Recently, a friend of mine came across a copy of a 1959 issue of Modern Man, an American quarterly magazine that was published between 1951 and 1967. The article that caught his attention, and which he shared with me via email, tried to imagine the life of an ordinary person in the year 2000.
“Most scientists,” the author of the article averred, “agree that the year 2000 will compare to 1960 as 1960 compares to 1660.” In the morning, a person will step into a “wheelless car that rides on air… piloted by radar… huge, transparent plastic domes… [will] cover large sections of the great urban areas from New York to San Francisco, thus affording every advantage of the outdoors without being exposed to wind and cold. And the average life span in the United States will be 110 years… By necessity [i.e., overpopulation], the great cities will be rebuilt on two or three levels. Streetcars, buses and taxis will be as rare as flying reptiles, with conveyor belts replacing sidewalks.” It goes on.
As readers of Reason know, the future is very difficult to predict. That’s especially important in relation to our policy makers, who should be strongly discouraged from flights of fancy. Remember those 5 million “green jobs” that our former commander in chief of the economy promised to create in order to “stimulate job growth” and America’s transition to green energy? In the event, it was fossil fuel fracking, not green energy, which helped to lower the price of oil, revived the U.S. economy and secured Barack Obama’s reelection. Scientific agreements about the future are to be taken with a pinch of salt—something that the sage of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue refused to appreciate.
Obama’s successor, unfortunately, appears to suffer from similar delusions. Unlike Obama, who saw America’s economic future in “green jobs,” Donald Trump sees America’s economic future in the kind of manufacturing jobs—cars and air conditioners—that the 1950s readers of Modern Man would recognize.
It’s bad enough to know that we are being ruled by wannabe clairvoyants, but it gets worse. Say what you will about the silly scribbling of the 1950s futurologists, it is undeniable that they were, in spite of the nuclear Armageddon hanging over their heads like the Sword of Damocles, infused with can-do optimism. (When was it the last time you watched an optimistic movie about the future?) And why not? The first half of the 20th century was filled with technological wonders. In 1903, for example, the Wright brothers had amazed the world by staying in the air (10 feet above the ground) for nearly a minute. By 1959, an artificial satellite was circling the earth. Was it really all that crazy to think that by 2000, there would be a human colony on the moon?
And that brings me back to policy making. During the 2016 Republican National Convention, Peter Thiel noted that when he was a child, “Opportunity was everywhere.” “America,” he continued, “was high tech. It’s hard to remember this, but our government was once high tech, too. When I moved to Cleveland, defense research was laying the foundations for the internet. The Apollo program was just about to put a man on the moon—and it was Neil Armstrong, from right here in Ohio. The future felt limitless. But today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jets can’t even fly in the rain… Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East.”
Thiel believes that American optimism and technological progress were throttled by overbearing regulation and out-of-control bureaucracy. If Trump focuses his energies on dismantling the regulatory state, rather than mandating who should make the steel pipes for the Keystone and Dakota pipelines, he may yet do America a lot of good.