The coming thing


It's a strange phenomenon that nearly all well-known "radical reformers" are, unintentionally, staunchly conservative in certain important respects. One thinks of Consciousness III types like Jerry Rubin promoting social revolution (while calling for higher welfare payments from the Establishment). On the radical right, the late 50s produced the Liberty Amendment people who promised a new millennium "if only" the personal income tax were repealed. A closer look at their radically transformed society revealed higher corporate income taxes and excise taxes, continued subsidies of air and water transportation, etc. Similarly, writer Jack Newfield in a biting PLAYBOY (April 1971) article, "The Death of Liberalism," promotes such radical reforms as government regulation of industry and a $2.50 per hour minimum wage!

The fallacy in all three examples is a very common one; it consists in the implicit assumption that the future will be virtually identical to the present, except for one's own pet reform. Instances of this fallacy abound, particularly in low-grade science fiction movies wherein a few technological gadgets and space ships manage to coexist with a social structure whose lifestyles and institutions are carbon copies of those of the recent past or present. Libertarians, too, are guilty of this fallacy, of thinking that "if only X occurred," then we would have a free society, implicitly assuming everything else would remain the same.

There are two basic facts which make this assumption fallacious; first is the fact that everything in the social structure is related to everything else, i.e., the social structure of a country is an integrated whole in which a change in one aspect has a multitude of large and small effects on other parts, which in turn affect other parts, etc. [see "An Anthropological Perspective on Social Change," in this issue—Editor]; the other point is that regardless of some particular pet reform, the future is not going to be much like the present. In point of fact, our society is undergoing extremely rapid technological and social change, the pace of which seems to be continually accelerating.

One of the best descriptions of the full magnitude and implications of this rapid change is Alvin Toffler's best-selling book FUTURE SHOCK (New York: Random House, 1970). Toffler argues that the age in which we live is fundamentally different from all that have gone before, primarily because capitalism and technology have radically changed man's relationship to nature and natural resources. Echoing a number of other writers, Toffler thinks we have passed beyond industrialism to an age of "super-industrialism" in which not only is a small minority all that's required to grow our food (less than 2% of Americans, but 26% of the Russian population: TIME, 26 March 1971, p. 30), but also to do our manufacturing. The displacement of blue collars by white and of manufacturing jobs by service industry jobs is an accelerating trend. Furthermore, today's plentiful, high-speed transportation and communication systems, which make everybody aware of and affected by everyone else's business, are also unique in man's long history. But most important, according to Toffler, is the fact that the pace of change in our society is far more rapid than ever in history and continues to accelerate all the time.

To back up this contention, Toffler documents the rapid increase in all our technological capabilities (maximum speeds, loads, energy usage, etc. versus time) and in the production of knowledge. (Scientific and technical literature, as an example, is being produced at the rate of 60 million pages a year.) An amazing variety of parameters (population, number of computers in service, passenger miles traveled. etc.) is increasing with no limit in sight. Moreover, the pace of life for many of us is far more rapid than that of our parents and certainly than that of our grandparents. We routinely expect to live in many different cities or states (or countries) and hold any number of jobs throughout our life span. At present, the proportion of the world living like this, the "people of the future," is relatively low. The vast majority is still "people of the past," tied to a preindustrial, traditional, agricultural way of life; but the number transitioning from "past" to "present" to "future" continues to grow.

Toffler devotes major sections of his book to filling in this picture of a society in flux. The growth of disposables, modular construction, planned obsolescence, the exploding growth of renting—all signify a major trend toward transcience, as far as property and goods are concerned. The same tendency is found in people's increased propensity to move and to travel. Overall, people's attachment to particular places and objects seems to be getting less and less, even as their capacity to afford them increases. Transcience even seems to be affecting organizations, both business and governmental, as bureaucracy begins to be whittled away by "ad-hocracy," Toffler's term for the project team type of organization.

In addition to transcience, our change-oriented society seems to be experiencing a continuing growth in novelty and diversity. By novelty, Toffler means that the future is unfolding as "an unending succession of bizarre incidents, sensational discoveries, implausible conflicts, and wildly novel dilemmas," such that people tend to feel like "strangers in a strange land" in their own society. Radically new technological developments—undersea cities, weather modification, artificial organs, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence—appear to be on the threshold of successful implementation. Service industries continue to create new ways to entertain, amuse, relax, and other otherwise provide experiences for customers. Social structures are toppled as voluntary childlessness, easy divorce, group marriage, child care centers, and homosexual marriages make the traditional nuclear family increasingly less common.

