For many, the future is a source of anxiety. Macbeth’s temptation–to know with certainty the outcome of our lives–is powerful because it is common. Yet there are others for whom the unknown possibilities of what is to come prompt only excitement, optimism and an eagerness to innovate.

It is this conflict, this disparity in dispositions to the future, that Virginia Postrel claims in her book The Future and Its Enemies is the central issue of our day.

On the one hand are those whom Postrel calls stasists. They are both the reactionaries who value stability–think those who want trade barriers with China erected to preserve American unions–and technocrats who value control. While individual perspectives on which future should be implemented vary within the stasist camp, they are fundamentally the same in that “they disapprove of ’emergent, complex messiness,’ dread the ‘reckless ride into the unknown.'” Daunted by the unknown future, stasists seek to preserve the world as it is or shape the future in their own image.

On the other hand are the dynamists, or the “party of life” as Postrel calls them. Rather then plans, they appreciate the messiness of human creativity. They value competition, change and processes. The appreciate the flexibility that is demanded by an open future, and love the innovation that freedom from control results in. Rather than rules, they value individual empowerment. Rather than a single, centralized authority, they value the ability for small communities to create rules that are specific to their particular environments and needs. They value discovery and the criticism which often leads to it.

If it seems there is little to commend the stasist way of life, that’s mostly because Postrel’s book is an apologia for dynamism. And as such, it is effective. In Postrel’s hands, one wonders why anyone might be inclined to the arid, dull, lifeless stasist position.

But beneath the surface lurk significant problems. For one, it seems that Postrel’s work depends upon an updated and popularized Popperian philosophy, and hence is subject to its problems. While Postrel’s rejection of “the natural” as a ground for ethics is itself problematic, so is her replacement: consequences. With respect to bioethics, she points out (rightly!) that the problems of Brave New World, for instance, stem from the use of biotechnology by a central authority. She argues that those who oppose biotechnology do so on similar grounds–that someone will enforce a “homogeneous model of humanity.” Such arguments, of course, ignore the central problem of biotechnology–whether we should, in fact, subject our selves to our own control and make ourselves into our own image. Postrel, it seems, has way to answer, “Which image?”

Postrel’s work is fascinating and enjoyable, and her analysis of the different approaches to the future is absolutely correct. But while there is much in the dynamist position to commend itself, it lacks a crucial element that makes it ultimately no more desirable than that of the stasist.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

5 Comments

  1. […] Making conservatism look bad, a review (overview?) of Postrel at Mere Orthodoxy. […]

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  2. Studying the political philosophy (and corresponding metahpysic) of John Locke, Matt, I am struck by his somewhat unassailable view of Natural Law. At one point in the first part of 2nd Treatise on Government, Locke says, “The law of nature, which is reason, teaches all men, who will but attend to it…” For Locke, natural law was not something to be proved and then acted upon, but was something approaching the honorable position of “self-evident.” It is at least self-evident to “those who will but attend to it,” that is, reasonable men, that is, people like Locke.

    It strikes me further that this understanding of Reason is closely analogous to Lewis’ understanding of the Tao in Abolition of Man, (and tell me if you don’t agree.) That is, Reason, like the Tao, is something you either “see”, or don’t. If you stand “inside” Reason (or the Logos), you know what I’m talking about when I say, “Reason tells me not to spend unsupervised time with students.” If you stand outside of it, then you will hear this statement and ask with clinched eyebrows, “Who tells you that? What do you mean ‘Reason’? Define your terms. Are you saying that if you spend unsupervised time with students then certain consequences may follow which you do not want, and so you avoid this?”

    Is this analogy real, or merely percieved, do you think? If it is real, then the way to discuss natural law (which is reason, according to Locke) with those who claim to stand outside of it is not to reason with them, but in some Chestertonian way, to poke them, prod them, stare at them, scare them, and, ultimately, wake them up.

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  3. Matthew Lee Anderson September 28, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    Enthusiasmos,

    I am not sure what you mean by calling Locke’s theory of natural law “somewhat unassailable.” And I’m also not sure how much it maps on to Lewis’ notion of the “Tao” in Abolition of Man.

    For one, as you point out, for Locke the law of nature is “reason.” That’s a subtle departure from Aquinas, I think, who grounds the law of nature outside of reason (that is, in the structure of things themselves). On this point, Lewis seems closer to Aquinas.

    But there’s another difference as well, I think, and that is that the “Tao” is the structure of values to which humans must conform. While it is ultimately a “reasonable” structure, to identify the “Tao” with reason is to miss the crucial affective component. Does that help?

    That said, I do think that Postrel goes wrong in her rejection of something like natural law. It makes me wonder whether one could be a “dynamist” and a “natural law theorist” at the same time.

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  4. Matthew Lee Anderson September 29, 2007 at 10:46 pm

    One more thought: I don’t know that Lewis’ notion of “the Tao” is self-evident the way Locke’s seems to be. Hence his emphasis on education.

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