BY JAMES PETHOKOUKIS
Nuclear war theorist Herman Kahn provided at least partial inspiration for film director Stanley Kubrick’s maniacal Dr. Strangelove. (The character’s accent, at least, was likely based on that of German emigres Henry Kissinger or Wehrner Von Braun.) Kubrick had read Kahn’s 1960 treatise “On Thermonuclear War” and met with him several times when planning the 1964 black comedy. That unforgettable cinematic depiction and interpretation of Khan-ism — a nuclear conflict between the US and USSR was not “unthinkable” — if not necessarily the man himself, helped cement Kahn’s historical reputation as a dangerous Cold Warrior.
But the 1970s detente era saw the second act of Kahn’s career, that of a futurist. At the very time the professional long-term forecasting industry was taking a pessimistic turn fueled by environmental catastrophism, this thinker of dark, unthinkable thoughts stood out as a sunny purveyor of techno-capitalist optimism. Rather than a few minutes before nuclear midnight, dawn was always just breaking in a world of abundance led by a recharged Reaganite America, a view he distilled in his 1983 book, “The Coming Boom.” (Liberals were dismissive and, it turns out, wrong. The period from 1983 through 2007 has been called The Long Boom because of its strong and steady economic growth. It was also the period that saw the rise of Silicon Valley as the nation’s and world’s tech core.)
That same year, just a few months before his death, Khan joined with several other right-of-center thinkers in assailing the eco-pessimist “Global 2000 Report” that had been commissioned by the Carter administration. Anyone who had read another Kahn book, “The Next 200 Years,” would hardly be surprised at Kahn’s reaction. He and his co-authors argue that “because of the evolution of knowledge and technology, resources are increasing rather than fixed. More technology and more capital are vital. … Enough resources will be available at reasonable costs so that reasonable rates of growth can be achieved. … Current levels of absolute poverty will decrease almost everywhere. Thus, in this view, all things considered, the long-range outlook is quite good.”
It is a view of futurism and future-oriented thinking that has little to do with central planning and detailed blueprints for creating a better tomorrow. As F. A. Hayek wrote in “The Constitution of Liberty,” “We are as little able to conceive what civilization will be, or can be, five hundred or even fifty years hence as our medieval forefathers or even our grandparents. If we are to advance, we must leave room for a continuous revision of our present conceptions and ideals which will be necessitated by further experience.” And this from British physicist David Deutsch in his 2011 book, “The Beginning of Infinity”: “Strategies to prevent foreseeable disasters are bound to fail eventually, and cannot even address the unforeseeable. To prepare for those, we need rapid progress in science and technology and as much wealth as possible.”
Is there a place for such pro-growth, future-oriented, techno-optimism in American politics today? A brief survey of both left and right makes one skeptical. On the right, there’s an unhelpful economic nostalgia for the pre-Information Age economy of the 1950s and 1960s. On the left, too much of its environmentalism embraces scarcity rather than abundance.
Neither left nor right are explicitly championing the idea that faster technological progress, innovation-driven productivity, and economic growth need to be a national priority which deeply informs policy. That, at the same time leaders should provide explanation and vision as to why such a goal will enrich American society.
As MIT historian Leo Marx has written: “The initial Enlightenment belief in progress perceived science and technology to be in the service of liberation from political oppression. Over time that conception was transformed, or partly supplanted, by the now familiar view that innovations in science-based technologies are in themselves a sufficient and reliable basis for Progress. … Does improved technology mean progress? Yes, it certainly could mean just that. But only if we are willing and able to answer the next question: progress toward what? What do we want our new technologies to accomplish?”
Learn more: Are we in a dark age of invention and innovation? And if so, will we ever get out? | Is America going to settle for slow economic growth? Too many of us might be OK with that. | Why we need optimistic visions of the future: My long-read Q&A with Ed Finn
James Pethokoukis is the DeWitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise and is the Editor of AEIdeas.