It is 1900. Two visitors from the year 2015 arrive at your doorstep. They are here to tell you about the future.
One hundred years of horror
The first visitor looks grim. He tells you that “the war to end all wars” will soon begin. It will encompass the globe and destroy millions of lives. Cities will be decimated. The Great War will have a scope and level of brutality never before imagined in human history. It will be followed by economic collapse, political upheaval, and tremendous human suffering.
A decade later, the largest economies in the world will teeter, then collapse. Hyperinflation, panic, stock market crashes, breadlines, and financial ruin will be the norm. Hunger, poverty, and desperation like no modern society has ever experienced will span a decade. Before recovery, war will break out again — this one even more catastrophic than the last. Tens of millions will die.
A new form of evil will show its head. Totalitarian regimes aided by advanced weaponry and propaganda machines will lead the mass execution of millions. Weapons of mass destruction will be created, and two will be deployed, leveling cities in minutes with effects lasting years. Governments the world over will grow in power and brutality. Control over all facets of personal and economic life will expand.
The second great war will end and economic growth will resume, but not without constant smaller wars across the globe. Government will balloon out of all proportion. Surveillance will become ever present, even in the freest states. Acts of terrorism will be all over the news. Inflation, regulation, and taxation will increase once again to levels rivaling those that led to the great economic collapse. Countries will go bankrupt, drowning in debt. Police will turn on citizens regularly. Finally, the first traveler concludes, all signs in 2015 point to another painful reckoning.
But the other traveler seems unfazed by his companion’s tale. “Do you have anything to add?” you ask hesitantly.
One hundred years of human achievement
He smiles and begins to recount the next century with excitement. Automobiles are mass produced. Soon, they are everywhere. Temperature-controlled vehicles, homes, and workplaces pop up and spread. New forms of communication that instantly connect people across countries and then the world proliferate at incredible speed. People get healthier and wealthier the world over.
Air travel takes over where automobiles leave off. Humans safely traverse the world many thousands of feet in the air. Appliances do all the most tedious, painful, and time-consuming tasks — and not just in wealthy homes.
Hunger is no longer a problem in developed countries, and it is increasingly rare throughout the world. Common diseases like polio and malaria are all but eradicated with medical and pharmaceutical developments. Average lifespan dramatically increases; infant mortality plummets.
Information is freed in ways never before imaginable. Every book ever written can be transmitted anywhere in the world through crisscrossing networks of data transmission. Humans enter outer space. Satellites beam information, video, and voices back and forth around the globe. Rich and poor alike hold in their hands devices more powerful than anything kings or tycoons of ages past could have hoped for.
Money and memories alike can be sent anywhere, anytime, easily. Anyone can learn anything without access to prestigious centers of knowledge. Gatekeepers for information are no longer impediments to human cooperation and progress. Laboring in fields and factories is decreasingly necessary, as a host of new and intelligent machines take on these tasks.
Finally, the second traveler concludes, humans focus more than ever on creativity, freedom, and fulfillment.
Both travelers have described the same future for the same planet. Neither description is untrue, and both are important.
It’s easy to feel confused by conflicting theories about the future. If you have a firm grasp on economics and political philosophy and get stuck in the political news cycle, it’s depressing. You look at the state of our economy and government intervention and see nothing but storm clouds on the horizon. There’s no way the mountains of debt, the constant currency debasement, the damaging social programs and interventions, and the buildup of regulations and nanny-statism can result in anything but an ugly future.
But if you’re up on the start-up scene, you hear tech optimists describing a future of 3-D printing, cryptocurrency, robotics advancements, colonizing Mars, and mapping the human genome, and you can’t help but see the future burning bright.
Both groups are accurately describing the possible and probable future, and there are lessons to be drawn from each.
Will history repeat?
There are striking similarities between today’s developed democracies and ancient Rome. Bread and circuses and political decay may lead to a Roman-style collapse. Then again, we have something today that the citizens of the Roman-ruled world did not: digital technology.
We are able to coordinate and collaborate via dispersed networks in ways individuals in the past never could. The centrally planned state, with all its military and monetary might, is a lumbering beast compared to the nimble, adaptive entrepreneur and citizen today. Yes, the state may use technology to spy and oppress, but always through a top-down management structure. We are a headless conglomerate of individual nodes, networked across the globe, that cannot be destroyed.
Maybe the US dollar will, in fact, collapse. Maybe states will go bankrupt. Maybe government services will fall into disarray. And maybe in the middle of it all, individual humans and civil society won’t even notice.
Do you remember how the Cold War ended? Neither do I. It just kind of did. Do you remember the great collapse of government-monopolized phone lines? Neither do I. Cell phones just emerged and it stopped mattering. The post office is in perpetual deficit. So what? Email and FedEx and Amazon drones will continue to make it irrelevant.
You see, striking as the similarities to great collapses of the past may be, history is not an inevitable indicator of the future. Collapse of government systems in an increasingly complex, market-oriented world may not spell disaster for society at large. It may spell improvement.
Problems are real … real opportunities
Take your knowledge of unsustainable government and extrapolate it into the future. Yes, these bloated systems are unsustainable. Don’t turn a blind eye and pretend it doesn’t matter. Instead, let the insights of your inner doomsayer inform the actions of your inner optimist.
Every government problem is an entrepreneurial opportunity. Stifling licensing or work restrictions or immigration bans can be overcome with peer-to-peer technology, the sharing economy, virtual work software, and more. Bad monetary policy can be sidestepped with cryptocurrency. Defunct educational institutions bubbling over with debt and devalued credentials can be ignored while private alternatives emerge. Clumsy socialized medicine, transportation, and communication systems are all begging for innovation. Entire countries can be exited — physically or digitally.
The innovators must be realistic enough to see problems with the status quo and optimistic enough to innovate around them instead of merely shaking their fists.
Informed optimism as adventure
It’s good to wake up to the tragic missteps of government policy that surround us. But if lovers of liberty only ever point to the problems, predict trouble, and head for the hills, the future may indeed be lost. If, instead, we see those problems as opportunities and talk about the possibility in front of us, we stand a chance. Optimism is a powerfully attractive force that invites bright minds to join us. As F.A. Hayek once said,
We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.… Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.
We must recapture the intellectual and practical adventure of not just demonstrating the failures of a planned society, but building the glories of a free one. Only then will the world look at us and say, “Why are you so optimistic? What do you know? How can I be a part of it?”
One hundred years from now
There are two stories we can see unfolding in our future. One of increasing political foolishness leading to dystopia. One of emerging technology and innovation leading to utopia. Neither is untrue. Both are instructive.
What would you expect to hear from a traveler from 2115? Which story brings out your best self and inspires you to live free and help others do the same?
We need doomsayers: they help discover and highlight the greatest areas of opportunity for optimists and entrepreneurs to seize on. Listen to them, then act to overcome or sidestep or make irrelevant the problems they predict.