Reason Once Tried To Predict the Future. How Did We Do?

A generation later, three major themes still resonate.


Joanna Andreasson

It was May 1993. Barely two years earlier, a failed coup attempt had marked the last gasp of Soviet Communism. The Cold War was over. Germany was reunified. The Baltic countries were independent. In the former Yugoslavia, Sarajevo was under siege.

Bill Clinton, a New Democrat who spoke the wonky language of neo-classical economics, was in his first months as president. Ross Perot's upstart candidacy had made the budget deficit a high-profile issue. A free trade treaty with Mexico and Canada was awaiting ratification. The European Union would be born in November.

Later that year, I'd visit Silicon Valley and ask computer whiz Mark S. Miller how Reason should "get on the internet," as our techie friends kept telling us to do. I had a Compu-Serve account. Should we start a Reason bulletin board? Wait, he counseled: "There's this thing called the World Wide Web, and it's going to be big."

A month after Reason's 25th anniversary issue hit newsstands, Marc Andreessen released Mosaic, the first graphical browser. The next year he started Netscape, whose commercial Navigator browser made the web widely accessible. The internet age had arrived.

We were on the cusp of a new era, but the 25th anniversary issue was not high-concept. It had no clever structure or big theme. As editor, I did the easy thing. I asked interesting thinkers to contribute essays on whatever they wanted to write about, given the loosest of prompts: Look ahead 25 years.

Picking writers I wanted to read gave the issue implicit direction. Another editor might have commissioned policy-focused pieces or rants against the evils of the state. (Richard Epstein did focus on health care, making the surefire prediction that "there will be greater government control over the provision of health-care services in this country 25 years from now than there is today.") But for the most part, my tastes produced meditations on culture, commerce, and technology.

With some telling blind spots, including my own, the essayists were remarkably prescient. In the intervening years, the challenges they posed have gone from interesting to critical. A generation later, three major themes still resonate.

1. Frictionless communication. "Imagine now the world that awaits—a world shaped by perfect communication over any distance, between any pair, or any cluster, of 'telescreens,' a world in which records can be maintained and manipulated, combined and merged, moved and processed, effortlessly and at almost no cost," wrote Peter Huber. In George Orwell's 1984, the "telescreen" was an instrument of totalitarian control. The real-world version, Huber predicted, would be liberating.

"The telescreen will give voice to the average man, the man who has never before owned a printing press or a broadcast station," he wrote. And "once large numbers of people have their own, private interests in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it."

True. There would also be furious arguments over private ostracism of unwanted voices and fierce competition for attention amid the buzz. It's easier than ever to publish but tougher than ever to find an audience. Censorship is difficult, but so is sorting the worthwhile and true from the noise and nonsense.

"Ignorance will collide with the telescreen itself. People will now educate themselves," Huber wrote. He didn't imagine how easily people would "educate themselves" on the dangers of vaccines, the imperative to establish an Islamist caliphate, the phony birth records of Barack Obama, or the U.S. government conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks. He forgot about the flaws of the average—or any—man. And we've only begun to grapple with the other side of the ubiquitous telescreen: its potential for surveillance.

2. The particular and the universal. For all its faults, Marxism shared with liberalism the idea of universal equal rights, Loren Lomasky observed. But the world "increasingly honors the particular over the universal." The war in the Balkans and xenophobic violence in Germany presaged conflicts of the future.

"Challenges to liberal democracy will almost certainly be less apocalyptic than they have been during the post–World War II era, but they may, nonetheless, be nasty," he wrote. "And, contrary to the 'end of history' thesis, they are apt to be more blatant than those launched by the commissars. The ideological battles will be waged at a level even deeper than those of the past."

Lomasky was correct. In Russia and Turkey, India and China, rulers are using authoritarian means to advance tribal ends—ethnic, national, religious, or some combination. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán explicitly calls his ideology "illiberal democracy," declaring that liberal values "embody corruption, sex, and violence." Islamist terrorists threaten open societies with violence while enticing followers with ideals of purity and faith.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the liberating power of instant communication exacerbates political, ethnic, religious, and regional tensions. "America exists quite comfortably with numerous enduring subcultures," I wrote in 1993. "Indeed, the greatest testimony to America's irresistibility may be [their] persistence" despite international and internal migration.

I missed what might happen when those subcultures collided online. Part of today's nasty tribalism comes from the echo chamber effect of social media, where people of the same persuasion egg each other on to dehumanize their opponents. But some of it is simply better information. The lives, opinions, and grievances of people who differ from you are harder to ignore. The angriest voices command the most attention. Nuance, context, empathy, and respect don't cut through the noise. We have trouble seeing Them as Us, whether that means fellow Americans or simply fellow human beings.

