Does the Future Face New Enemies?
Virginia Postrel discusses her intellectual development and dynamism in American life.
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.
“People always ask, ‘Who influenced you?’” Postrel said. “Well, the most important influence is Steven Postrel, my husband. We met as freshmen, and he was and is a person who just reads incredibly widely. He didn’t have to be in a place where people were telling him to read this and read that. And so I read a lot of things under his influence.” In addition to devouring books by Milton Friedman and other advocates of supply side economics, Postrel began to explore the vibrant world of political magazines. Captivated by publications such as Commentary, The Public Interest, and The American Spectator, she aspired to become involved in the intellectual debates unfolding on the American right. Ironically, this ambition was solidified when she read Norman Podhoretz’ Making It.
“The way you’re supposed to read that book,” Postrel observed, “is that this character of Norman Podhoretz is this scheming, slightly ridiculous, slightly sleazy character trying to climb his way up in the New York intellectual world. But I read it as a glamorous portrayal of New York intellectuals and thought, Oh, if only I could have that life and be the editor of a magazine and go to these dinner parties where people talk about ideas. All while leaving out the fact that I don’t know how to do dinner parties, my mother didn’t know how to do dinner parties, either. I hardly drink. This is not going to be my life. I didn’t think about that.”
For a time, Postrel was unsure of how to precisely define her politics. When she came across the February 1981 issue of Reason magazine in the local library, she realized where she stood. “I was like, ‘Yes, that’s the magazine. That’s the one that matches me the best. And that’s the one I want to be the editor of when I grow up.’ Which I never expected to do.” Seeking success in journalism, she secured an internship at the Wall Street Journal in the summer of her junior year. Her performance impressed its editors, who hired her to work full time for the publication’s Philadelphia bureau following her graduation in 1982.
Throughout the 1980s, Postrel was a registered Republican with a Reaganite sensibility. Animated by a hawkish view of foreign policy, a firm belief in American exceptionalism, and a fondness for free markets and entrepreneurship, she remained a member of the GOP until 1996. Yet her disposition was never socially conservative; growing up in the South had made her a staunch advocate of civil rights and an opponent of the war on drugs and prayer in public schools. Previously, she had been a young McGovernite, driven primarily by opposition to the racism she witnessed as a child. In 1989, when she achieved the goal that previously seemed unfathomable and became Reason’s editor in chief, she considered herself a libertarian. But the changing state of the movement in America alienated her from the label, and she now prefers to be known as a classical liberal.
“What the term ‘libertarian’ means has always been contested within the group of people who consider themselves libertarians,” Postrel told me. “If they’re trying to do outreach they define it very broadly, but if they’re trying to decide whether someone is really a libertarian they define it very narrowly. But there is a specific, doctrinaire form of American libertarianism that begins in the ‘40s and really takes shape in the ‘70s that is very narrow; that is defined primarily by its opposition to the state as opposed to its broader understanding of human liberty and what it means to have a society of free and responsible individuals. It has its roots in Rothbard. And Rand particularly. And while it really wants to claim all these great libertarian thinkers like Friedman and Hayek and Mill and Adam Smith and Locke, the only one it can maybe claim is Locke.”
“My side lost,” she continued, “the side that wants to have libertarianism defined as a broad stream that is essentially classical liberalism and includes this very specific form of American libertarianism. We lost, they won the word. And that has become very obvious in the last few years, because when you’ve seen certain libertarians get on the Trump bandwagon that is very much about being against, it’s not about being for. I think that classical liberalism is something different. It is about liberty but it’s also about learning. It’s about social mobility, it’s about a lot of different things that are associated with the sort of Scottish Enlightenment values and Enlightenment values in general. Libertarianism in its American form is just narrower than that.”
Postrel laid the foundation for what would become The Future and Its Enemies in April 1990, while covering the environmentalist movement for Reason. For the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, she published an article titled “The Green Road to Serfdom,” which involved deep research into the ideology of ecological activists. “I came out appalled, because it seemed like the unifying idea was stasis - that the ideal was a world that never changed,” Postrel recalled. “This was based on the idea that in a natural ecology, the planet reaches a stable equilibrium and then it stays there, and human society should be like that, too. Now, this turned out to be completely wrong about nature. But I didn’t know that in 1990, because when I was in sixth grade I took an ecology class where they taught me this thing about the stable equilibrium, and so I thought it was true. But it didn’t strike me as appropriate for human beings. I’m from the South, we grew up with poverty. If you’re from the American South, you don’t want stasis; you want to have prosperity. And if you want to have more people brought into the mainstream, the stasis stuff didn’t strike me as a good model.”
Developing the idea of “stasism” for the piece led Postrel to perceive “dynamism” as a natural antipode. She began applying this dichotomy to other issues ranging from housing to immigration, and started to consider how the labels could suit various political figures. The rise of the internet and other technological advancements encouraged her to continue toying with the idea as she tended to the responsibilities of editing Reason. By 1995, she was confident that the idea could be adapted into a book, and managed to secure a deal. A rigorous writing process followed, which, she recalled, “forced me to think about what I was for, not just what I was against. How does this idea of dynamism work? What are the key ingredients in it? What are the key uniting values? What are the key things to understanding about how the world actually works? The dynamist vision is both a positive and normative vision. A lot of it is about asking empirical questions.”
