All Commentary
Thursday, April 1, 1999

The Future and Its Enemies by Virginia Postrel

Regulations and Lawsuits Hamper Innovation

The Free Press • 1998 • 265 pages • $25.00

At G.E., progress is our most important product.” So ran the concluding line from dozens of General Electric ads from the 1960s. Back then, progress was revered in the United States. For the last few decades, however, there has been a rising tide of doubt. Today, we are more likely to hear hand-wringing lamentations over the destruction of the planet supposedly wrought by our exploitation of resources, or frightful predictions that technology is driving us headlong into dystopia. As the late Robert Nisbet wrote in The History of the Idea of Progress, “The skepticism regarding Western progress that was once confined to a very small number of intellectuals in the nineteenth century has grown and spread to not merely the large majority of intellectuals in this last quarter of this century, but to many millions of other people in the West.”

The battle between those who want progress to continue and those who want to stop or even reverse it is the subject of this clarion call by Reason magazine editor Virginia Postrel. The Future and Its Enemies fills a desperate need. It’s a book that illuminates the anti-progress philosophy (although that is too dignified a word) and tactics of, as she calls them, the “stasists.” The inroads that the enemies of progress have been making in the United States should throw readers of this magazine into a cold sweat.

Stasists are not a homogeneous lot, but they all share a fear of change. Their camp includes violent technophobes like the Unabomber; “small is beautiful” intellectuals who pine for a simpler, more “natural” existence (not just for themselves, but for everyone); and opponents of particular innovations that might cause them losses—labor unions for instance. They are well funded, resourceful, and intent on locking in their view of the ideal world.

We have always had enemies of progress, but for most of American history, they couldn’t really do anything except complain. Government had virtually no power to prevent individuals and firms from trying new products, technologies, and techniques. On the contrary, government power was committed to the defense of liberty and property rights. Coercive interference with others’ experiments would land you in prison.

Jefferson warned, however, that the natural order of things is for liberty to yield and government power to gain. That has certainly been the case, especially in the last 70 years. As state power has grown, so has the ability of the stasists to put it to their ends, delaying or prohibiting changes that don’t fit into their vision. Postrel correctly observes that the United States today “provides numerous opportunities for resourceful reactionaries: urban planning and endangered species laws to keep out Wal-Mart and new housing; environmental impact statements to limit business development and, if used by someone as clever as [Jeremy] Rifkin, to bar genetic engineering; Food and Drug Administration reviews to deter high-tech medical products . . . and on and on.”

This constant growth of government has changed the rules of the game. People with new ideas can’t just go ahead and give them a try. Often there is some board or commission whose approval must be obtained first. Even if not, we now have many vague statutes that provide cover for harassing lawsuits. Government power is of no use to innovators, but it means everything to the stasists, for the change they fear can only be halted by its use. Issuing scary manifestoes against, for example, biotechnology, won’t stop it—but regulations and lawsuits can.

Postrel mentions Joseph Schumpeter’s famous prediction that capitalism would collapse because of its very success, creating so much wealth and leisure that it would spawn a large class of idlers who would spend their time decrying its imperfections and destroying its foundations. Postrel puts a new twist on Schumpeter’s gloomy prediction. He feared the ascendancy of the redistributionist intellectual, but she shows that the greater menace is turning out to be the anti-progress intellectual.

But this isn’t just an attack on the stasists. It is also a powerful argument in favor of the dynamic world-view. Postrel quotes Hayek’s line that dynamism represents “the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution,” and then backs his assertion up.

If I have any criticism of this exceptional book, it is that the wake-up call isn’t even louder and longer. It would have had a stronger impact had it gone into more detail on instances of stasist obstructionism. But of course, you can’t say everything in a book. The Future and Its Enemies is, in my opinion, the most important book of the year. It needs to be widely read and discussed.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.