Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Future and Its Enemies by Virginia Postrel

My current read is The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress by Virginia Postrel. Written in 1998, its analysis has proven prescient.

Postrel divides people, particularly public intellectuals, into two groups: those who embrace the future and those who fear it. Or, more largely, those who are willing to live in a world of constant, dynamic change, and those who prefer stasis.

So far, she outlines these two camps according to their responses to perceived needs in the future. The dynamist point of view (a term that, I take it, she coined) thinks that the best outcome will emerge from the spontaneous order created by the free market of goods and ideas. The stasist perspective thinks that the future should be regulated by an elite that will know what is best for society as a whole.

Her ideas are familiar to me, as I have encountered the view that poverty is better than wealth. I reject it.

32 comments:

Dan Trabue said...

Interesting premise. I'm not sure if I buy into it, though. Could be my own ignorance, of course. Odds are in favor of it...

It seems to me, though, that she's missing at least a third category, one that thinks regulation willingly imposed upon a people by themselves as a group. I certainly don't trust an elite group - whether they be liberal gov't leaders or conservative corporate leaders or any shade of either - to implement policy. However, I do trust the people of a Republic to elect leaders to implement reasonable policies over just willy nilly status quo laissez faire Market forces.

John said...

I think that Postrel would include that third category into the stasist, technocratic elite. And that the duly elected representatives of a republic would constitute that elites.

All of which is not to get into our old argument about the legitimacy of majoritarian rule. Rather, Postrel is concerned with whether centralized control should even be considered.

I think that the phenomenon that Postrel describes it not simply two different approaches to governance, but personalities or psychological profiles. Individuals and groups can be prone to seek change and risk the loss of control, or avoid it. Much of leadership theory that I've read addresses this dichotomy.

Earl said...

The best argument for Postrel's ideas is current events. Some people are comfortable with a structure dominated by a supposed benevolent ruling elite. They want to be taken care of and look to government to provide for them. Some people are not enamored of such a institutionalized nannieism. They are more willing to trust themselves and their own abilities in the midst of a free marked rather than depend on someone to manipulate market forces with a overall benevolent intent. Personally, I will choose less over more control. Regardless of if those in power are left-wing liberals or conservatives, I much rather to be in control of my own destiny than dependent upon the courage or fear of someone else.

One need only look at the consequences of the recent election cycle to see that the idea of a

jockeystreet said...

"Her ideas are familiar to me, as I have encountered the view that poverty is better than wealth."

Where have you encountered that idea? Not in the article that you linked to. Not in the Voluntary Simplicity movement or anything like it. I read a lot of that stuff, and I've yet to find a single person who would argue that poverty is better than wealth. It seems to me a strange idea.

James R. Rummel said...

"...I've yet to find a single person who would argue that poverty is better than wealth."Try talking to an environmentalist. If you want to encounter someone who holds the view to an extreme, find one who says that there are too many people in the world.

James

jockeystreet said...

I'm an environmentalist. I do believe that there are too many people in the world. I don't believe that poverty is better than wealth. I'm not sure what link you're implying between the two.

Dan Trabue said...

Earl said:

They are more willing to trust themselves and their own abilities in the midst of a free marked rather than depend on someone to manipulate market forces with a overall benevolent intent.

I DO trust myself. It's all those other idjits out there that I want regulated!

In a Republic such as ours, we have no "ruling elite," (at least, we don't have to) - we have, "We, the People," voting for people to represent us and advocating for and against policies once they are elected. That's one problem I have with this thinking.

A second problem is while this chain of thought has little trust for we, the people, who have been elected to represent us, there is MUCH trust in we, the people, who are running businesses and managing corporations.

In my opinion (and, so far as I can tell, in the real world), there is no reason to suspect that elected folk will be any more or less wrong-headed in their actions than corporations or individuals. We're all people.

The advantage to gov't is that we have some ability to hold them accountable. We have SOME ability to hold corporations and each other accountable, too, but it's a less direct means of doing so. Not patronizing an offending company, organizing boycotts, etc, can be effective, but they are not as direct a line of working problems out as gov't can be (sometimes).

That is, if a company is polluting irresponsibly and dangerously, once it has been noted, we can try to reach the offending company and ask them to correct it. However, if they don't, then we have to go through some process of organizing a boycott or some other economic pressure. This is not a direct or certain procedure and much damage can be done while getting the opposition mobilized.

On the other hand, if a company refuses to stop polluting and we have a gov't body or leader to appeal to, we can take our concerns to our elected officials and ask for immediate response. Since gov't (at least our gov't) is rightly concerned about the common wealth, we can have some room to expect some action.

