourke, P.J.
    -Parliament of Whores

Wanniski, Jude
    -The Way the World Works