Some policy books have a singular idea, propounded faithfully over hundreds of pages. In The Conservative Futurist: How to Create the Sci-Fi World We Were Promised, James Pethokoukis tackles many ideas through the lens of one overarching theme: Economic growth is essential.
There’s much to like about the book. For one thing, the core contention is right. Pethokoukis, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, revisits the American sense of limitless technological possibilities after World War II, which stemmed from tremendous economic productivity. The United States produced approximately 60 percent of the world manufacturing output in 1950, he points out, and that era of growth created great optimism in American public life. But then came the Great Downshift, Pethokoukis’ term for the productivity slowdown of the 1970s, which lingers to this day. He ably traces the origins of present-day problems back to that downshift, and he investigates leading culprits, from the scarcity of low-hanging-fruit innovations, to a flurry of regulatory barriers, to a broader societal malaise shaping our minds and hearts.
Looking to the future, Pethokoukis believes the key political battles will be between the “Up Wing” and the “Down Wing,” terms he uses to describe policies, societal attitudes, time periods, and even pop culture. “The second half of the 1990s is certainly the most Up Wing period within the living memory of most Americans,” he writes. Star Trek is also Up Wing, while most Hollywood movies today are Down Wing. In his words, “Down Wing is about accepting limits, even yearning for them … Down Wingers are doomsters. Up Wing is about accelerating past limits … The burden of proof is on the defender of stasis.”
Many of the policies Pethokoukis describes as Up Wing are salutary, and they mirror policies that my think tank home, the Institute for Progress, advocates. (Full disclosure: I was once a junior colleague of Pethokoukis at the American Enterprise Institute). Smarter and more experimental spending on R&D, from both private and public sources, would likely reap productivity dividends. Ditto for making cities more affordable, reforming environmental review processes, and improving our high-speed rail network where feasible. A Pethokoukian, growth-oriented policy agenda would go a long way toward resolving key bottlenecks to thriving for a great many Americans.
Where the book struggles, however, is in articulating a broader philosophical grounding for his stance that is, as the title of the book suggests, at once conservative and futurist.
What is conservative futurism? “I’m an American-style conservative,” Pethokoukis writes, adding that being one consists mainly of supporting classical liberalism, the tradition “that champions the freedom to choose one’s pursuit of happiness … in particular economic freedom.” Support for markets is the paramount purity test for Pethokoukis’ conservatism.
Pethokoukis has less to say about the importance of protecting traditional institutions, non-economic virtues, or conceptions of the human being. Though he emphasizes that he doesn’t “yearn for a world government to serve or an AI god to worship,” he does laud dreams for humanity to see itself as “one global society—one free of the artificial division of race, class, gender, or nationality.” He argues that “almost every gadget and gizmo … that [makes] our lives something more than ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’” was invented in the past two centuries. He critiques William F. Buckley Jr. (“standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’”) and Russell Kirk (who called the car “a mechanical Jacobin”). And he quotes the American futurist Ray Kurzweil—“brimming with Up Wing confidence”—who remarked that “The human species will be in a position to change the nature of mortality in a post-biological future.” But one need not hate the car to think dreams of a post-biological future are not especially conservative.
Moreover, Pethokoukis’ Up Wing philosophy makes few appeals to “Down Wingers.” He’s familiar with the concerns of critics like Lewis Mumford, who feared the “Megamachine” was devouring civic life, or Jacques Ellul and his concern that “all-embracing technological systems had swallowed up both capitalistic and socialistic economies … a far greater threat to our freedom of action than authoritarian politics.” He thinks the critics are right, but also that the great technological “swallowing up” is a good thing. He writes that we should think of the American economy “as a $21 trillion living supercomputer, a wondrous, wealth-generating techno-organism … with one primary purpose: to process information (to reorder matter).” The goal of public policy is to produce “educated, trained, healthy humans who … connect with each other through networks of various sorts to produce complex, information-dense crystals of imagination.” This is a way of thinking about the American project that likely won’t convert those outside the choir.
Rather than spend much time arguing with today’s Luddites, Pethokoukis calls for the creation of inspiring Up Wing content that will win their hearts. American society was better when it produced and consumed cultural products that were optimistic about the future, and is worse now that it produces and consumes apocalyptic, dystopian imaginary futures. He calls for “Up Wingers with resources to directly finance Up Wing cultural efforts,” to fight back against a Hollywood which “rarely makes Up Wing content.” Those cultural efforts could include more World’s Fairs that showcase new technology, and a “Genesis Clock,” to counteract the pernicious influence of the Doomsday Clock. But it’s unclear to me whether the cultural production of thrilling images of tomorrow precedes changes in attitudes about technology, follows them, or has little to do with them at all. Critics of technology have concerns that can’t always be assuaged by Netflix.
To his great credit, Pethokoukis goes out of his way to note historical shifts caused by technology, like the “Engels’ pause” in the English Industrial Revolution, which produced remarkable societal loss along with economic loss. As Pethokoukis’ AEI colleague Michael Strain pointed out, “real wages fell dramatically for some occupations … lives were shattered. Some families suffered across generations.” And Pethokoukis acknowledges that average wages for regular workers are up only about 5 percent since the Nixon administration, accounting for inflation. But the book is light on responses to those workers, or to critics of a particular technology, that might convince them to change their views.
Pethokoukis isn’t alone in his trouble allying a techno-optimistic spirit and a belief in the power of markets to more subterranean currents in the American right wing. I have trouble with this too, and it’s not clear that a coalition exists or can be created along these lines.
At the moment, one can find both prominent Silicon Valley figures and cultural conservatives united against identitarians and occasionally for American hard tech dominance. Ask them about genetically modifying one’s children, uploading one’s consciousness to the cloud, “reality privilege,” vaccines, GMOs, or even the cultural effects of UberEats and DoorDash, and the cleavages in the coalition begin to appear. There are politicians, entrepreneurs, and thinkers trying to bridge the divide, arguing that some form of techno-optimism can exist alongside (and even bolster) the parts of human life conservatives value, but it is often a difficult argument to make.
For one, building a durable Up Wing politics requires convincing individuals about specific technologies: that the desire that led to it was a good one, that people stand to benefit from its creation, that it won’t replace people, lead to their obsolescence or that of their culture, and so on. That’s an easier argument to make for some technologies than others. Zoom, for example, has enabled a return to the home as a site of production, and supercharged emigration from blue cities to red state suburbs. By contrast, good luck trying to frame artificial wombs as a conservative project.
And more fundamentally, insofar as a techno-optimist right exists, it’s far more comfortable with state action than Pethokoukis. While he’s skeptical of “industrial policy,” many of the Up Wing periods he cites were the products of industrial policy administered by politicians he also lauds, like Alexander Hamilton. The 1950s American manufacturing dominance he loves was historically contingent: The war had supercharged American industry, and its competitors were left in shambles. Many of his favorite innovations were produced via serious governmental involvement, whether Operation Warp Speed’s pull mechanisms, the DARPA R&D funding that produced the internet, or the milestone payments that supported SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Free markets may be a necessary but insufficient condition for technological growth.
Belief in the power of markets, therefore, may be a necessary piece of a forward-looking conservative movement. But it surely can’t be the only piece. If futurists want to build that movement, they’ll have to justify their vision of human flourishing to a skeptical audience. Pethokoukis’ book has many strengths, but it leaves that task for the future.