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Beyond his remarkable prophecies, Pool’s book set forth a passionate defense of technological freedom and unrestricted freedom of speech. “Technology will not be to blame if Americans fail to encompass this system within the political tradition of free speech,” he wrote. “On the contrary, electronic technology is conducive to freedom.”
While Pool was open to some minimal interconnection rules for communications networks, he called for tight constraints on regulators to ensure that new electronic networks could develop free of the innovation-crushing burdens of the past. “In a free society,” he insisted, “the burden of proof is for the least possible regulation of communication.” His book set forth 10 “guidelines for freedom” to facilitate that objective. Among them: “the First Amendment applies fully to all media,” “anyone may publish at will,” “enforcement must be after the fact, not by prior restraint,” and “regulation is a last recourse.”
Pool’s paradigm and prescriptions were rooted in what Postrel, reason’s editor from 1989 to 2000, defined as a “dynamist” worldview. In The Future and Its Enemies, Postrel made the case for embracing “a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition” over the “regulated, engineered world,” or what she labeled the “stasis mentality.” We should “see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting” while also rejecting the idea “that progress requires a central blueprint,” she argued.
Postrel’s dynamist vision explained that progress is “a decentralized, evolutionary process” in which mistakes aren’t viewed as permanent disasters but as “the correctable by-products of experimentation.” Of course, “a future that is dynamic and inherently unstable” and that is full of “complex messiness” is one that many will fear and resist. But that’s also what makes it so exciting and full of potential, she argued.
Today’s digital economy is the manifestation of Postrel’s dynamist ethos: innovation and abundance born of complex messiness. Yet as she predicted, the detractors and worrywarts persist, mostly for elitist reasons. “Stasist social criticism,” she noted, “brings up the specifics of life only to sneer at or bash them. Critics assume that readers will share their attitudes and will see contemporary life as a problem demanding immediate action by the powerful and wise.”
To succumb to such fears, Postrel explained, is to surrender on human advancement: “This relentlessly hostile view of how we live, and how we may come to live, is distorted and dangerous. It overvalues the tastes of an articulate elite, compares the real world of trade-offs to fantasies of utopia, omits important details and connections, and confuses temporary growing pains with permanent catastrophes. It demoralizes and devalues the creative minds on whom our future depends. And it encourages the coercive use of political power to wipe out choice, forbid experimentation, short-circuit feedback, and trammel progress.”
While plenty of tech pundits and academics cling to such stasist thinking today, Pool and Postrel’s books continue to provide beacons for a better world, free from the top-down, technocratic mentality and prescriptions of the past. At least thus far, permissionless innovation has largely trumped the precautionary principle in tech policy. Let’s hope the dynamist vision can hold the line for another 45 years.
Paul Moreno on Mark Warren Bailey’s Guardians of the Moral Order
It remains a common view that in the late 19th century the American judiciary adhered to a survival-of-the-fittest laissez-faire ideology summed up in the phrase “Social Darwinism.” Judges, the story goes, used this ideology to strike down all manner of laws meant to ameliorate the harsh consequences of the urban and industrial revolutions, including minimum-wage laws, maximum-hours laws, and laws protecting helpless workers from employer fraud. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. summed up the idea in his dissent in the 1905 case of Lochner v. New York, when he accused the majority of reading “Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics” into the Constitution.
There are now numerous works showing that Darwin and Spencer had virtually no impact on the late 19th-century American courts. Though evolutionary ideas infiltrated American law schools that were modeled on German universities, this process had barely begun by the 1870s. (Ironically, Holmes, who accused his brethren of being Social Darwinists, was the only Darwinist on the Court.) The great contribution to this literature by Mark Warren Bailey’s Guardians of the Moral Order: The Legal Philosophy of the Supreme Court, 1860–1910, is in describing the real philosophical background of turn-of-the-century judges. The result is a remarkable work of intellectual history, recapturing a lost world of ideas that has been distorted by generations of propagandists and scholars alike.
Most judges of that era had attended small, denominational colleges untouched by or hostile to Darwinism. They adhered to a traditional liberal arts curriculum, whose goal was not to produce cutting-edge research but to transmit what Bailey calls “a classical and Christian heritage deemed to be true and useful.” Philosophy generally reflected “moral realism”: a belief that moral truths existed and could be known, and that happiness consisted in living in conformity with them.
This worldview arose in the 18th century, and John Witherspoon established it firmly at Princeton; Yale became a stronghold as well. Fifty-eight of 75 college presidents in 1840 had graduated from either Princeton or Yale, so a liberal education informed mostly by the moderate British Enlightenment became the dominant theory of all major schools in the United States.
The resulting political economy did tend to endorse what might be called “laissez-faire,” but the movement was more concerned with religious and ethical principles than with any particular economic and social order. Indeed, the basic academic worldview condemned both Darwin and the leading American Social Darwinist, William Graham Sumner.
By the late 19th century this academic model became frequently formulaic and doctrinaire—traditionalism (the dead faith of the living) rather than tradition (the living faith of the dead), as the Yale religious historian Jaroslav Pelikan put it. It was often used to defend what had become the status quo. But we often forget that classical liberalism was a dynamic, disruptive, and progressive force in the 19th century. What progressives criticized as “laissez-faire constitutionalism” derived from this older tradition of moral philosophy rather than from any 19th-century economic theory, and certainly not from Darwinism. It can be said to have been confidently but not overly rationalistic, and friendly to religion in a way that could span moderate evangelicalism to deism.
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