😀 Can a conservative be a future-optimist?
It's long past time to revive a cheery futurist philosophy on the right that fully embraces rapid technological progress to make a better America and world #UpWing
How can a conservative be a pro-progress future-optimist? How would that even work? Isn’t it a contradiction in terms — or even a blatant oxymoron like “negative growth” or “cold fire”? Everybody knows that conservatives only care about maintaining the status quo, adhering to tradition, and embracing nostalgia for an America long past (especially during the Donald Trump era). More importantly: How can one be rationally optimistic about the future without any interest in mitigating climate change, the existential issue of our time?
Before I answer those questions — and I will — let me ask a couple of my own: How can any self-described conservative be optimistic about the image of the future presented by many on the left, particularly anti-growth environmentalists? Some headlines:
These sorts of news stories, when processed through the social-media filter, create a picture of a terrible tomorrow for many regular Americans on the right. Their perception: If you want to picture such a future, imagine Greta Thunberg scowling at you forever as you dig into a heaping plate of mealworms and crickets. And don’t even think about turning on the A/C. Also, Silicon Valley is going to force you to upload your brain to your smartphone.
Maybe a more reality-based example of what some on the left sees as an optimistic future is the one presented by the Smithsonian Institution's recent Futures exhibit. I’ve written about it several times in this newsletter. I also wrote about it for The Boston Globe:
I expected not only creative displays about the latest stunning discoveries and emerging technologies but some serious speculation about what might be next. What diseases might be cured? Will a spate of fusion reactors help solve climate change? How soon before the earth is ringed with orbital factories and humanity has planted itself permanently on the moon, Mars, and beyond? But little in the 32,000-square foot, nearly 150-item exhibition suggests that humankind is ready to take any sort of giant leap forward.
Most exhibits seem to be about sustainability: a display showing how washing machines could be used to create a “closed wastewater system” for growing a garden of wetland plants; a biodegradable wall of bricks made from mycelium — mushroom fibers, basically; one of the 32 solar panels that President Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House roof in 1979, later removed during the Reagan administration.
It’s strange, then, that the Smithsonian would name the exhibition “Futures,” plural, when it shows just one vision of the future as possible and desirable. It’s a vision about “sustainable cycles, rather than endless growth” — a concept firmly rooted in the eco-pessimist 1970s.
In the long-run, we’re all uploaded
The latest version of left-of-center futurism is the “longtermism” movement. One of its leading proponents is William MacAskill, a 35-year-old professor of philosophy at Oxford University and author of the forthcoming book, What We Owe the Future. He’s been getting some big-time Big Media attention, including profiles in both Time and the New Yorker, a New York Times opinion essay, and an appearance on the podcast of Times columnist Ezra Klein. This from his NYT essay:
[Longtermism is] the idea that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time. Longtermism is about taking seriously just how big the future could be and how high the stakes are in shaping it. If humanity survives to even a fraction of its potential life span, then, strange as it may seem, we are the ancients: we live at the very beginning of history, in its most distant past. What we do now will affect untold numbers of future people. We need to act wisely.
Longtermists think it imperative to reduce the threat from the potential existential risks such as artificial intelligence (we might lose control or it would give some dictator complete control forever), biotechnology (a manmade super-pandemic), nuclear war (back in the news!), and asteroid/comet impacts (we can’t say Hollywood didn’t warn us). The philosophical core of longtermism is built around three ideas: future people count, there will be a lot more people in the future, and we can make the lives of future people better.
Now those ideas don’t seem particularly radical. Indeed, there's something deeply conservative about the notion of valuing the future. Society, conservative statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke wrote in 1790, “is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained except in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
It’s one of the more famous Burke quotes, but not one I expected to find in The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity by Toby Ord, another Oxford philosopher and longtermist. Having read many books of broadly this sort — most if not all written by thinkers of the left — quotes from conservative philosophers are a rare find. But Burke’s inclusion makes total sense here given his emphasis on intergenerational responsibility. And the survival of humanity and human civilization would certainly seem to qualify as a core intergenerational obligation.