This, too, can be too long a process in the face of serious harm, but it is a more direct process.

In short, I don't trust corporations OR gov't leaders to always do the right thing, but I believe in using both economic and political pressure to address problems and think that is a good thing.

I just find it interesting that the more libertarian amongst us would want to limit our appeals to only one of the two institutions (Market, but not Gov't). They have more trust in the people who are involved in the Market than I do or than I believe is warranted.

John said...

Dan wrote:

DO trust myself. It's all those other idjits out there that I want regulated!Ah, but they don't trust you. They see you as the idjit, and want you regulated. How about ya'll agree to simply leave each other alone and not regulate each other?

In a Republic such as ours, we have no "ruling elite," (at least, we don't have to) - we have, "We, the People," voting for people to represent us and advocating for and against policies once they are elected. That's one problem I have with this thinking.Really? How likely is it that George W. Bush would have been elected governor and president had he not had a father who had been a president? How likely would his brother Jeb have been elected a governor if not for the same reason? And more, how likely is it that his father would have become president had his father not been a U.S. senator?

Right now, members of the Kennedy clan are debating which one of them should take Ted Kennedy's seat once he retires. As if the Kennedy family doesn't already have enough seats in Congress.

Don't get me wrong -- if the people of Massachussets decide to elect the chosen Kennedy, they have no one to blame but themselves for acceeding to a dynastic understanding of elective office. But it would not change the fact that the Kennedys and the Bushes constitute powerful political dynasties.

Those are just two of the more obvious examples of elitism in American politics. There's a lot more beyond these two families. The fact that most of these folks are elected through democratic means does not alter the fact that they constitute an elite.

A second problem is while this chain of thought has little trust for we, the people, who have been elected to represent us, there is MUCH trust in we, the people, who are running businesses and managing corporations.The state has less power than a corporation. The state can, for example, openly and brazenly, kill you. It's called capital punishment. A corporation cannot do this. Well, not openly.

For a less serious example, the state will continue taking your money away from you. In almost all cases, you can choose not to give your money to a corporation.

In my opinion (and, so far as I can tell, in the real world), there is no reason to suspect that elected folk will be any more or less wrong-headed in their actions than corporations or individuals. We're all people.Which is why it is important to reduce the power that other idjits have over you. They're just as capable of screwing up your life as you are.

The advantage to gov't is that we have some ability to hold them accountable. We have SOME ability to hold corporations and each other accountable, too, but it's a less direct means of doing so. Not patronizing an offending company, organizing boycotts, etc, can be effective, but they are not as direct a line of working problems out as gov't can be (sometimes).Try telling a business that you don't like their customer service and won't patronize their business anymore. The next day, tell a government that you don't like their customer service and won't be paying taxes anymore. See which one allows you to keep your money.

That is, if a company is polluting irresponsibly and dangerously, once it has been noted, we can try to reach the offending company and ask them to correct it. However, if they don't, then we have to go through some process of organizing a boycott or some other economic pressure. This is not a direct or certain procedure and much damage can be done while getting the opposition mobilized.No. A boycott directly impacts a corporation's profitability. On the other land, you can't boycott a government. No, you can't vote with your feet. You still have to pay.

On the other hand, if a company refuses to stop polluting and we have a gov't body or leader to appeal to, we can take our concerns to our elected officials and ask for immediate response. Since gov't (at least our gov't) is rightly concerned about the common wealth, we can have some room to expect some action.Why do you think that the government official is concernred about the common wealth?

In short, I don't trust corporations OR gov't leaders to always do the right thing, but I believe in using both economic and political pressure to address problems and think that is a good thing.So do you support or oppose the use of government force to enact social change? Please clarify. Remember that a government powerful enough to break your opponents is powerful enough to break you. Don't count on being able to control that beast once it is unleashed.

I just find it interesting that the more libertarian amongst us would want to limit our appeals to only one of the two institutions (Market, but not Gov't). They have more trust in the people who are involved in the Market than I do or than I believe is warranted.That's because the market responds to feedback. If a company does unprofitable activities, it collapses. If a government does unprofitable activities, it keeps right on going.

I don't trust government. I don't trust corporations. But I prefer to keep monsters small, rather than large.

John said...

I would like to address one particle point that Dan and I often contend over: that living in a democracy implies consent, even when your desires are not enacted into law. For example, taxation is not thievery because you have the right to vote. Your side just lost.

It is true that living in a democracy implies a level of consent, but it can be vastly exaggerated.

If, for example, 51% of people in a democracy voted to execute the other 49%, you could argue that the 49% consented to their own execution.

Or, to use an actual example, Jim Crow was a fine example of majoritarian tyranny -- especially after the Voting Rights Act was passed.