Particular allegiances are human and inevitable, however, and not all bad. As Jacob Levy has argued, Black Lives Matter, which began as a social media hashtag, represents identity politics in the service of Enlightenment ideals. As with the gay rights movement, it uses ethnic particularity to make claims on universal rights. "In liberal politics," he writes, "we'll always depend on the passionate and self-conscious mobilization of those who are the victims of state power and domination."

The trick is to expand rather than contract the realm of justice and freedom: Black lives matter, too.

3. Positive liberalism and bourgeois virtues. "Throughout most of the 20th century," Paul Weaver wrote, "classical liberalism was a fringe movement in a statist world, and its message often—and quite rightly—came down to little more than the injunction, no!" Now, he thought, we need to make the case for classical-liberal culture—to articulate what we're for.

"Liberalism, to triumph in the politics sphere, requires certain values and behavior in the private sphere—respect for individuals, honesty, decent treatment of one another," Weaver wrote. "A society based on tolerance, mutually beneficial exchange, and rational persuasion cannot be built by merely changing the structure of government." Classical liberalism is, and must be, richer than telling the government to back off.

Succinctly and originally articulating our heritage and situation, the 25th anniversary issue's most important essay was a harbinger of Deirdre McCloskey's multivolume explorations to come. A distinctly liberal culture exists, the piece suggested: the culture of the marketplace, the commercial town, the oft-derided bourgeoisie.

Contrary to the idea of libertarians as amoral nihilists, that culture is ethically demanding. Bourgeois life requires its own particular virtues. "To sing only of aristocratic or peasant virtues, of courage or of solidarity, is to mourn for a world well lost," McCloskey wrote. "We need an 18th-century equipoise, a neoclassicism of virtues. We are all bourgeois now." While courage and humility are good and sometimes necessary, to be rich and free we really need to cultivate qualities such as enterprise, integrity, trustworthiness, responsibility, and respect.

Bourgeois culture is a culture of persuasion—of conversation, discussion, and talk. "The bourgeois must in the bulk of his transactions talk to an equal," McCloskey wrote. That's where the universal equal rights come from, even if you go home to your tribe. "One must establish a relationship of trust with someone in order to persuade him. Ethos, the character that a speaker claims, is the master argument." Reputation matters.

Looking back 25 years hence, perhaps we'll realize that many of today's tribal conflicts—at least those in the United States—arise from the struggle to define ethos in a world of exponentially proliferating talk. Or perhaps they come primarily from the failure to honor and practice bourgeois virtues, above all respect.

Reason's 25th anniversary issue came out in a time of justifiable optimism. Lomasky could confidently write that "the world during the next 25 years will almost certainly be a safer place, most likely a more prosperous place, and already it is a place orders of magnitude freer than was the case only a short while ago." Today, prospects look darker. What happens over the next generation will depend in large measure on whether we, as individuals, groups, and societies, embrace the values of the gangster or the virtues of the bourgeoisie.

NEXT: Brickbat: Look for the Union Label

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  1. I missed what might happen when those subcultures collided online. Part of today’s nasty tribalism comes from the echo chamber effect of social media, where people of the same persuasion egg each other on to dehumanize their opponents. But some of it is simply better information.

    The partisan incivility arises because government control of society has expanded, and government has expanded its intrusion into our daily lives so much that it is a zero-sum game.

    Our choices boil down to mind our own business and be steam-rolled by those who control government, or join the game and try to control government ourselves to keep it off our backs by diverting it to other peoples’ backs. This is the true evil of government doing too much. Their bureaucrats are stupid and mindless, its inefficiency slows down everything like molasses in a fine clock mechanism, but the real evil is that people find they can get ahead better by pouring molasses into everyone else’s clocks instead of cleaning out their own. As for actually improving their own clocks, ha! nobody has time for that.

    1. I think reinterpreting the commerce clause would go a long way towards constraining the scope of the federal govt. Unfortunately there’s no such magic bullet for the states. You just have to move and find a different state if you find life too unbearable under the thumb.

      1. It’s too bad that jurists from the Thomas-Scalia school–the best we can do, and far better than it once looked like we might realistically hope for–hate the “Negative Commerce Clause” as a judicial invention so much. From a Constitutionalist perspective, it probably really is bullshit; but from a libertarian one, if we are going to go with the bloated CC powers that Scalia and Thomas give us, the further leap of fiction to the “Negative” Clause makes that the only good part!

