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.