A majority is just as capable as oppression as a minority. This is why living in a democracy is not enough. We should live in a democracy within a republic that strictly limits what government can do -- even with the full support of an overwhelming majority.

John said...

Jockeystreet, this goes way back to an argument that I had with Andy Bryan, who (in my opinion) romanticized poverty. The comments in this post contain some of my other encounters with this perspective.

John said...

I mean a "particular point", not a "particle point". Apologies for the typos. Rushed. Must tend to baby.

Dan Trabue said...

Ah, but they don't trust you. They see you as the idjit, and want you regulated.

Which is EXACTLY why I support REASONABLE regulation of our common grounds. I WANT to be regulated and told that I can't pollute. I expect that. It's the price we pay for living within a community and it's a price well worth it.

I don't WANT to leave the question, "Ought I throw this toxic waste into a stream?" up to the individual. Not even if that individual is ME.

I'm not advocating anything beyond reasonable regulation. Who could oppose such?

John said...

Dan, how do you define "reasonable"?

Dan Trabue said...

It is a loose and ambiguous word, I'll grant you. Nonetheless, I think, for instance...

1. That reasonable people could conclude that dumping toxins into our streams that are sufficient to be damaging to life is bad and therefore, we ought to regulate against such;

2. That reasonable people could recognize that maybe Company A, by itself is not dumping said toxins into the stream in an amount that is dangerous, BUT that Companies, A, B, C and D combined, along with offal from thousands of motorized vehicles IS enough to warrant regulation;

3. That reasonable people could conclude that it is no easy task setting an amount that IS reasonable, and yet an attempt must be made if we don't want toxic waters (and we don't).

Fair enough?

This is the problem I have with the demonization of GOVERNMENT as too intrusive: In society, we NEED reasonable rules where we can share common air, land, water, space and get along. We may not like it and it certainly isn't perfect, but some form of gov't is absolutely needed if we want to avoid the hell of laissez faire free for alls. Each person is NOT an island to themselves.

Even if we disagree on the levels, surely we can agree on the basic premise?

Dan Trabue said...

Earlier I said:

I don't WANT to leave the question, "Ought I throw this toxic waste into a stream?" up to the individual. Not even if that individual is ME.

I would like to respond to myself...

The reason why I should not be the one to make that decision is because I may not, in and of myself, have all the facts needed to fairly and safely decide what is best.

Sure, if I dump a quart of auto oil in my backyard, it may be the case that I can do so without causing any serious damage to our common ground and water. But, I don't know that to be the case. Further, it may be the case that ONE person could do so safely, but not the one MILLION who live in my city.

We need some intelligent, researched means of making decisions about our common wealth. Gov't is at least part of that equation, at least in situations where there are hordes of people involved.

John said...

Dan, how about we summarize your definition of reasonable as something like this:

Don't harm other people's property, or propety held by the government, such as rivers.I can get on board with that.

Dan Trabue said...

What if we expand that to include "Don't cause dangerous levels of harm to that which is used by all, such as our ground, water and air..."?

The problem with that is, what is "dangerous levels"? As I've noted, what would be a safe level for any one person to do is not always safe if millions are doing it. That's one of the problems of the personal auto-as-norm for transportation.

How do you factor that in?

Dan Trabue said...

As sympathetic as I am to your first definition ("Don't harm other people's property, or propety held by the government, such as rivers."), that would be a tall order.

Don't cause ANY harm to others' property or rivers? Well, that would mean I can't drive at all, because driving causes harm. Which gets us back to "reasonable levels" of behavior and that's not always evident and certainly not going to be taken care of by the Market.

John said...

It would be very difficult to determine how much harm is too much harm for government property, especially when addressing environmental issues.

But I think that it's a big step forward to agree on the "harm principle", one of the central tenets of libertarian governance. This would keep government out of interactions between consenting adults.

Dan Trabue said...

To the degree that libertarians truly believe in a harm principle, it is one area where more progressive types and libertarians could have significant agreement and unity behind.

John said...

I think that the harm principle is standard, if not universal fare in the libertarian world. But its application to environmental protection is not that widespread.

Environmental care doesn't fit into the libertarian paradigm very well because some regulation is obviously necessary. For Constitution-oriented, there's nothing giving the federal government authority to regulate it. Handing the issue over to the states isn't going to work because water and wind, just to name two issues, don't stop at state borders.

I remember Harry Browne used to say that the solution to pollution was privatize all government land because almost all dumping occurs on government land. And private property owners won't dump on their own land because they are invested in it. (1) Where did he get this statistic? (2) There are more environmental hazards than just illegal dumping. (3) What makes him think that a private owner would find it more profitable to safely contain waste than to dump it? (4) Again, pollutants won't stop at property lines.

