The Magazine


Virginia Postrel's Dynamist Manifesto

Jan 18, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 17 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Move over Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, there's new cleavage in town: stasists versus dynamists. And their embryonic conflict will soon -- or so argues Virginia Postrel in her new book, The Future and Its Enemies -- become the main division in American politics.

Signs of this growing split can already be glimpsed: in disputes over international trade, where Buchananites and Naderites join to fight proponents of a high-tech economy, or in battles over immigration, where the Sierra Club locks arms with the editors of National Review.

Stasists are those who desire stasis and fear open-ended change. They want to hold onto something from the past or (what amounts to the same thing) to impose a preconceived image on the future; they feel that "the world has gone terribly wrong, and someone needs to take control and make things right."

Stasism is divided into a reactionary and a technocratic wing. In economic matters, the reactionaries -- Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, and Richard Gephardt -- are wedded to current modes of production and spooked by globalism. In cultural affairs, the reactionaries -- like the prigs who run THE WEEKLY STANDARD -- cling to outmoded Victorian values and detest such spontaneous cultural creations as beach volleyball. The technocratic wing of stasism, represented by the likes of Al Gore with his information superhighway, is a bit of a wolf in sheep's clothing: The technocrats may speak the language of progress, but their adherence to centrally imposed plans for the future inevitably ends up thwarting genuine progress.

Dynamists, by contrast, are those who wish to press ahead, to go where no man has gone before. They understand that progress cannot be charted. Dynamists take their progress piecemeal -- which is, they say, the only way it can come. There are believers not in outcomes but in process: "The dynamist promise is not of a particular, carefully outlined future." Nevertheless, they know that this process will bring us something better: "They future will be as grand, and as particular, as we are."

The Future and Its Enemies is more than an analysis of the emerging political cleavage in America. It is a fervent partisan statement, "an unabashedly dynamist work." Postrel's conviction displays itself not just in the content of the book, but in the style she has developed to explain it. Postrel writes like a dynamo: Just as you are digesting the ideas she presents form Hume or Hayek, she bombards you with clusters of vignettes from pop music, movies, television sitcoms, and the techie software universe. No rest is offered for the weary, no moment for intellectual stasis. Too much time for reflection, it seems, violates the dynamist's credo to move, strive, seek, and find. Overpowered by Postrel's twin strikes from neoclassical economics and new-age philosophy, the reader is supposed to have no choice but to submit.

It is a measure of Postrel's intense partisanship that she calls dynamism the "party of life." As the title of her book indicates, the future is not a neutral period of time, but something with an aim or direction. The future wants to be better. And better it will be if only its "enemy" -- the stasist party of death -- does not stand in its way. Progress is in the nature of things; only willful human action can hold it back.

Postrel is editor of the libertarian magazine Reason. But while she does not exactly reject the label of libertarian, neither does she embrace it. And there would seems to be a difference between libertarianism and dynamism. For the libertarian, the liberty of the individual is and end in itself -- indeed, the highest end. For the dynamist, liberty seems to be primarily a means, vindicated by the progress it brings.

This shift from libertarianism to dynamism reflects the strikingly theoretical character of Postrel's argument. She grounds her position not on a particular view of the human good, but on a universal "principle of reality" that governs everything -- physical, cultural, economic, and historic. The principle is one of organic growth: The individual parts of any system follow their own limited nature or ends, and the result is a progressive evolution of the whole. It is this cunning of systems that allows development of ecosystems, languages, and economies. All follow the same law of spontaneous growth.

Humans, it is true, fit oddly into this universe because we can picture a system as a whole. We can conceive of imposing, by conscious design, an architecture on politics or economics. But when we do so, Postrel argues, we go astray. By trying to command what cannot be commanded and rule what cannot be ruled, humans violate the reality principle and muck things up.