No one said thinking and acting long-term would be easy
But the movement has its critics, mostly it seems to me, from the further left. They charge longtermists with caring little about near-term problems such as climate change, global poverty, or late capitalism or surveillance capitalism or any kind of capitalism.
They also point out some of the more unsettling implications of placing so much importance on those of us yet to be. In a long Aeon essay, Phil Torres notes that some longtermists suggest prioritizing the lives of people in rich countries over those in poor countries, “since influencing the long-term future is of ‘overwhelming importance’, and the former are more likely to influence the long-term future than the latter.”
I think many conservatives will also find unsettling some of the implications of longtermism — even if, like me, they wish we did a better job of keeping our eyes on the skies. There’s plenty in the Aeon piece to set their alarm bells clanging. Torres notes, for instance, that one prominent longtermism advocate has argued “that we should seriously consider establishing a global, invasive surveillance system that monitors every person on the planet in real time, to amplify the ‘capacities for preventive policing’ (eg, to prevent homicidal terrorist attacks that could devastate civilization.”
He also connects longtermism with the transhumanist movement that seeks to eventually create a world of fully posthumans and “that failing to become posthuman would seemingly prevent us from realizing our vast and glorious potential, which would be existentially catastrophic.” These two points — about global surveillance and transhumanism — could feed numerous segments on Fox News and articles in fringey conservative media. The Drudge Report headlines would be amazing.
Then there’s the Long Reflection, during which posthumanity — after dealing with all manner of existential risks — would pause and ponder what it should do next. As MacAskill has said, “And have maybe 10 billion people debating and working on these issues for 10,000 years because the importance is just so great. Humanity, or post-humanity, may be around for billions of years. In which case spending a mere 10,000 is actually absolutely nothing.”
And what if you didn’t want to reflect? The posthuman global government would have a word with you. As one critic puts it, “Authoritarian political institutions would have to be developed which could prevent individuals and groups from acting in their own rational self-interest.” If you dislike the UN today, you probably wouldn’t feel better about the prospect of a posthuman world government forcing your descendants to reflect for centuries. Now some longtermists would no doubt argue with these characterizations of their views. But it's easy to see how such characterizations might stick to this emerging philosophical movement, especially from bad-faith critics seeking clicks and retweets.
“An American lives in anticipation of the future because he knows it will be a great place”
So what is this center-right, conservative future-optimist thinking — pro-progress “Up Wing” thinking as I call it — that I’m referring to? Let’s start with what it rejects.
First, it rejects 1970s-style eco-pessimism, particularly in its updated extreme version called “de-growth” with its focus on a poorer world built around environmental sustainability. De-growthers contend that rich nations must learn to live with far less, and those already with less must be content with never living as rich nations do today. Ronald Reagan’s 1979 presidential announcement offers as good a response as any:
Someone once said that the difference between an American and any other kind of person is that an American lives in anticipation of the future because he knows it will be a great place. … Nothing is impossible, and that man is capable of improving his circumstances beyond what we are told is fact. There are those in our land today, however, who would have us believe that the United States, like other great civilizations of the past, has reached the zenith of its power … Much of this talk has come from leaders who claim that our problems are too difficult to handle. We are supposed to meekly accept their failures as the most which humanly can be done. They tell us we must learn to live with less, and teach our children that their lives will be less full and prosperous than ours have been; that the America of the coming years will be a place where because of our past excesses it will be impossible to dream and make those dreams come true. I don’t believe that. And, I don’t believe you do either.
