Libertarian History/Philosophy

The Halfway Mark

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There's something about an anniversary that inspires one to take stock of the past, present, and future. reason's 20th anniversary issue in 1988 was no exception.

In "Things Are a Lot Groovier Now," then-Publisher Robert W. Poole Jr. reminded readers how terrible 1968 was. Cable television was banned in major cities, self-service gas stations were illegal in most places, getting cash required standing in line at a bank between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on a weekday, airfares were set by the government, the draft was alive and well, and hooking up an answering machine was a good way to incur the wrath of Ma Bell.

Evaluations of the present were more cheerful, with techno-utopian George Gilder declaring that the 1980s would be recalled "as the epic when America overcame entropy and socialism succumbed to it." Alan Reynolds said the '80s would be remembered "for a revival of democracy and capitalism, for privatization, deregulation, and reduced tax penalties for increasing output and income."

Charles Murray, by contrast, was pessimistic: "When I recently suggested before an audience that I thought my children would live to see the end of American democracy, the reaction was not so much 'Why do you think that?' as 'Don't be silly.' The Framers knew better."

Virginia Postrel, later to serve as editor of the magazine, was assigned the unenviable task of pondering what life would be like in 2008. She selected a Blade Runner theme for her meditations. "The central question of Blade Runner," she writes, "is, What makes us human? In 20 years, the same question will occupy more than the occasional science-fiction writer." True enough.

Postrel projected forward "the biotechnology revolution that gives Blade Runner its plot and today's front pages their lead stories. By 2008 the revolution will be the regime, its results entrenched." In a way, she was right. We now eat genetically engineered tomatoes and corn by the ton, and we can sequence our genomes for a couple thousand dollars. But the "whole new concept of the self-made man" she envisioned isn't here yet, in part because those debates about what it means to be human have occupied us longer than expected.

"In such extraordinary times, 20 years can change the world," Postrel wrote. "The year 2008 will be more different from today than we can imagine. But if I had to guess—and I do—I'd…predict a future in which that new balance is forever challenged by the same technological progress and cultural mixing that established it in the first place. Change is, after all, the only certainty."