Religion & Liberty Online

A Future Fit for Conservatives

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A new book that seeks to inspire optimism among readers about the future has much good advice and dispels more than a few tech-colored fears. But as far as realizing the promise of its title, one essential element is missing—a reason for a future in the first place.

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If you wanted to capture the current conservative mood—a surefire way to sell books—you would write a despairing jeremiad that extrapolates from every worrying trend. James Pethokoukis deserves praise for daring to do just the opposite. In The Conservative Futurist: How to Create the Sci-Fi World We Were Promised, he seeks to inspire the spirit of optimism most Americans shared in the middle of the 20th century. Think of Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek), Arthur C. Clarke (author of 2001: A Space Odyssey), and Walt Disney, who, among his many creations, conceived of futuristic Epcot Center and Tomorrowland. These men weren’t outliers. They were heralds of a common faith in the promise of enterprise, science, and technology to help us usher in a better tomorrow.

If their visions now seem quaint, it’s not just because the economy seems stagnant. Pethokoukis argues that it’s also the fruit of relentless dystopian visions, such as those found in films like Blade Runner, The Terminator and The Matrix, that we’ve been fed over the past five decades.

Of course, we can’t just blame Hollywood. The economy really did slow down around 1973—the same year NASA mothballed its Apollo program, and not long after the Club of Rome announced there were way too many people on the planet. Since then, the doomsday brand of environmentalism has predominated. There’s causal feedback, Pethokoukis observes, between the state of our economy and the stories we tell ourselves about the future.

The Conservative Futurist is a fun book that seeks to reorient the reader’s thinking, brimming with the author’s passion. Pethokoukis is at his best when distilling economic data and ideas. (Full disclosure: More than a decade ago, Pethokoukis and I were both contributors to the then-new blog of the American Enterprise Institute, which he now edits as a senior fellow and DeWitt Wallace Chair at AEI.) He marshals those assets in this book—which is characteristically crisp, clear, and concise.

Pethokoukis addresses what he calls “America’s Tomorrowland Problem.” There was a “golden age” of optimism among Americans after World War II. This wasn’t a mass delusion: it reflected what was happening in the economy. “American living standards, as measured by real per capita GDP, more than doubled as the economy overall grew at a rapid 4 percent annually from 1948 through 1973.” Some of this was the result of a growing workforce using better machines. But it was also the fruit of innovation itself—“both technological progress and more efficient ways of deploying machines and people,” he explains, “what economists call ‘total factor productivity.’”

Since 1973, however, things have been much more sluggish, with only one brief countertrend. “Over the next quarter century,” Pethokoukis writes, “TFP [total factor productivity] grew at just one-fourth of the rate that it did during the previous quarter century.” It “then surged to 1.8 percent during the 1995–2004 tech boom before decelerating back to its sluggish post-1973 pace.”

What caused the slowdown? Pethokoukis is too nuanced to point to merely one culprit. He covers the options deftly—from bad ideas in the culture, to stupid regulations that prevented nuclear energy from reaching its potential, to the fact that early tech trends like Moore’s Law (which describes a doubling of computer processor speed every 12 to 24 months) seem now to be pressing physical limits.

The complexity of the causes of our malaise, however, is no excuse for agnosticism and despair. Indeed, it could have been otherwise. To prove this, he asks the reader to imagine a world where just a few events had turned out differently.

What if the U.S. had won the war in Vietnam? What if the president and Congress had continued to support NASA’s Apollo missions, with a lunar base and Mars fly-bys in the 1980s? What if the Three Mile Island accident had never happened, and the melancholy wing of the environmentalist movement had lacked such an easy target for their “no nukes” campaign?

Moreover, what if federal regulators had not imposed dumb rules that protected neither the environment nor animals but in fact thwarted the discovery process that could have given us clean, abundant, affordable energy from fission? What if, as a result, we were now harnessing the sun’s form of energy—fusion? What if Newt Gingerich—a champion of bold space missions—had won the GOP nomination in 2012 instead of the lackluster Mitt Romney and gone on to beat Barack Obama?

If we had enjoyed this alternate history, surely we’d be in much better shape now. It’s hardly utopian to say so. Pethokoukis does consider the conjectures of “Singularitarians,” who imagine that the pace of innovation will soon outstrip everything that came before. “But,” he notes, “we don’t need the Singularity or even something just short of it to create a fantastic future. We only need the sort of economic and tech-driven productivity growth that has already happened in the real world.”

In short, if the world had maintained the growth of the 1960s and 1990s, Americans would be looking at the future as our grandparents did—as a horizon in which life would be better for our children and grandchildren than it was for us. As it is, we project our current discontent onto the future, treating doom as inevitable.

If we learn the lessons of the recent past, however, Pethokoukis insists we can still, well, “create the sci-fi world we were promised.” To succeed, we need to opt for an “Up Wing” rather than a “Down Wing” vision of the future. He borrows the terms from the 1970s futurist F. M. Esfandiary—who is now “considered,” Pethokoukis admits, “the godfather of modern transhumanism.” He even goes so far as to say that the key conflict in the coming years will not be between the left and the right (terms coined during the French Revolution). It will be between the future-hopeful Up Wingers and the future-dreading Down Wingers.

This framing is not without merit. There are trends—from growing populist anger at elites to pessimism about free markets and technology—that defy the simple binary of left and right. And many fears of a higher-tech future—“Robots will take all the jobs!” “There’s nothing left to invent!” “We’ll be better off if we don’t trade outside our borders!”—persist regardless of political affiliation. Yet Pethokoukis ably debunks these “Down Wing” myths in a single chapter.