Second, it rejects left-wing future-optimism of the sort outlined in the recent book, Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics, which “promises the prospect of a global polity predicated on care, equality and unalienated labor.” It anticipates an eco-socialist revolution, which installs a world government and a global central planning bureau called “Gosplant” (yes, the name is inspired by Gosplan, the central planning board of the old Soviet Union). And centrally plan it would! A lot! From the book:
… half the Earth will be set aside for rewilding to limit the ecocide of the sixth extinction. … Even though the Gosplant bureaucrats do not explicitly prefer any diet, their linear programming algorithm will likely opt for veganism because it satisfies the requirement of feeding everyone with the smallest environmental impact. … [For] the short term, the global parliament opts for a 1,500-watt energy quota and restrictions on fuel use. It is the best fit for present circumstances while allowing energy use to grow in the future as more sustainable infrastructures are built. (That quota would seem austere in the global north, though relatively painless for the south.) … The government agrees to steadily reduce private car ownership to the point of complete abolition, one compacted Ferrari at a time. The steel thus saved can be recycled into trams and buses, while the remaining cars (which would run on electricity, hydrogen or biofuels) are pooled and signed out by individuals or families. While Gosplant liquidates the suburban real estate market early on, millions of construction workers and tradespeople find work retrofitting buildings to conserve energy and adapting private mansions and corporate headquarters to communal use. … Private lawns and golf courses are likewise either rewilded or turned into community gardens. … Large swathes of manufacturing become rationalized when “planned obsolescence” itself is made obsolete. Resources are redirected toward building solar panels, wind turbines, super-efficient insulation and railways.
Third, it respectfully rejects longtermism, as outlined by MacAskill. Again, while there is much to favor and support — particularly its tech-solutionism and sense of obligation to the future — there are aspects I find troubling, including the ones mentioned above. But I have concerns beyond that.
For example: US regulation has for a half-century been infused with the Precautionary Principle that demands innovations stay out of the real world until the innovators can prove they won’t cause harm or disruption. Play it safe! I could imagine a toxic combo of longtermism and the Precautionary Principle applying to all manner of emerging technologies. “Hey, what's the rush? If it’s really a helpful innovation, almost all the people it would help live in the far future.” Neo-neo-Luddism. The tech stagnation of the Great Reflection might come early.
We Kahn do it!
And what does my future-optimist conservatism favor? One key principle: dealing with risk through resilience as well as through anticipation and preparation. The former means building the capacity to effectively respond to dangers — either unanticipated or ones that play in unanticipated ways — after they emerge. (Like the ability to rapidly develop and distribute novel vaccines to deal with a novel virus.) A resilience strategy requires public policy and cultural attitudes that support economic growth, along with vast and progressing technological capability — although both generate disruption to families, companies, and communities.
I’ve previously written that my model for optimistic solutionism is the postwar think-tanker Herman Kahn, a Cold War nuclear theorist turned sunny techno-capitalist futurist. In the 1976 book that Kahn co-wrote, The Next 200 Years, he offers two different flavors of optimism:
Guarded Optimist. Growing pie. Past technological and economic progress suggests that increasing current production is likely to increase further the potential for greater production and that progress in one region encourages similar developments everywhere. Thus the rich get richer, the poor also benefit. Higher consumption in the developed world tends to benefit all countries. Excessive caution tends to maintain excessive poverty. Some caution is necessary in selected areas, but both the “least risk” and the “best bet” paths require continued and rapid technological and economic development.
Technology-and Growth Enthusiast. Unlimited pie. The important resources are capital, technology and educated people. The greater these resources, the greater the potential for even more. There is no persuasive evidence that any meaningful limits to growth are in sight — or are desirable — except for population growth in some LDCs. If any very long term limits set by a “finite earth” really exist, they can be offset by the vast extra terrestrial resources and areas that will become available soon. Man has always risen to the occasion and will do so in the future despite dire predictions from the perennial doomsayers who have always been scandalously wrong.
Kahn and his co-authors saw the “unlimited pie” scenario as a totally reasonable possibility. And the economic tumult of the 1970s failed to shake his long-term confidence. In his 1983 book, The Coming Boom — written during the nasty 1981-82 recession — Kahn saw a Reaganite recharged US economy as leading to a “revitalized” America, both at home and abroad. One of his final projects before his death was an education program that would, in Kahn’s words, address “the imbalance of unrelenting negativism” about the future of the world being taught in public schools with “more accurate and therefore more optimistic data” about everything from pollution to population. I couldn’t agree more.
Lobbying for the future
So what does my future-optimism conservatism look like in practice? How would center-right Up Wing policy differ from the pro-progress center-left Up Wing policy — not to mention political progressives? Briefly and broadly (and incompletely):
I’m far less willing to engage in industrial policy (though I would sharply increase R&D spending overall) and far more willing to remove burdensome regulation to build clean energy — especially nuclear and advanced geothermal — and infrastructure. (On that latter point, it was super frustrating when President Biden reversed President Trump’s reform of the National Environmental Policy Act.)