Nearly 25 years after its publication, Postrel is proud of The Future and Its Enemies. Beyond superficial tweaks, there are only a few aspects of the book that she would expand on if it were published today. Crucially, she regrets not elaborating on the distinction between dynamism and libertarianism in greater detail. “It is in there, but people don’t see it,” she told me. “There are issues where the book doesn’t tell you how to feel about them in general, like redistribution. Or intellectual property and the difficult balance between rewarding creators and allowing recombinations, which has become, particularly in the realm of copyright, a much more salient issue since I wrote that book and is very important to me.” Similarly, Postrel also believes that her understanding of the destructive consequences of dynamism is more nuanced now than in 1998. She is concerned with its potential to displace individuals and rupture communities. “I’m trying to think of how you deal with that. Whether you’re considering that from a humanitarian point of view or you’re considering it just from a public policy point of view.”
In a moment where many on the right are energized by talk of industrial policy and opposition to the supposed “dead consensus,” it may be tempting to assert that conservatism has broadly become more stasist in orientation than progressivism. But Postrel maintains that stasism remains a thoroughly bipartisan inclination. “Certainly those groups are ascendant on the right in a way that they were not when I wrote the book, but I changed from a Republican in 1996 to an Independent because they kind of were ascendant then,” she told me. “Bob Dole was literally promising to build a bridge to the past; you can’t make this stuff up. But there’s plenty of them on the left, and they just take different forms. The left is very complicated right now because of the way various identity politics are working there.” To Postrel, a growing obsession with a perverse notion of “purity” across the political aisle is responsible for many of our most alarming trends. “This is something Jonathan Haidt writes about, but I think he doesn’t push it nearly far enough,” she said. “Certainly a lot of the woke stuff is about that, but there’s also the question of how much are you for Trump? How pure will we make America? I don’t want to exaggerate the racial elements in that coalition, but there is an element of that thinking about ‘the real America’ which excludes me, even though I could join the Daughters of the Confederacy. Once you go down the purity train it gets crazier and crazier, and you end up with iconoclasm, literally.”
But regarding the challenges of dynamism, Postrel believes that although an open and churning society may cause harm to certain communities and alter family structures, it contributes infinitely more to human flourishing than the alternative and creates far more opportunities than it erodes. “If you’re focused on maintaining a specific form of those things as opposed to the general idea that those things are fundamental to human life and get recreated in a million ways, you start thinking almost like a Marxist - that we don’t have the right economic structure and ownership of capital and how the people work,” she observed. “I believe that there are certain human universals, and some of those have to do with human beings as social animals and as animals that create families. But I don’t have a specific view of what that family or that community should look like in a given place and time, because the environment changes and culture changes.” The essence of politics, Postrel contends, is recognizing faults with social institutions and attempting to remedy them. “We see the failures of what is in front of us, and then we try to make them better. And that groping toward making it better is where a lot of our politics comes from. It is a process, and some of the critiques may be true, but it’s often the case that true social criticisms are entrepreneurial opportunities.”
As a rule, Postrel has little faith in politicians, and she is hardly confident that any elected officials will promulgate dynamist ideas. Still, she finds hope for the dynamist cause in the response of political figures with whom she would otherwise disagree to certain pressing policy issues, particularly housing. “It feels to me like a lot of what went on in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s where you had people from both the right and left working together to make things better for everybody,” she said. “There’s dichotomous thinking about how we can welcome growth and have a more dynamic housing market and make things better for a new generation. Here in California, Scott Wiener is the person who’s been the leader on this, and he’s very much a more or less traditional San Francisco progressive. But on this one issue, I think he’s doing some good things.”
Remaining optimistic in such a fraught time for American politics may prove difficult for many, but Postrel ultimately keeps a cheerful outlook, in part because she vaguely recalls the distressing presidential election of 1968 from which the nation eventually recovered. What does concern her, though, is how positive qualities and impulses that previously appeared ingrained in American culture seem to have diminished in recent years. “I have less faith than I did in the ‘90s that American culture is just gonna wash a lot of these problems away,” she noted. “I think that’s there, but in the ‘90s I thought it was always going to win. And there are also some very negative things in American culture that can be powerful and can even turn violent. And so I worry more about those than I did then, although I still don’t think that they’re the dominant ones.”
Postrel resides happily in California, which, she insists, is not the wretched dystopia that many on the right would assert. But she views the challenges presented by the information bubbles in which Americans now reside and the intensifying geographical divisions within the country as a serious threat to its future. Nonetheless, she is far from despondent. “The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve worked on historical topics,” she told me. “And the more I’ve seen vast follies and improvements over a bigger time scale, the more hopeful I’ve become that things will correct themselves.” When there is still so much to revere about America and its resilient spirit, this hope does not feel misplaced.