Which is why we probably need a constitutional amendment granting the federal government some regulatory authority over environmental protection.

But until then, such regulations are unconstitutional.

Dan Trabue said...

I understand that Libertarians think such actions are unconstitutional, but by and large, that notion has been bypassed by history. Most Americans feel that when the Constitution speaks of "the general welfare" gives us cause for including such actions under the federal umbrella.

I get that you all don't think that's true, but no one serious - no judges, no representatives, no presidential candidates from the main parties, no political philosophers outside the Libertarian crowd agrees with you.

And it is exactly for reasons such as we're describing here that such policies NEED to fall under a federal umbrella, I do agree with you on that. I just don't think we need to re-write the Constitution to do so.

Earl said...

Idealism is fine for academics. When one moves the tassel and the music fades away, you hang up your robe and go to work in the big brave world of reality. Reality is that voters vote and politicians once elected do just about as they please. These politicians build fiefdoms of influence, favor and privilege that make it virtually impossible to vote them out of office. They take other people’s money and spend it without regard for what those who made the money think is good or bad. They then describe themselves as public servants. What a oxymoron.

When it comes to trust, that man who produces a product or service, that man who owns and runs a business, he is far more worthy of trust than any politician who ever walked the face of the earth. That man is more worthy of trust because his own personal capital is at risk in the decisions he makes. If he chooses right, he gains. If he chooses wrong, he loses.

Strawmen aside, the average owner of a business has a everyday experience of accountability in terms of servicing clients, selling goods and services, developing projects while keeping an eye on the bottom line and hopefully not getting sideways of some trivial rule or regulation. The average politician would not recognize accountability if it bit him in the neck.

I don’t have a problem with regulation. I expect those who like regulation to regulate themselves, stay out of my business and out of my life. I am quite capable of handling my own affairs and do not need or want someone else presuming to tell me how to live my life or use my property. If someone doesn’t like the way I use my property, let them buy it from me and then do with it as they please. If they want to restrict my use of property, fine. Let them pay money damages as provided by law. They cannot expect to do as they please with what I own and not be held accountable. Generally those who have no problem with regulation own nothing that is subject to significant regulation. Generally those who are most supportive of government regulation are those who have never had any experience having to comply with “reasonable” regulation.

Dan Trabue said...

Earl said:

When it comes to trust, that man who produces a product or service, that man who owns and runs a business, he is far more worthy of trust than any politician who ever walked the face of the earth.

You have evidence for this or is it merely your hunch? I suspect it's your hunch and you're welcome to it, but don't ask me to believe it. People are people, whether they're politicians or business owners or regular workers.

Yes, certainly some politicians look after their needs first and foremost, but then, that's true for some business owners and some regular employees. In fact, it's human nature.

I don’t have a problem with regulation. I expect those who like regulation to regulate themselves, stay out of my business and out of my life.


Well, if it's all the same to you, Earl, I WILL ask gov't to regulate you and me and anyone who might, for instance, pollute. It's not your air to pollute, your water to pollute, your ground to destroy. It belongs to all of us (or, if you're a God believer, it belongs to God) and is not yours to do with as you will.

Now, I'm sure you may well have no desire to pollute, but if it's all the same to you, I will ask for even handed reasonable regulations across the board, for those who might wish to do so.

And for what it's worth, I'm using Pollution as an example, but it's only one way in which reasonable people might reasonably expect some regulation.

Dan Trabue said...

Generally those who are most supportive of government regulation are those who have never had any experience having to comply with “reasonable” regulation.? I comply with gov't regulation all the time. We all do. We hopefully obey the speed limit and stop at stop signs. We don't throw toxins in the ground, hopefully, or in the water. Gov't regulation is a very good thing, or can be.

Now I can certainly agree that it could also be bad. You may even be able to provide a real world example of gov't regulation that I would agree with you that it's bad. But the existence of bad regulation is not evidence that we need no regulation. Surely we agree on at least the principle that we need SOME regulation? You're not an anarchist, are you?

John said...

Dan, I disagree. There's some traction for intepreting the constitution for original intent. The view is called Originialism, and is supported by Supreme Court justices like Scalia an organizations like the Federalist Society. Their consistency may be lacking at times, but there's a real presence of this perspective in the federal judiciary.

Also, several states have recently passed "sovereignty resolutions", informing the federal government that it has exceeded its authority. Why, Montana is practically picking a fight with Washington!

This shows some future for the limited federal powers of the Constitution.

Earl said...

