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Defending Dynamism and Getting Stuff Done
A term like “conservative” doesn’t fit the Tesla tycoon; even “libertarian,” while closer to the mark, associates Musk with a lot of ideas that I don’t think he particularly cares about. A better label comes from Virginia Postrel, in her 1998 book “The Future and Its Enemies”: Musk is what she calls a “dynamist,” meaning someone whose primary commitments are to exploration and discovery, someone who believes that the best society is one that’s always inventing, transforming, doing something new.
I might quibble with some of his presentation—dynamism includes an important role for criticism and competition, since not every new idea is a good idea—but it’s a good analysis both of Musk and of why dynamists who considered themselves liberals (in the left-of-center American sense) might feel politically homeless these days. And I do say in the book that learning, as opposed to stability and control, is the central dynamist value, something that I am even more convinced of today than when I was writing in the late 1990s.
Ever since Trump bent history’s arc his way, however, that confidence has diminished or collapsed. Now liberals increasingly regard the internet as the zone of monsters and misinformation, awash in illiberalism, easily manipulated by demagogues, a breeding ground for insurrectionists. And if digital technology has become particularly suspect, via the transitive property so has the larger idea of innovating your way out of social or environmental problems — empowering the part of the environmental movement that wants to tame capitalism to save the planet, for instance, at the expense of the part that imagines taming climate change with fleets of Teslas and nuclear power plants.
Meanwhile, the values underlying dynamism — above all, the special pedestal given to free thinking and free speech — are also more suspect within liberalism today. In their place is a new regulatory spirit around culture as well as economics, a how-much-is-too-much attitude toward the circulation of potentially dangerous ideas, a belief in institutions of scientific and intellectual authority but not necessarily institutions devoted to wide-open inquiry. [Emphasis added.]
Just as a dynamist might, at the extreme of the orientation, prefer a monarchy that protects innovation over a democracy that discourages it, some of today’s progressives are making the same move in reverse: If democracy is endangered by technological change and unfettered free speech, then so much the worse for free speech. The important thing is to save democratic self-government, even if you have to temporarily take the “liberties” out of the American Civil Liberties Union or put away your John Stuart Mill.
For more background on my perspective, here’s a good Q&A from 2017. (I was less articulate in the updated conversation with Jim Pethokoukis earlier this month.)The good news is that the dynamist coalition that I imagined 25 years ago is starting to emerge, even if it’s far from a political force.
Writing in The Atlantic last week, Derek Thompson asked a provocative and not at all hypothetical question, “What if we invented a technology to save the planet—and the world refused to use it?” His column was a powerful follow-up to an earlier argument for what he calls an “abundance agenda.”
Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing. We say that we want to save the planet from climate change—but in practice, many Americans are basically dead set against the clean-energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting solar-power projects. We say that housing is a human right—but our richest cities have made it excruciatingly difficult to build new houses, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say that they want better health care—but they tolerate a catastrophically slow-footed FDA that withholds promising tools, and a federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of physicians.
In the past few months, I’ve become obsessed with a policy agenda that is focused on solving our national problem of scarcity. This agenda would try to take the best from several ideologies. It would harness the left’s emphasis on human welfare, but it would encourage the progressive movement to “take innovation as seriously as it takes affordability,” as Ezra Klein wrote. It would tap into libertarians’ obsession with regulation to identify places where bad rules are getting in the way of the common good. It would channel the right’s fixation with national greatness to grow the things that actually make a nation great—such as clean and safe spaces, excellent government services, fantastic living conditions, and broadly shared wealth.
I’m looking forward to the Breakthrough Institute’s “Breakthrough Dialogue 2022: Progress Problems” conference next month, where I’ll be on a panel discussing Klein’s “supply-side progressivism” idea and, I hope, finding ways to counter the regulatory mindset that sees every new venture as something to be squashed or controlled.
One of the striking splits today, which I failed to anticipate in TFAIE, is between those concerned with climate change as a problem needing dynamist approaches to find solutions and those like Bill McKibben who use it as an excuse to promote stasis. BTI’s Alex Trembath, who is definitely in the dynamist camp, published an excellent article in March on “cost-disease environmentalism,” his term for what happens when subsidies to promote, say, green infrastructure confront regulations that hamper all infrastructure.
Subsidizing demand for low-carbon technology comes with serious risks if policymakers don’t attend to the supply side by dismantling the regulatory bottlenecks that make it hard to build anything in this country. For decades, clean-energy deployment has been undergirded by federal tax credits, state-level renewable-portfolio standards, and other subsidies. Democrats’ climate agenda broadly extends and expands this subsidy regime. Yet the projects these subsidies support encounter regulatory hurdles imposed by the same governments that provide the subsidies.
Public enemy number one has to be the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Passed in 1970 as part of a wave of environmental regulatory reform, NEPA created regulatory standards and hurdles for infrastructure projects, industrial facilities, and more. NEPA’s practical effect has been the proliferation of environmental impact statements (EISs) for projects that could “significantly affect” the environment, including everything from denser housing supply in cities and high-speed electric rail to large-scale renewable-energy projects and, infamously, bike lanes. The constraints on breaking ground, let alone completing, projects like these are notorious. As Niskanen’s Hammond and Brink Lindsey have noted, the average EIS today runs over 600 pages in length and takes 4.5 years to complete.
A similar phenomenon explains why the liveliest, and most politically effective, cross-partisan dynamist coalitions today are centered on increasing the supply of housing (one of my favorite topics). You don’t have to be a libertarian to see the value in the literal meaning of laissez-faire: allow doing.