In this increasingly novel and changing environment, what choices will be open to the individual? Toffler is quick to debunk the widespread fears of increasing standardization and lack of choice; indeed, one of the basic aspects of super-industrialism is the vast explosion of choice, made possible in part by the computer revolution and partly by the increased sophistication of marketing, in defining and reaching more and more specialized market segments. Thus, diversity, even to the point of "over-choice," is the third major element in Toffler's future world-view. Along with diversity in products, we are increasingly seeing diversity in lifestyles and subcults, some primarily on a leisure-time basis (surfing, sky-diving, etc.) and others as much more of a total way of life (rural communes, ghetto youth cultures, etc.).


What are the implications of this sort of social change and ferment? Toffler, of course, thinks people are having and will increasingly have difficulty in coping with such an unstructured, rapidly-changing environment. He thinks people will experience, within their own society, a phenomenon analogous to the "culture shock" experienced by travelers in foreign lands, i.e., an inability to deal rationally with the social environment manifested in psychological (and sometimes physical) symptoms. For Toffler, this "future shock" is the most important implication of rapid change, and he suggests various possible means of preventing or ameliorating it. For those who have a stake in a particular vision of the future, such as libertarians, the existence of a reaction such as future shock is an important consideration to include in strategic planning. Yet of far more importance is the fact of change itself.

As Toffler takes pains to demonstrate, the implications of rapid, massive change have profound effects on all our institutions. Who would have guessed in 1961, for example, that a mere ten years after John Kennedy's inauguration (and despite the brief, emotional veneration that followed his death) he would be denounced, by many of the same liberal elements who supported him, as a chauvinistic interventionist in foreign policy and a tool of state-capitalist lobbies and federal bureaucracies at home? Five years ago, who would have expected a nationwide postal strike and the conversion of the Post Office into a quasi-private entity? Two years ago, who could have believed that the Council of Economic Advisers and the Justice Department would propose doing away with the ICC in favor of competition [see this issue's "Trends"]. Or that abortions would be available on demand in New York and divorces in California? Institutions that once appeared eternal and unshakeable all at once appear much less so. Several times in the last few years proposals to abolish the property tax have been debated in the California legislature, and the suggestion that the state sell the entire University of California system has been raised, not entirely in jest.

Examples such as these abound, the point of which is the same. It is no longer reasonable to take the existence of today's institutions for granted in thinking about and planning for the future. With this point in mind, it is worthwhile to reexamine the most common libertarian social change strategy—"educationism." Briefly, this strategy asserts that, because the existing governmental establishment is so complex and its controls and influence are so intertwined into all aspects of society, and because people's thought-processes accept it so unquestioningly, it is necessary to begin a long slow process of reeducation. This process would begin with young professors whose influence would gradually diffuse throughout society's key people—company managers, newsmen, enlightened political leaders, etc. Drawing on the history of past intellectual movements, proponents of this strategy expect that it would take on the order of 30 to 50 years to achieve meaningful results (such as the emergence of a laissez-faire society).

Implicit in this strategy is a model of the future that strongly resembles the past and present, with education supplied only by schools, news and entertainment supplied by the press and a radio/TV broadcast industry, people living in nuclear families, etc. The primary implication of the accelerating rate of social and technological change, however, is that every aspect of such a model is open to serious question, and therefore so is the educationist's estimate of the length of time needed to achieve success. If people begin to view education as a service industry (which may happen within a very few years) and, therefore, as something which one buys in appropriate amounts whenever needed, then it might not be necessary to wait a generation for the effects of new knowledge and methodologies to be diffused to society's decision-makers. When the nation is wired for cable TV and when electronic video recording (EVR) comes of age, "broadcasting" as we now know it, with a few centralized sources of news and information, will be replaced by a fantastic diversity of sources, again altering a fundamental link in the way ideas are transmitted among people. If people begin living in group marriages and communes, or if children are partially or primarily raised in child-care centers, hatcheries, or kibbutzim, there will be fundamental differences in the way ideas and values are transmitted among people.

Not only are the communications links proliferating and the volume and rate of communications increasing, but also the basic institutional structures of our society can no longer be taken for granted. If a zero rate of population growth is achieved, it will wreak havoc with the Social Security con-game (which depends for its viability on a continually increasing work force supplying taxes to support the elderly population). As mentioned above, the property tax is increasingly under fire as an institution (see TIME, "Trying to Change an Unfair Tax," 3 May 1971, pp. 81-82). State-supported university systems may not survive, once the cost and benefit implications of the system are more widely realized [see REASON, "Trends," April/May 1971]. Common carrier regulation appears destined for an early death ["Trends," this issue], and once exclusively government functions, such as postal service and police and fire protection, are in some case being supplied by private companies [REASON, "Trends," January 1971].