Everybody talks a good game when they’re leaning against the wire watching. When it comes to who I put in the game, I go with the man who can do more than just talk. I go with the man who can hit and run. I go with the man who can produce. I do not put my confidence in someone who talks but has no record of significant achievement. In that regard, I’ve not found to many politicians who produce anything more than bill for someone else to pay.

Some people will play according to the rules. Some will use the rules to play the game. I have no beef with umpires who umpire without bias. I have no beef with players who play according to the rules. I have no use for those who use the rules to play the game. I have no respect for any umpire who applies the rules creatively based on their own ideas of what is right, what is wrong and ought to be.

My land belongs to me. It is not for you or anyone else to tell me how to use my land. If you want to control the use of my land, buy it. Put your own money on the barrel head and buy it. Invest your own money and then make your own decisions about how your land will best be used. If you want to squander your investment, go right ahead. But if you do not own anything do not presume to think that you have any right to tell anyone how they should use their land. Go out and buy your own land and you will rapidly discover what it means to be a owner with a vested interest in your own property.

The vast overwhelming majority of businesses and property owners are not so stupid as to destroy the profitability of their property. If someone wants to live in fear of “pollution,” let them go get a gas mask and plenty of filters. Meantime I will continue to use my land and my property exactly and precisely as I choose. I will pay the taxes on that land for I own it. I will gain the profit from that land for I own it. And if someone wants to try to tell me how I will use my land, then they will have to put their money where their mouth is and buy the land. Then they can be responsible for their own property.

Dan Trabue said...

Earl said:

My land belongs to me. It is not for you or anyone else to tell me how to use my land.

Sorry, but that's not entirely true. It is yours to do what you wish, within reason. You don't get to pollute my air, my water, my land (and if you pollute your own land, you oftentimes will pollute others).

Your right to swing your fist ends at others' noses. You are not an island to do what you wish, to hell with everyone else.

But certainly, within reason, you are free to do what you wish with your land and no one will begrudge you that, within reason. That's all I'm saying. OUTSIDE of reason, you better believe I have a right and duty to oppose "your" use of "your" land.

Again, this should be a point with which we can all agree.

John said...

The problem with pollution is that it doesn't respect property boundaries. For example, if person A lets waste seep into his groundwater, it'll also end up in person B's land. Simply marking off spots on a map won't effect natural phenomena that freely cross those spots.

Earl said...

If you own land, you have the legal right to use that land as well as that portion of the water that pertains to your land. You have the right to use that land for your own benefit. Reason has nothing to do with it. If you want to butcher every tree on your property, that is your right. It may be a low return use of your land, but that is your right. If you want to dig a hole and put in a pond to raise fish or shrimp, that is your right. If you want to let your land lay fallow for 3-4 years, that is your business. If you want to plant fence row to fence row, that is your business. And if you want to turn your land into a hunting preserve, again that is your business. Now if you should be so ignorant as to foul your own ground water with waste, then you will learn the not happy lesson of how to pay money damages to adjoining landowners whose land you have damaged.

I do not go around taking swings at other people’s noses. I never have. I have never had to. Only the most unwise would knowingly locate in an area where zoning laws are rooted in a tree hugger mentality. Thankfully in most areas, zoning laws are written with an eye to maximizing property owner value. Very seldom is it possible for non-property owners to stymie much less stop a property owner in the use of their land. When such occasions arise, the law is naturally on the side of the property owner. This is as it should be since the property owner is the one who has made an investment and is the one who reasonably expects to see a return on his investment. Those who presume to try to tell a property owner what to do with his property are well advised to bring something more than just their ideas of “reasonable” to any discussion of land use as local boards are liable to look at suggestions detrimental to a property owners value as a non-starter.

Dan Trabue said...

Earl said:

Now if you should be so ignorant as to foul your own ground water with waste, then you will learn the not happy lesson of how to pay money damages to adjoining landowners whose land you have damaged.

And that would be an example of exactly the type of regulation (telling people what they can't do with their land) that I'm talking about. Pollution is no respecter of property lines, as John has noted.

Earl said...

No. It would be the consequence of a property owner suing a property owner in court for damage to property. It might be that the offending property owner would also be liable for criminal damage to property. But the only person will a actionable cause would be the property owner(s) damaged. The offending property owner would be held liable for property damage, either accidental or intentional. If accidental, his insurance would likely be responsible for covering the damages. Beyond the limits of the policy the property owner would be responsible. If he were not able to satisfy the claim, his property would be attached and if necessary sold to satisfy the claim. If this was still not sufficient, then the property owner(s) damaged would have to take their loss. Throughout the process, the issue of loss of value or damage to property is between property owners.