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Which Political Axis?
Marc Andreessen recently released his Techno-Optimist Manifesto, not long after James Pethokoukis released his new book The Conservative Futurist: How to Create the Sci-Fi World We Were Promised. I mostly agree with both, and the book gives much more detailed arguments. Yet, alas, I have to report that both seem to me to largely fail to inspire. I find it hard to imagine people moved to allegiance or action by these. These authors want to inspire, they try to inspire, and what they want to inspire you to is worthy of such elevation. And yet, they fail.
Apparently, inspiring people is quite tricky. I’d like to join a reading group where we go over famous inspiring speeches, trying to figure out how they do it. My podcast co-host Agnes Callard seems to succeed at inspiring people on occasion, and I’m trying to learn from her about how she does it. But I still don’t know much.
Pethokoukis makes a pitch for his preferred political axis:
Up Wing is my shorthand for a solution-oriented future optimism, for the notion that rapid economic growth driven by technological progress can solve big preambles and create a better world of more prosperity, opportunity, and flourishing. The most crucial divide for the future of American isn’t left wing versus right wing. It’s Up Wing versus Down Wing. Down Wing is about accepting limits, even yearning for them. Down Wingers are doomsayers. Up Wing is about accelerating past limits - much as a rocket accelerates thus through Earth’s gravity well. Up wingers are boosters. Down Wing eschews risk, especially from innovation, unless possible threats to everyday life and the environment are well understood. The burden of proof is on the risk taker. Up Wing embraces calculated risk-taking, especially from innovation, as essential to human progress and sees the capacity for such progress as central to our humanity. The burden of proof is on the defender of stasis. …
Down Wingers live in a never-ending present. They see America as a zero-sum society where only the elite would benefit from tech and economic acceleration, if even possible. Some Down Wingers think climate change is such an existential threat that rich countries much liver poorer and poor countries must never become rich. Down Wingers think human love artificial general intelligence would mean mass unemployment, disrupting communities, civil unrest, and a ruined planted - and then it would kill us. Americans exploring the solar system and perhaps beyond? Not if uber-billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are building the rockets. Better to tax away their fortunes so government can spend the money on more down-to-Earth challenges.
This seems to me to fail at the key task of describing both sides of a political axis in terms that those on each side could embrace. But I expect that a better description could be find that meets this criteria. Even so, I doubt Brave vs Careful can displace the current Left vs Right as our political focus.
The Wikipedia page on Political Spectrum lists many alternate axes, starting with this Pethokoukis/Andreessen axis as described by Virginia Postrel in 1998. Alternate axes include communitarian vs individualist, talk vs. force, religious vs. not, urban vs. rural, isolationist vs. unilateralist, aligned vs. not with big world power, hawk vs. dove, global vs. local, diversity vs. assimilate, decentralized vs. centralized, positive vs. negative liberty, pro vs. anti change, open vs. closed, and pro vs. anti regulation.
The list doesn’t include my suggestion. Instead of splitting across different opinions on base policies, I’d rather we admit we can’t be very sure about base policies and focus on differences of opinion regarding how we should together aggregate info on the effects of policies. Should we use randomized experiments, statistical models, LLMs, cost-benefit analyses, decision markets, deliberative voter juries, expert panels, or what? These seem topics far more worthy of fighting and obsessing over.
(Yes, even when we agree on policy consequences we may disagree on which are good And yes, we can and should go even more meta than this.)