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The strange irony of hating elites — and then giving elites power to pick winners and losers in the American economy


More than two decades ago, in The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise and Progress, Virginia Postrel warned of the coming clash between the dynamists and stasists. The former live in anticipation of the future, confident that change and experimentation will leave them in a better place. The backward-looking stasists long for the good old days, desiring government keep things as they are and try to shape the future into familiar forms.

In a 2017 Q&A, Postrel and I chatted about the rise of stasist forces and the retreat of the dynamists. First, here is Postrel talking a bit more about the meaning dynamist vs. stasist:

The core values of dynamists are – it’s really about learning. It’s about discovery. The idea is we don’t really know the best way of doing whatever, and that requires a lot of experimentation, trial and error learning, competition, criticism. It’s a messy process, but it’s the process through which we discover better ways of doing things, whether that’s in business, technology, or the way we live our everyday lives. It could be cooking. It could be raising children. It doesn’t just have to be these business things. On the stasis side, there’s sort of two competing or two complementary ideas rather. One is the ideal of stability – that the good society is the society that doesn’t change. And the other, which I associate with sort of technocratic stasis, is the idea of control – that someone needs to be in charge to set us on the right path and to decide centrally what that will be.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. REUTERS/Michael Brown

And then a bit from Postrel on why so many folks seems down on dynamism, even though its key to a society of more opportunity and prosperity:

But it’s a difficult message. It’s difficult to say to people the better world lies in leaving things alone, in saying let people conduct experiments, let them try things, let other people, the market critics, respond to those experiments and we’ll see what shakes out. And this is how we learn and this is how we go forward, whether you’re talking about science or whether you’re talking about markets or talking about living arrangements, all of this sort of thing.

That’s a hard message because people like a sense of stability in their lives. Now, they don’t really want some of the things that come along with a lot of stability. They don’t want the lack of progress, lack of growth. In fact, that makes for a lot of unhappiness. And they also don’t want the sort of brittleness that is created when you try to hold everything still.

There are inherent contradictions. So let’s take Donald Trump. Donald Trump loves the auto industry. He wants lots of auto jobs in the US Michigan is a big part of his base. He really cares about the auto industry. But he also likes the steel industry. He wants steel to be expensive and made in the U.S. Well, wait a minute. Who buys steel? Automobile companies buy steel. What happens if the price of steel goes up? Oh, it becomes harder to make it in the automobile industry.

When we talk about picking winners, that’s what we’re talking about. If you don’t let the marketplace, the decentralized deciders, set prices, if you’re going to have Donald Trump deciding who the winner is, he’s going to have to decide even between the automobile industry and the steel industry, never mind any newfangled things like Google or Amazon. So there’s that issue.

And then, of course, as much as he wants to do everything himself, ultimately you’re going to have some 35-year-old lawyer in the anti-trust division or the commerce department or somebody who went to some Ivy League school who’s going to be deciding these things actually. So the whole populist, anti-elitist thing goes away because inherently you end up with technocrats running things. You get France in the best case scenario.