In light of the above, it may well be the case that the education model is far too pessimistic. The institutions which constitute the major impediment to laissez-faire are nowhere near so unshakeable as past history might seem to indicate, and the methods for spreading knowledge are becoming greater in quantity and quality than at any time in history. To a significant extent, therefore, the future may be what we are willing to make of it.


Is it possible to predict the future? Can we indeed shape (or at least influence) the future? In response to the needs of companies and government for answers to these questions, a new profession is developing—futurology (or futurism or futures research). In both think tanks and in long-range planning departments of major corporations, a new breed of large-scale-systems analysts is developing; they are not narrow operations research specialists (whose detailed mathematical models are useful in steady-state and short-term cases) but professional generalists, usually building on a background in physical science with broadly-based knowledge of economics, sociology, political theory, philosophy, etc. Within the last decade, a number of futures journals have started, along with an organization known as the World Future Society [see "Publisher's Notes," this issue].

Obviously, futurists cannot "foresee" the future, since people have volition and since "the future" consists of an immensely complex set of interactions. The purpose of futurology is not prediction so much as it is the examination of possible alternative futures and the attempt, through education and discourse, to influence the course of events that will lead to a desired future. (Of course, this is precisely what the libertarian movement, in its own value context, seeks to do.) Insight into the thinking of futurists can be gained by looking at some of the main goals listed for the World Future Society's First General Assembly, held last month in Washington, D.C.:

1) a wider recognition of the need for systematic evaluation of alternative futures in the major fields of human endeavor;

2) an assessment of priorities to determine which areas most urgently require such evaluation;

3) an introduction to the approaches and techniques for considering alternative futures at all levels of policy-making and the different lead-times for implementation;

4) an outline of the ways in which national and worldwide developments in the principal fields of human effort may affect our values, our society, and our institutions;


The major insights of futures researchers are that a vast number of alternative futures are possible, that any particular set of corporate and government decisions represents at least an implicit policy regarding the shape of the future, that it is possible by using specialized techniques and models to gain an insight into at least some of the consequences of various alternatives, and that future courses of action should be chosen consciously (rather than by default) in line with achieving the most desirable future.

One of the most important developments in futurism is the recognition of the role of values in decision-making. The physical sciences have long been "value-free," values being (properly) considered a source of bias and nonobjectivity. The social sciences, attempting to develop along analogous lines, also adopted the posture of wertfreiheit, not realizing that the nature of the subject matter (human beings with volitional consciousness and, therefore, the possibility of choice) requires the consideration of values as an integral part of its deliberations. To my knowledge, futurology is the first discipline to include values explicitly [see the review of VALUES AND THE FUTURE in this issue]. Once alternative future possibilities have been elucidated, by no means an easy task, they must be evaluated against a hierarchical value structure in order that optimal choices can be made.

The question which then arises—which value system to use—is of course extremely important. When the importance of values first became evident to futurists, the standard "values are arbitrary conventions" position was all that was available. Although modern philosophy's default on this question was unfortunate, it has not left futurists empty-handed. On the one hand, empirical studies and methods are being developed to measure values people hold and to point up value conflicts. One example is the Echo Method (THE ECHO METHOD—TECHNICAL DESCRIPTION, Report MST-1, General Research Corporation, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93105), a free-response survey and analysis methodology developed by General Research Corporation. On the other hand, theoretically-minded futurists recognize the need for a rational value system and are investigating the literature and attempting to derive such values on their own. A major breakthrough may occur when the Objectivist ethical system is presented to the profession in a suitably operational form.


The emergence of futurology as a profession and its impact on the intellectual community (e.g., through books such as FUTURE SHOCK) carry a number of implications for those intent on achieving a laissez-faire society in our lifetimes. The first group of implications concerns the impact of futurology on people's ways of thinking about social institutions and the future. As change becomes more and more all-encompassing and disquieting, people will look to futurologists for guidance. If the profession is successful in its intentions, it will be able to educate people to accept the idea of change as a normal aspect of life in a super-industrial society. People will be much more willing to question our "hallowed" institutions—the draft, Social Security, the IRS, public schools, etc.—and the whole vast federal bureaucracy—along with the institutions' conceptual underpinnings, majority rule, eminent domain, the "public interest," taxation, etc. To be sure, as our conservative friends will hasten to remind us, there are dangers in such readiness to question and discard, but there is little that can be done to slow down or stop the fact of rapid, massive change. The only hope is to be prepared to meet the challenge with carefully thought-out, innovative, noncoercive replacements for the toppling institutions.

