Prometheus

Newsletter of the Libertarian Futurist Society

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Volume 21, Number 3, Fall, 2003

Editorial: The Future

One of the gods of futurists, libertarian or otherwise, is to arrive at informed opinions of what the future will be like and how we can prepare for it. Such opinions need to be based on the best informed understanding of the present that is available to us. A large part of that understanding has to come from the social sciences. If their theories and analyses are flawed, predictions based on them will be flawed. One of libertarianism's greatest intellectual strengths is its offering a critical perspective on the assumptions of mainstream social science, and thus a more informed view of the future.

Even since the emergence of political economy in the 18th century as the first “social science” in the modern sense, social scientists have taken the nation state as their basic unit of analysis. In effect, they have really been state scientists. Even their most characteristic method is etymologically state-istsics, the collection of information useful to the state. And social scientists' theories are equally focused on the state, assuming that each national state is—at least to a first approximation—a self-sufficient universe, a kind of social black hole.

What's wrong with this?

Suppose the social sciences had come into being in the dark ages, in the era of isolated feudal manors and monasteries. Even then, there was trade and communication. But a typical English village bought only three imported goods, salt, iron, and millstones, in small quantities or infrequently. Early medieval social scientists might plausibly have chosen to disregard such effects, and produced theories of the closed village community, with its feudal lord, its priest, and its peasant households. they would have worked fairly well for centuries. But what would then have happened when trade resumed in the High Middle Ages, or exploded in the 28th century? Would village scholars have gone on regarding it as an exception and a disturbance? Would village policy advisors have idealized a system with customs barriers between adjacent villages, as the libertarian pamphleteer Frederic Bastiat satirically proposed in the 19th century?

Current social scientists who analyze the nation-state as a self contained system are making the same error. No country survives that way; the richest and most powerful countries don't even try, but trade with the entire world. And not only goods, but people, businesses, capital, and ideas travel throughout the world— and so does violence. States are becoming less free to do as they like; international financial institutions increasingly have the power to direct their policies, as Neal Stephenson portrayed in The Diamond Age.

There are social scientists who recognize this—ironically, many are influence by Marxism, such as Immanuel Wallerstein, founder of “world systems theory.” But libertarianism, with its critical view of the state, offers another basis for such social theory, and for understanding a future where global economic forces grow steadily more powerful.

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