Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Ask a Silly Question

Spring 1999

Virginia Postrel
The Free Press, 1998, xviii + 265 pgs.

I am most grateful to Virginia Postrel. In this issue of The Mises Review, I have not had the opportunity to write a really negative review. Certainly I would have liked to; but the books did not permit it. Exemplar of scholarly objectivity that I am, of course I cannot say bad things about good books. Mrs. Postrel has rescued me from my predicament.

She begins with an absolutely perverse question: are you in favor of stability or change? She distinguishes between stasists, who favor a static, regulated world, and dynamists, who favor "a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition. Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning" (p. xiv)?

I should have thought the answer to Mrs. Postrel's question too obvious for words: some changes are good, others bad. To ask whether you favor change as such is a quintessential dumb question. But if our author thinks otherwise, who am I to cavil? Here are a few more questions she may find challenging: Do you favor the One or the Many? Alpha or Omega? The Absolute or the Relative?

Fortunately, Mrs. Postrel at times descends from the clouds and ap-proaches a discernible thesis. Her principal aim appears to combat two sorts of people: technocrats, who favor central direction of technology and reactionaries, who dislike much of modern technology.

In her challenge to the technocrats, our author occupies solid ground. She argues along familiar Hayekian lines that a market order, rather than centralized direction, best promotes technological progress. A society with a central plan depends on the limited wisdom of those at the top. A decentralized society, by contrast, can make efficient use of the dispersed knowledge, much of it tacit, of everyone involved in production.

All well and good, but even here Mrs. Postrel cannot state an insight without embedding it in confusion. She combines with her anti-centralism a discussion of Karl Popper's notion that knowledge advances through conjectures that are rigorously tested. It very plausibly does, but what has this got to do with her argument against the technocrats? Why can't they say that they too favor extensive testing of all sorts of conjectures? They will say that their centralized system best promotes severe and comprehensive tests; and a mere reference to the virtues of testing doesn't suffice to refute them. Nor does it help to bring in Darwinian evolution, which also, she says, proceeds by conjecture and refutation. So what?

I suspect that Mrs. Postrel would reply in this way. Technocrats want to control technology. Thus they cannot favor the process of freewheeling innovation that Popper defends. Conjectures should be bold and radical, not tightly controlled. (Rem-mber, biological evolution has something to do with all this.)

The argument just given of course rests on an equivocation over "control." Someone who supports central planning of science need not oppose radical innovations: he merely wants there to be a central body deciding which innovations to pursue. Mrs. Postrel is free to contend that a centrally controlled system will be apt to stifle innovation. But this requires argument, not just the assertion that the system is controlled.

If her case against the technocrats has some Hayekian merit, her assault on the reactionaries seems wholly misplaced. These benighted folk view much of technology with skepticism: you will not find them planning a voyage to Mars or making provision to freeze their heads after death so that they may be revived when the Galactic Empire figures out how to do this. Horribile dictu, the Southern Agrarians thought that the pace of industrial change was going too fast.

I cannot think that Mrs. Postrel has advanced any arguments whatever against most of these reactionaries. If they prefer rooted societies with traditional morality and family farms, what is the matter with that? Is the difficulty that the reactionaries oppose change? But obviously they favor some changes, namely the ones that will get them to the society they want. Is it that they wish to control change? But why must they have this wish? Maybe they believe that people will naturally act in a manner to their liking, absent propaganda of space cadets of various stripes. Admittedly, Mrs. Postrel does raise a valid complaint against some of the reactionaries.

To the extent they wish to force others to abandon chain stores or superhighways, she has a good libertarian point against them. But this point would tell equally against those who wish to force others to become more innovative. And it is not always clear that the reactionaries she condemns for resorting to state coercion are guilty as charged. When the journalist Charlotte Allen says "don't let Wal-Mart wreck your downtown" (p. 28), is she calling for political action, as Mrs. Postrel claims? She may well be, for all I know; but no evidence is offered.

Much of this rambling book, I am afraid, consists merely of the author's statements of her own preferences. She likes mixing categories together, rather than keeping them apart. Thus, she favors interracial adoptions and, like Professor Tyler Cowen, admires music that blends various genres. Why is this of anything more than biographical interest?

Mrs. Postrel does essay one argument in support of her delight in the radically new, but it does not do her much good. Against those who say, "I like my neighborhood the way it is," she writes: "That is the all-too-understandable sentiment that motivates stasist policy. Much as we may want some things to get better, we want others to stay exactly the same. We like our neighborhoods, our jobs, our industries, our cities, our social customs, our art or music, our scientific theories, our general world views just the way they are.... But if every voluntary experiment must answer the question, 'Are you going to affect the way I live?' with a no, there can be no experiments, no new communities, no realized dreams [and no padded sentences?]" (p. 202).

All Mrs. Postrel has said is that if you don't want unlimited change, then you won't get unlimited change. If you keep your neighborhood the same, of course you will not get a new neighborhood. But, by assumption, the people who wish to keep their neighborhood do not want a new one. It avails nothing for Mrs. Postrel to bemoan policies that slow the rate of innovation, unless she advances an argument that the rate ought to be maximized. And it is not an argument for that proposition that if we do not maximize innovation, we shall have fewer innovations. That is a tautology.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Postrel has a go at ethics. She criticizes the bioethicist Leon Kass for lack of enthusiasm over laboratory fertilization and similar marvels. He dared to judge these by the criterion of "natural norms." But, Mrs. Postrel asks, doesn't nature vary? And why accept the guidance of nature anyway? "Is the 'natural' an ethical trump" (p. 163)?

Not bad questions; but she makes no attempt to answer them. Instead she describes, for the umpteenth time, her version of nature as a process of continual change. Apparently, "the natural" is an ethical trump, so long as she is allowed to characterize it.


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