        But alas we don’t, so we got an Internet Sales Tax–courtesy of the conservative justices and opposed by the liberals.

      2. If there’s enough support for an Article V convention for the sole purpose of constraining the Commerce Clause, that would be a start. It’d take 30-34 magic bullets, though…

    2. Really good post-I don’t think a lot of people understand how much was once done (and could still be done) without government interference. Far too many people, when faced with a problem, think primarily (if not exclusively) of what government can do about it.

    3. Nice thesis, but government hasn’t changed THAT much in the last 25 years. What has changed is the way we communicate. So I think the article’s thesis is more on the mark about social media being the main cause in the rise of incivility. But I agree with your points about how government involvement in an area leads to a rise in conflicts in that area over who wields the political influence.

      1. 25 years ago, people were worried about FedGov snooping your library records. Now Fedgov hoovers up your emails and phonecalls with no warrant, probably eavesdrops as will via cellphone, Cortana, and Alexa.

        25 years ago, I could show up for a flight as it was boarding and get on the plane without getting fondled or rapescanned. Now I have to show up 90 minutes early minimum to catch a flight so a GED certificate holder can touch my privates.

        25 years ago, the memory of Vietnam and being bogged down in conflicts worried both citizens and high ranking members of the military. Now 15 years into Iraq and 17 into Afghanistan with no end in sight.

        25 years ago the federal deficit was 4 trillion, and people were more concerned about deficit spending and entitlements than they are today.

        1. All of these things, and more, are basically related to the fact that people have detached themselves from reality.

          People refuse to look at unpleasant truths, because then they know they’d have to do something about them.

          The fact is that America is gone. It will never return. Not without secession or a brutal civil war. The nation is too divided ideologically and ethnically, and such things never end up magically resolving themselves without one of the above.

          But many people cling to the delusion that the debt, government invasions of privacy, overreach in general, will somehow magically just go away… Not gonna happen. The whole thing has to burn down before it will ever be fixed.

          1. Several thoughtful posts and then you have to wander over from The Federalist and Brietard with your civil war boner, Veek.
            Christ you Contard hillbillies. Go shoot yourselves.

            1. I’m sorry that I can look at things more objectively than you…

              If you look back at history, we have most of the signs that pop up/lead to civil war in our society today in abundance.

              We could peacefully separate, a la Czechoslovakia style. Which is what I would opt for. But if you know your history, you would know that nations that are this divided on ALL fronts have to be held together with force… I supposed we could turn into a repressive police state and hold it together a few more decades… But in lieu of that, the USA is a throw away at this point.

              The original America is NEVER coming back without major and fundamental changes happening. Period. We’re not just going to peacefully vote our way back into having freedom, smaller government, etc. Not. Gonna. Happen.

    4. “the real evil is that people find they can get ahead better by pouring molasses into everyone else’s clocks instead of cleaning out their own.”

      Really now? Easier to organize a plurality of a nation, have even that plurality reach consensus on what’s to be done, and implement it over 3.797 million square miles?

      Authoritarians aside, it seems much of the rise of government is from the failure of social institutions, and increasing complexity within the society at large. As democrats recently learned, even when you have the majority [sic], that doesn’t translate into political power. At best, you get stalemate.

      Most technologies run from a period of crudeness to overly complex to elegance to magic. The failure of social technologies marks the eventual failure of government as well. We are painfully transitioning towards maybe elegance from the era of steam age social technologies (and all the disruption inherent from the change) not because of the retreat of government, but because it will be rendered superfluous with the new tools on hand.

      If you want less government, make certain the rest of society functions well.

      1. People will tolerate a whole lot of government misbehavior and over-reach so long as they have cable, internet, and beer.

  2. 1. False. The literal opposite of your prediction is now being implemented, and Reason et al are literally supporting it. As the internet is swallowed up by massive companies, they are implementing literal speech restrictions. Free speech is dying, despite it being enshrined in law.

    1. Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.


      2. That’s not entirely correct. I believe the correct list is shit, fuck, piss, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, asshole.

        1. No, no, tits were definitely on the original.

          I remember that because they were the seventh item and they seemed the MOST out of place to me.

          1. Hm, I stand corrected. Does the list change in the future?

            1. It’s changing now. “Long time no see.”

              1. “dinner?”

    2. Hey, free speech is dying if government censors your speech.

      If private companies censor your speech, well, that’s ok!