There are growing indications that futurology is actively looking for new models of the future—entirely new conceptual frameworks for social organization, such as that offered by libertarians. Toffler writes:

Today as never before we need a multiplicity of visions, dreams, and prophecies—images of potential tomorrows. Before we can rationally decide which alternative pathways to choose, which cultural styles to pursue, we must first ascertain which are possible. Conjecture, speculation, and visionary view thus become as coldly practical a necessity as feet-on-the-floor "realism" was in an earlier time.

Thus, libertarian visions of societies without coercion, with radically decentralized limited governments or competing governments or no government at all need to be drawn out in detail and examined for pros and cons. Completely free markets in drugs, new concepts in sexual behavior and customs, new forms of corporations without benefit of limited liability, etc. should be defined and explored in depth. As Toffler points out, to cope with the challenge of the future, we need to develop new sorts of utopian visions about the whole of society, perhaps in "utopia factories" composed of interdisciplinary teams. Such teams could conceptualize, first in nonfiction description forms, and then in fictionalized, multimedia form, what such visionary societies could be like. And once reasonable future models are defined, Toffler suggests that groups of people be allowed to set up enclaves (intentional communities and/or companies) where the ideas could be tried out, independent of existing laws, customs, etc. Thus, with support from, perhaps, the Ford Foundation, and cooperation from enlightened government officials, it may well be possible to establish libertarian proprietary communities in the near future, to demonstrate the practicality of libertarian theory.

Before such opportunities come to pass, libertarians would do well to take cognizance of the other major implication of futurology, to wit: the fact that specific tools and methodologies now exist by means of which to analyze, predict, and influence the future. Libertarians should be learning these methodologies and putting them to use, both as long-range planning tools and as communications devices. As pointed out above, Toffler and other futurists are looking for large-scale comprehensive visions of alternative futures, not mere reforms but radically new weltanschauungs. Thus, to communicate effectively, libertarians need to master the futurists' language and techniques. A method such as morphological analysis, for example, provides a comprehensive, efficient way of making clear the alternative aspects of a particular field, in a nonemotionally-colored fashion which is well-suited for clear communicating. The use of such techniques could substantially increase the effectiveness of spreading libertarian ideas, not only among futurists but in the intellectual community in general.

For long-range planning purposes, libertarians should become familiar with such techniques as the Delphi method, developed originally at RAND Corporation and now used extensively in industry and government for compiling expert opinion on the likelihood of future events. At TRW Systems, several Delphi exercises have been used to generate both short- and long-term research and development goals (by working backwards from a desired future development to determine what prior research accomplishments are necessary). Interactive computer exercises using Delphi along with cross-impact techniques are being used to explore the dependencies between possible future events at the University of Illinois and the Institute for the Future. Such tools could be extremely valuable in planning strategy for social change and for involving others with libertarian ideas in a nonideological manner.

Finally, there is one simple technique which is not at all esoteric but which is quite useful in both planning and communicating. It is called scenario writing and first came to public attention through Herman Kahn's early writings. A futures scenario is nothing more than a logically consistent description of a possible course of events, much the same as a movie or television scenario is a description of the action to take place in a particular scene. Scenarios force one to consider all the implications of a particular development and integrate it with other events, environmental and psychological factors, etc. This can be very instructive, both for the scenario writers and for those who later read and react to the scenario. Thus, libertarians would do well to begin crystallizing their ideas in the form of scenarios, both to strengthen their case by identifying and removing inconsistencies and errors, and to begin exposing their ideas to public view. Science fiction, both short stories and novels, provides excellent thought-provoking scenario-building ideas (see "Science Fiction Scenarios," page 24).

If Toffler is right, and foundations (and perhaps even the government) recognize the need to support futures research and the creation of fictional and artistic utopias, the day may not be far off when libertarians may be able to apply for and win grants to do the kinds of things they are doing today on their own meager funds. Futurists will begin to discuss and debate the libertarian world-view and to examine the rationality of libertarian values. In short, these developments, along with the technological and social changes discussed earlier, will go a long way toward changing the ground rules for the spread of ideas and the speed and direction of social change. The future we want may arrive sooner than we think.