In 1998, Virginia Postrel published The Future and Its Enemies, an invigorating argument for a society driven by invention and economic freedom. The book distinguishes between two categories of politically engaged Americans: “Stasists,” who wish for society to remain rooted in place and controlled by a central authority, and “dynamists,” who favor the cultural unpredictability provided by creative destruction. At the time, Postrel regarded these labels as largely non-partisan; Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, for instance, were equally loyal to the stasist cause in their opposition to free trade. And today, she continues to apply them to figures on both left and right, even as America has reckoned with new domestic challenges and shifting political alignments. Over Zoom recently, with darkness encroaching outside at a disagreeably early hour, Postrel and I discussed how she came to identify as a dynamist, the applicability of The Future and Its Enemies to contemporary society, and the nature of American libertarianism. For the present moment, our conversation was also refreshingly optimistic.
Born in 1960, Postrel was raised in Greenville, South Carolina, which she described as an “information-scarce environment.” Though her parents were both intellectually curious, the surrounding culture was far from academic. “It’s not a deprived environment, it’s just relatively deprived compared to people who grew up in the Northeast or similar,” Postrel told me. “Books are scarce; we had a lot of books in our house but the library is small. It’s also a very parochial background in the sense that it’s very southern, it’s very within the Presbyterian Church.” Postrel’s father was an engineer, while her mother eventually became an English professor and “once wrote a paper on Paul Tillich for fun for a ladies’ group.” Yet although her parents had both been educated at liberal arts colleges, they retained a perception of the world rooted in Southern piety, and much of Postrel’s early education concerned church history and the Bible. Her exposure to events beyond her community principally came from newspapers, and she was unaware of most political magazines. “The fact that my grandmother gave my father a subscription every year to the Wall Street Journal as a Christmas present is hugely important,” she said. “My boyfriend gave me a subscription to National Observer, which was a weekly newspaper put out by the Wall Street Journal, which then went under and was replaced. I think I got Harper’s after that. But that wasn’t until I was in college.”
As a high schooler, Postrel excelled in literature and took a particular interest in history, though her school’s curriculum was limited. “I went to a South Carolina public high school that basically only offered American history,” she told me. “But I had a very good AP American history class where we read a lot of primary sources. And it was the first time I was exposed to the idea that historians disagree about things.” An eccentric social studies teacher who awarded students extra credit for reading Machiavelli’s The Prince introduced Postrel to European history, and she supplemented her education by viewing PBS documentaries and studying the work of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Attaining an exceptional score on the SAT allowed her to attend Princeton University, where she expected to major in history. But her plans swiftly changed.
“My first history class was, first of all, not very good,” Postrel recalled. “If I’d had a different professor, my academic life could have been different. And secondly, it was this class on early modern Europe that was really like taking a sip from a fire hose. I’d never heard of anything. The War of the Three Henrys – what the hell is that? Calvin, Luther, and Machiavelli got me through the midterm, but I realized it was just easier for me to be an English major and use that to do some historical stuff on ideas of the early modern period I was interested in.” Throughout her degree, Postrel took classes on economics and studied moral philosophy under Thomas Nagel, who gave her a particular appreciation for thinkers and concepts of the Scottish Enlightenment such as David Hume. Her greatest inspiration in college, however, was another student rather than a professor.