      1. By what method would you “force” private companies to respect free speech?

        1. By the market of course!

          Problem being it is increasingly difficult to “force” companies to honor their contracts, which makes market mechanisms break down. So then you turn to government, and it gets really ugly from there.

          Vaguely related- how do libertarians square to notion of unions being forced speech, yet doesn’t apply to employees or board members of said company?

          1. The notion is that an employee should be able to negotiate the terms of their employment free of interference from outside parties, since they are a grown adult. If part of the terms of your employment include comporting yourself in a certain way, you can accept it, renegotiate it, or quit. Unions say not only can you not separately negotiate your employment terms, but you are required to pay them to do it for you.

            1. And this doesn’t even get into unions being mostly fundraising arms for a certain political party with a donkey mascot.

            2. Maybe they just had a basic cable package and domestic beer (and here I thought union wages paid more)?

    3. Massive companies have swallowed up government, including now the Supreme Court, so why not the internet?

  3. Postrel, did you predict that the comment section was going to devolve from a collection of freedom-loving perverted-yet-lovable malcontents to freedom-hating insular partisan xenophobic shilling for Trump?

    1. Ok, now that I read the article, #2 covers this.

    2. I still don’t know where these yahoos came from and why they camp here. You’d think that the internet is actually small.

      1. It’s becoming unbearable. The worst part is that most of them are utterly humorless. I used to come here to entertain myself and hopefully entertain others with dumb jokes shared among like-minded liberty lovers. Many of them are gone, however. Most comments are now bitching about Reason criticizing Trump. It is fucking bizarre. There are still a few posters that make me laugh, but it is like digging through pig shit to find a pearl.

        1. Most comments are now bitching about Reason criticizing Trump

          They are indeed, Chip, but do you know why?

          Because Reason is now criticizing Trump in nearly every article.

          And most Reason articles aren’t about Trump-but he’s in there, whether it’s about broad policy issues, or a local kid on Halloween. Trump can always be inserted for the purpose of criticism.

          No ‘edit’ button? Damn you Donald Trump!!!

          Why you’ve got NeverTrumpers on here complaining about TDS alongside lovecons.

        2. “digging through pig shit to find a pearl”
          Ironic considering that you personally are the source of about 20% of the pig shit in the comments.

        3. Here’s the thing Chipper, when I first started reading Reason… It was actually somewhat fair and balanced.

          Now it has become completely tilted. If you can’t see the slant that it has now, then you’re blind.

          In all fairness, Reason has essentially just moved with generic mainstream social mores… The thing about that is, they’re not ACTUALLY the mainstream social mores. They’re ACTUALLY constructed rules, that have been pushed from the top down, via media power. But Reason complies as if they were accepted by 100% of civilized people.

          Half + of the country thinks some or all of them are bullshit. But Reason has decided to tow the line as if they were SJWs.

          Given that most libertarians I have known in my life, probably a solid 80-90%, were right-libertarians… It seems strange to me that Reason would go full tilt left-libertarian, and play nicer with progressives than conservatives on issues that are contestable on libertarian grounds…

          Yet that is exactly what they do. If they were balanced, I’d give them a lot less flack. But they’re not. So a lot of conservative leaning libertarians have just got sick and tired of it. I will continue to bitch until the TDS goes away, and Reason actually becomes sane and at least balanced again.

    3. to be fair, for most of the first 23 years since the 25th anniversary edition, this place more or less still have a place for freedom-loving malcontents. It’s only since Trumplethinskin arrived that we’ve been invaded by pants-pissing Contard hillbillies.

  4. “While courage and humility are good and sometimes necessary…” Sometimes?

    1. Only courage, not humility, is required for someone whose actions are accompanied by “hold my beer and watch this.”

  5. He didn’t imagine how easily people would “educate themselves” on the dangers of vaccines, the imperative to establish an Islamist caliphate, the phony birth records of Barack Obama, or the U.S. government conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks.

    A drop of sour in an ocean of sweet. What everyone is missing today is perspective. Focusing on a few online clashes or some “subcultures” colliding or even state spying, compared to all the liberation easy electronic communication has provided, is myopic. Nothing is pure, but as far as good-to-bad ratios go, the internet is about as good as it gets.

  6. Hey Virginia, can you please come back and run Reason again?

    The people you handed it off to are all fucking morons that have ruined the publication.

    I’m dead serious. Please come back!

    1. As soon as you go back to The Federalist and/or Brietard, hillbilly.

      1. Kirkland puppet?

      2. Never really read or posted at either of those, but good try!

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