In reading the book, I was struck by how similar my economic views are to Pethokoukis’. I’ve long been a tech-optimist. I was present for the 1998 conference hosted by futurist and tech optimist George Gilder, when transhumanist Ray Kurzweil spoke about the coming technological singularity. This was the speech that provoked Bill Joy’s backlash in Wired magazine, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” which Pethokoukis cites as an example of growing pessimism after the tech bubble crash. Gilder and I later responded to the episode with an edited collection based on Kurzweil’s speech and his respondents.

Like Pethokoukis, I’ve defended the benefits of a free market economy and it moral superiority, against skeptics left and right. As recently as 2018, I extolled in book length the benefits of technology against luddite overreaction. I’ve also critiqued the misguided doomsday scenarios of radical environmentalists.

And no, I don’t think Skynet is going to “wake up” and kill us all. I don’t think AI and robots are going to make half or more of the population obsolete. I think they can be, on balance, blessings rather than curses, and that they can make everyone more productive and more prosperous.

I mention all this so you won’t mistake me for a curmudgeon who discounts the wonders of trade, electricity, antibiotics, smartphones, and affordable energy. Any sound vision of the future should embrace all these things and not denounce them in a reactionary rage.

And yet … a “conservative” vision of our technological future also needs to be, well, conservative. “American-style conservatism,” Pethokoukis explains, means “first, to be a ‘custodian of the classical liberal tradition,’ in the words of columnist George Will.” And what of the second element? Answer: an “embrace” of “social dynamism.”

As a conservative reader, however, this seems like only half a loaf. Pethokoukis invokes Adam Smith on markets and Edmund Burke to underwrite the future-oriented pact between the “living” and “those who are yet to be born,” then quickly pivots to the Smithian point about avoiding central planners.

Throughout the book, however, he downplays or avoids metaphysical and religious questions that have always been a part of conservatism. Surely any vision pitched to conservatives should address the moral and spiritual rot we see around us. It should challenge the godlessness, materialism, and expressive individualism that’s consuming the foundations of our culture like some mutant horde of termites.

Our view of the future flows from our view of the human person, of the setting in which we ought to enter the world—the family—and of our purpose in the world, or lack thereof. Hope or despair comes, at least in part, from our religious beliefs—our churches, synagogues, schools—and the social culture that emerges from that.

I kept wanting Pethokoukis to get to this. One of his last chapters is entitled “How to Nurture an Up Wing Culture.” But, alas, in that chapter he writes about better science fiction, more upbeat World’s Fairs, cool lunar telescopes, and a renewed effort to expand deeper into the solar system.

That’s all fine—and if it were merely a matter of technology and Elon Musk’s derring-do, we could do it. But will we? Not on our current trajectory. Arguably the leading indicator of cultural faith in the future is having children. Yet the U.S., like almost all the developed world, is well below the replacement rate. “The biggest problem that humanity faces,” wrote Elon Musk on January 2, 2024, “is population collapse.” He’s right.

And what is a, if not the, key factor that leads modern people to have large families? It’s not great wealth or dreams of cheap flights to Saturn or sunny sci-fi. It’s a religious faith strong enough to overcome the opportunity costs of having a big family—especially for women—in a wealthy, postindustrial culture.

Despite my hope that Pethokoukis would give the spirit its due—would see the connection between God’s command to “be fruitful” and to “multiply”—it didn’t come. And to be fair, there was an early hint of what was in fact to come. Alas, it involves Carl Sagan.

“As much as any economist, entrepreneur, futurist thinker, or science fiction writer,” Pethokoukis writes in the first sentence, “the late astronomer and author Carl Sagan played a pivotal role in my writing this book.” He goes on to quote from Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, the astronomer’s reflection on a famous photograph of Earth captured by Voyager 1 in 1990 as it exited the inner solar system. “Every human who ever was,” Sagan wrote, “lived out their lives … on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Pethokoukis finds this quote inspiring. But he leaves out the denouement of Sagan’s reflection:

Because of the reflection of sunlight … Earth seems to be sitting in a beam of light, as if there were some special significance to this small world. But it’s just an accident of geometry and optics.… Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

As it happens, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and I quote the same Sagan passage at the beginning of our 2004 book, The Privileged Planet. We, too, were inspired by Sagan to write our book—as a refutation of Sagan’s thinly spiritualized materialism. Setting the details of our argument aside, is it possible to have a more Down Wing spin on human life than the one Sagan offers here? How can this ode to our insignificance give anyone—let alone conservatives—hope for a better future?

Few historical events have a single, unique cause—and that includes our current economic and cultural malaise. But surely we should place some blame on the nihilism and materialism Sagan displayed in his work, and which has been the unquestioned orthodoxy among cultural elites for much of a century. How could this not give rise to a near-universal dread of a dystopian future? And how likely would America’s postwar prosperity have been if, for generations before, Americans had been fed such thin spiritual gruel?

If there’s any hope for an Up Wing restoration of our culture and economy, conservatives will need to offer more than a promise of economic “Progress.” We’ll need to combine the economic wisdom found in Pethokoukis’ book with a richly informed vision of purpose and providence. After all, it was just such a vision that once inspired human beings to do great deeds—from bearing children under trying conditions to building better rockets—and it can do so again.

Jay W. Richards

Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family; the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation; and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.