Massive billionaire wealth doesn’t much bother me, particularly when it comes from super-entrepreneurship. (Thanks for slashing launch costs, Elon Musk!) The corporate income tax is a bad tax.
I think I’m more concerned that many to my left about our long-term debt obligations — the original longtermism!
A universal basic income doesn’t hold my interest when work is both important to our psychological functioning and will be needed from carbon-based lifeform for many, many decades to come.
We should make it easier to densify our most productive regions while also making it easier to relocate to those places
Oh, and all of the above should be looked through first, a conservative economic lens that acknowledges trade-offs, unintended consequences, and the power of entrepreneurial market capitalism, and second, a political conservative lens that promote rights-based, right-securing limited government that preserves liberal institutions and encourages social mobility.
Now I realize that those definitions of conservative economics and politics may be unfashionable right now in some regions of the right, but I think (hope) they have deeper roots and more resiliency than commonly believed. Likewise, I hope this strain of future-optimist conservatism is only dormant, partially made that way by a) anti-capitalist eco-pessimism infecting futurist thinking in the 1970s, b) advances in biotechnology — from the first successful “test tube” baby in 1978 to the full sequencing of the human genome in 2000 — creating a plausible “Brave New World” future where the world, as Leon Kass put it in a 2001 essay, would be “peopled by creatures of human shape but stunted humanity, and c) conservatives around 2000 beginning to see the technologists, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley as an aggressive and malignant force in American life — starting with its overwhelming support of the Democratic Party.
Then again, I am an optimist. I’ll leave with this from Reagan speaking at a White House luncheon honoring the astronauts of the Space Shuttle Columbia on May 19, 1981, less than two months after being shot in an assassination attempt.
To paraphrase John Greenleaf Whittier: We are the people who have thrown the windows of our souls wide open to the sun. We will follow as we can where our hearts have long since gone, and progress will be ours for all mankind to share. Americans have shown the world that we not only dream great dreams, we dare to live those great dreams.
▶ These scientists are working to extend the life span of pet dogs—and their owners - Jessica Hamzelou, MIT Tech Review | The Dog Aging Project is just one of several groups seeking to understand and improve dog aging. Biotech company Loyal has plans to offer life extension for dogs. And a third group, running a project called Vaika, is looking for ways to lengthen life span through a study on retired sled dogs. But dogs are just the beginning. Because they are a great model for humans, anti-aging or life-span-extending drugs that work for dogs could eventually benefit people, too. In the meantime, attempts to prolong the life of pet dogs can help people get onboard with the idea of life extension in humans, say researchers behind the work.
▶ What happens to labor productivity and the economy when it’s always someone’s first day at work - Matthew Zeitlin, Grid | The rates by which people leave and start new jobs often stay fairly steady or, in the case of types of work that are seasonal, can be fairly predictable. But these are not normal times. Overall employment has fluctuated by tens of millions of jobs in the past two-and-a-half years, and the rates at which people are leaving and starting new jobs are historically high. Meanwhile, productivity — which has been rising and rising for decades — has started falling. … A new economic theory is emerging pulling these two data points together: What if the entire economy is having its first day at work?
▶ Nuclear war would cause yearslong global famine - Zack Savitsky, Science | A nuclear war would disrupt the global climate so badly that billions of people could starve to death, according to what experts are calling the most expansive modeling to date of so-called nuclear winter. Although the exact effects remain uncertain, the findings underscore the dangers of nuclear war and offer vital insights about how to prepare for other global disasters, researchers say.
▶ Artificial intelligence and the flawed logic of ‘mind uploading’ - Louis Rosenberg, VentureBeat | In other words, creating a digital copy through “mind uploading” has nothing to do with allowing you to live forever. Instead, it would create a competitor who has identical skills, capabilities, and memories and who feels equally justified to be the owner of your identity. And yes, the copy would feel equally married to your spouse and parent to your children. In fact, if this technology was possible, we could imagine the digital copy suing you for joint custody of your kids, or at least visitation rights.