The Magazine


Virginia Postrel's Dynamist Manifesto

Jan 18, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 17 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Of course, we should try to be rational in the conduct of our own little pieces of reality, but the whole is properly the business of no one. It belongs to the process. The only spontaneous urge that humans are obliged to suppers -- obliged, as it were, by a law that reveals the secret of progress -- is the desire to rule or command a general system.

For Postrel, the fingerprints of an invisible hand are everywhere. The marketplace is merely one manifestation of a larger principle at work throughout the universe. Postrel offers no speculation on why this harmony should exist -- she does not speak of a First Cause or God -- nor does she indulge many expressions of awe other than to sing the praises of our "enchanted world" that includes "beach volleyball and bread machines, pianos and Post-it notes."

While Postrel is surely not the first to argue this principle she seems to have embraced it with a passion unknown to any of her predecessors. Previous proponents -- one thinks of Locke, Hume, and Smith -- tended to make an exception of sorts for the cultivation of human beings. But Postrel extends the notion of spontaneous development to the human soul itself.

She has had enough of the fuddyduddies who preach "the repression theory of progress," enough of the East Coast intellectuals who amuse themselves by ridiculing what they snidely label the oxymoron of California culture. In place of repression, she elevates play and the spontaneous, desire for fun. Nor is she afraid to celebrate the welltanned culture of the beach, praising "the bronze and the brown," for which she is, admittedly, a more plausible advocate than Steve Forbes.

But this turn to play is not a critique of progress. Drawing on the example of techies whose fortunes derive from solving puzzles for the sheer joy of it, Postrel contends that the more we play, the more we succeed. "Play is what we do for its won sake, yet is tis a spur to our most creative, significant work."

Conservatives -- if one dares still to speak in such outmoded categories -- will find much to admire in this irrepressible and ingenious work. The Future and Its Enemies updates conservative arguments against centralized economic control and applies them to features of our economy that snobs like to disdain. Where academics make careers trashing Disneyland, McDonald's, and Wal-Mart, Postrel shows both the genius that lies behind such business enterprises and the reasonable human needs they fulfill. She is especially effective in exposing the elitism of the communitarians who preach about people's right to choose -- but only after they have been instructed on how they must think. And she reminds a certain branch of conservatives, those who revel in the gloomy fantasy of a return to the medieval city, of the link between liberty and progress.

Yet the reader may well wonder about the wisdom of basing a whole political theory on the principle of spontaneous organic development. This principles appears to guard against the temptation of imposing a rigid image of the Good Society on human affairs, stifling the energies that promote innovation. But the best modern conservative models have long recognized the difference between such intrusive visions and a more modest understanding of nature that underwrites liberty and keeps humans worthy of being free.

It is not the case, moreover, that all systems of liberty have developed spontaneously or that they can be maintained without any knowledge of the whole of the political order. Indeed, Postrel herself is of two minds on this point. While praising spontaneous development, she cannot fail on occasion to notice the mysterious "architects" who construct the edifices that allow successful organic growth. Although she does not like to speak much about these architects, without their edifices and without eh knowledge they employed to construct them, we would be nowhere today and heading for tyranny or barbarism tomorrow.

Conservatives may similarly doubt whether Postrel leaves any room for politics. Political life cannot be subsumed under a single reality principle. For some who sees the future as unpredictable and open-ended, Postrel is remarkably certain about the coming cleavage in American politics. If previous experience is any guide, it is likely that a decade from now our political parties will not be divided between stasists and dynamists. It is far more likely that out political conflicts will turn on traditional questions of justice, and that the source of America's problems will not be stasists by some hostile force on the international scene.