"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Dynamists v Statists

Political prejudices, in the sense of the way we tend to approach policy questions, are inadequately characterised by a left-right dichotomy. Left and right have been stretched and tangled beyond use. Similarly, descriptions such as liberal and conservative (especially when preceded by "neo-") are also of limited descriptive merit. Likewise 2-D models.

Virginia Postrels' book The Future and Its Enemies puts forward a more interesting (but inevitably incomplete) distinction, namely between statists and dynamists. The former favour central control, the latter more open societies, in which economic and political decision-making is decentalised. Dynamists, she argues, welcome the future; statists are wary of it:

"How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis—a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism—a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare with Appelo that "we're scared of the future" and join Adams in decrying technology as "a killing thing"? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. The central question of our time is what to do about the future. And that question creates a deep divide.

"I think there's a personality that goes with this kind of thing," says economist Brian Arthur about the emerging science of complexity, which studies dynamic systems. "It's people who like process and pattern, as opposed to people who are comfortable with stasis....I know that every time in my life that I've run across simple rules giving rise to emergent, complex messiness, I've just said, 'Ah, isn't that lovely!' And I think that sometimes, when other people run across it, they recoil."

The future we face at the dawn of the twenty-first century is, like all futures left to themselves, "emergent, complex messiness." Its "messiness" lies not in disorder, but in an order that is unpredictable, spontaneous, and ever shifting, a pattern created by millions of uncoordinated, independent decisions. That pattern contains not just a few high-tech gizmos, but all the variegated aspects of life. As people create and sell products or services, adopt new fashions of speech or dress, form families and choose home towns, make medical decisions and seek spiritual insights, investigate the universe and invent new forms of art, these actions shape a future no one can see, a future that is dynamic and inherently unstable.

That instability, or our awareness of it, is heightened by the fluidity of contemporary life: by the ease with which ideas and messages, goods and people, cross borders; by technologies that seek to surpass the quickness of the human mind and overcome the constraints of the human body; by the "universal solvents" of commerce and popular culture; by the dissolution or reformation of established institutions, particularly large corporations, and the rise of new ones; by the synthesis of East and West, of ancient and modern—by the combination and recombination of seemingly every artifact of human culture. Ours is a magnificently creative era. But that creativity produces change, and that change attracts enemies, philosophical as well as self-interested.

With some exceptions, the enemies of the future aim their attacks not at creativity itself but at the dynamic processes through which it is carried. In our post-Cold War era, for instance, free markets are recognized as powerful forces for social, cultural, and technological change—liberating in the eyes of some, threatening to others. The same is true for markets in ideas: for free speech and worldwide communication; for what John Stuart Mill called "experiments in living"; for scientific research, artistic expression, and technological innovation. All of these processes are shaping an unknown, and unknowable, future. Some people look at such diverse, decentralized, choice-driven systems and rejoice, even when they don't like particular choices. Others recoil. In pursuit of stability and control, they seek to eliminate or curb these unruly, too-creative forces.

Stasists and dynamists are thus divided not just by simple, short-term policy issues but by fundamental disagreements about the way the world works. They clash over the nature of progress and over its desirability: Does it require a plan to reach a specified goal? Or is it an unbounded process of exploration and discovery? Does the quest for improvement express destructive, nihilistic discontent, or the highest human qualities? Does progress depend on puritanical repression or a playful spirit? Stasists and dynamists disagree about the limits and use of knowledge. Stasists demand that knowledge be articulated and easily shared. Dynamists, by contrast, appreciate dispersed, often tacit knowledge. They recognize the limits of human minds even as they celebrate learning.

Those conflicts lead to very different beliefs about good institutions and rules: Stasists seek specifics to govern each new situation and keep things under control. Dynamists want to limit universal rule making to broadly applicable and rarely changed principles, within which people can create and test countless combinations. Stasists want their detailed rules to apply to everyone; dynamists prefer competing, nested rule sets. (Disneyland's rules may be good for the park, but that doesn't make them the right rules for everyone else.) Such disagreements have political ramifications that go much deeper than the short-term business of campaigns and legislation. They affect our governing assumptions about how political, economic, social, intellectual, and cultural systems work; what those systems should value; and what they mean."


Anonymous Jim said...

Interesting post, but I have one small but crucial correction: Postrel is taking about Stasists vs Dynamists, not Statists. It's an important point, as it is possible (but arguably not very likely) to have a dynamic state. In fact, Dani Rodrik argues that the evidence suggests that the more 'open' and internationally integrated states become, the larger becomes the size of government in the economy. He explains it as greater exposure to risk from openness increasing the demand for insurance.

Mon Feb 13, 09:44:00 PM GMT  
Blogger Karole said...

Sorry; I missed this comment. You say Postrel misdecribes her own argument? Interesting. I wonder though whether one can distinguish "stasists" from "statists" in practice. I think Rodrik's point is open to the criticism that it does not distinguish between correlation and causation. I haven't read his work, only an (unsympathetic though not unfair or partial) representation of and response to it.

Sat Feb 18, 07:26:00 PM GMT  

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