It is now about 18 years since Virginia Postrel suggested in The Future and Its Enemies that our political, intellectual and cultural landscape was increasingly being defined by “stasis” and “dynamism”:
“How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis – a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism – a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition?”
The author was writing about the United States, but the ideas in her book have much wider application. The old political divisions seem to breaking down all over the world. On many issues there is not much political distance between social reactionaries, green reactionaries and technocrats. The social reactionaries yearn for the kind of world our parents lived in, green reactionaries yearn for a premodern society and technocrats fear change that is not managed by governments. They all see virtue in government regulation of innovation. As a result, we see strange alliances forming on issues such as fracking.
By contrast, dynamists share beliefs in a spontaneous order. They emphasize individual flourishing and individual responsibility, and the possibilities for progress that emerge when people are free to experiment and learn. They care about “protecting the processes that allow an open-ended future to unfold”.
Virginia suggested that dynamists don’t yet share a political identity. She notes that they may view themselves as libertarian, progressive, liberal or conservative. That still seems to be true. Many dynamists eschew politics. Of those who take an interest in politics, people who see themselves as libertarians or classical liberals would have least objection to being labelled as dynamists - if they understand what the label is intended to mean.
Misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘dynamist’ might be a problem. To the uninitiated, the word could appear to refer to history’s hastening agents who seek to activate what they perceive as ‘historical forces’ to achieve a particular vision of future society. I can’t think of a positive word that adequately captures the idea of allowing an open-ended future to emerge. A new word might be required: e.g. ‘catallaxist’ - a believer in catallaxy, or spontaneous order.
Advances in technology have helped those who believe in spontaneous order to achieve some important victories over the last 18 years. For example, the emergence of services such as Uber are helping to break down regulation protecting incumbent service providers.
Yet, on balance, it looks to me as though the stasists have been winning the economic policy debate. In the aftermath of the GFC, deregulation has often been perceived as a cause of economic crisis, overlooking the effects of the regulatory environment in encouraging some financial institutions to believe that they were too big to be allowed to fail. The actions of some leaders of the economics profession in distancing themselves from market liberalisation policies has lent weight to populist demands for a return of stasist policy prescriptions.
As I see it, identifying myself as a believer in spontaneous order does not involve an ideological commitment never to advocate government intervention under any circumstances. It has to do with where the onus of proof should lie. In the case of migration, for example, I would argue that the onus should be on those favouring restrictions on international movement of people to justify why such restrictions should exist. It is argued that free international movement of people is incompatible with welfare systems in which immigrants can qualify for social assistance, but it is not obvious why immigrants should qualify for social assistance. A more persuasive argument immigration restrictions can possibly be mounted in terms of potentially adverse social consequences of a large influx of migrants with different cultural traditions.
Similar considerations apply in relation to new technology. It is easy to mount a persuasive argument for regulatory restrictions on access to nuclear technology, but that is obviously an extreme example. Some statists have argued that innovations in home entertainment should be regulated to avoid adverse social impacts, but they imply that individuals are not capable of learning how to make sensible decisions for themselves and their families about use of new technology. Some of us had difficulty in making good decisions about use of our leisure time following the introduction of television, but that is not a powerful argument for the government to make such decisions for us. Of course, as suggested by Daniel Lattier, we have a responsibility to learn to use technology wisely, i.e., temperately. Similar considerations have applied in many aspects of life, e.g. food, beverages, sex, since ancient times.
How should we view decisions about whether to enhance brain power with neural lace? I ended a recent post on this topic suggesting that neural lace will not be worth having unless it can be developed in such a way as to enable humans to protect the privacy, autonomy and responsibility that is integral to their individual flourishing. I should have added that the decision to have a neural lace implant will be best left for individuals to make for themselves. Anyone wants to argue that choosing to use some particular form of neural lace would be tantamount to selling oneself into slavery, is of course free to try to make a case for regulation or prohibition.
My reading about potential consequences of artificial intelligence (see blog posts here and here) has left me feeling somewhat more cautious about new technology, but that does not mean that stasis now makes more sense than dynamism. Virginia makes some relevant points. She acknowledges: “the open-ended future can be genuinely scary, the turmoil it creates genuinely painful”. However, she follows with the observation:
“Statist prescriptions … stifle the very processes through which people improve their lives – from the invention of new medical treatments to the creation of art. In their quest for stability, statists make society brittle, vulnerable to all sorts of disasters”.
Like other technological innovations, the advent of super-intelligent machines has potential to expand the possibilities for human flourishing. It will also expand the range of technology by which the flourishing of individual humans could be threatened by other entities, including governments. New technology will not alter the fundamental principle of liberalism and that adult individuals should be free to flourish as they choose, provided they do not interfere with the rights of others.