Thinking about the unthinkable is a phrase attributed to Herman Kahn, founder of the Hudson Institute. In the 1980s, Kahn wrote that it was essential to think seriously about nuclear war - in order to have the best chance of avoiding it. Nuclear war was and is an existential issue brought about by the structural change in our ability to manipulate the atom.
Now structural changes in world economics and technology and the leverage of terror are bringing about new existential challenges. Information is available worldwide at the speed of light. (There are 4.5 billion cell phones in the world today.) Moore’s law (the exponential growth in computing power), the prospect of unlimited energy and the unlimited potential of free people to be creative allow dramatic improvements in the human condition.
It is important to think about these possibilities just as we must think about the potential for widespread destruction from unimpeded terror or grinding irrational cultural developments. The structural elements are in place to take us in either direction. How we think about the direction and how decisively we make course corrections will largely determine how the future looks.
Energy is a key to unlimited global wealth. Supersafe advanced fission reactors that use nuclear waste as their fuel are being developed. Fusion energy that will be available in a few decades (creating the energy of the sun and stars on Earth) can combine with advanced fission, plentiful natural gas, wind, solar and conservation to give us virtually unlimited energy and staunch the outflow of our capital resources. This unquestionably can mitigate our structural reliance on imported oil.
Information, disseminated at the speed of light, and Moore’s law combine for a dramatic growth of technology. As the price for material things moves asymptotically toward zero, the economics and conflicts of scarcity will tend to disappear.
With the acceleration of ideas, the world has become linked so that an innovation in one place can be duplicated in another quickly and inexpensively. This is good news for the world. Globalism is not a zero-sum game. But the United States also must understand that we are in the middle of an increasingly competitive environment and much of the rest of the world enjoys many of the economic and technical advantages that have propelled U.S. prosperity. Government inhibits competitiveness at our peril. History tells us that free-enterprise societies tend to win and collectivist, authoritarian societies tend to lose. Hayek vs. Keynes: Which “operating system,” as intelligence expert Herbert E. Meyer would call it, are we going to choose?
Yet free enterprise’s positive scenario has sobering challenges as well. The unprecedented transfer of capital to the Middle East is likely to continue in the short term no matter what we do. This can accelerate the spread of radical Islam and the consequent violence this ideology promotes. We are witnessing the decline of Western competitiveness as the social welfare programs promised from cradle to grave devalue currencies and promote lethargy. Even the United States has not been inoculated against this occurrence. Demographics with structural implications have been described by Mark Steyn in his book “America Alone.” Demographic changes are a reality whether we like them or not.
Technical advances have enhanced asymmetrical warfare as enemies of the West can buy off-the-shelf Radio Shack gear that enables suicide bomb threats, improvised explosive devices, jamming technologies and triggers for destruction. In the clash-of-civilizations context described by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in “Nomad,” suicide bombers are more formidable weapons than F-35s. We are in the throes of egalitarianizing destructive capacity.
Complicating any scenario about the global future is an America seemingly suffering from foreign-policy fatigue and choosing what commentator-columnist Charles Krauthammer has defined as “declinism.” When the United States recognized its exceptional character and role in history, it was a stabilizing world force; now that the nation is in physical, emotional and ideological retreat from international affairs, it is a destabilizing influence.
Similarly, in a world fraught with uncertainty and fear, many people seem to be willing to sacrifice personal freedom for perceived security. The net effect is the rise of collectivism (read: leviathan) on the world stage, limiting the liberties many took for granted. A related condition is creeping entropy-regulated inefficiencies that tax productivity. Some trial lawyers and union bosses at home are lining their pockets at the expense of our nation, and narco-terrorists abroad are destroying civil order and undermining legitimate governments. These are merely a few of many examples of threats to liberty.
There is a Damoclean sword hanging over the Western world, which has spent itself into insolvency yet seems unable to reverse the inexorable pull of the social-welfare state.
So, we have here in abbreviated form two scenarios in comparative tension with each other. They exist conterminously; we can observe innovation in technology each day, but we also are captives of a destructive impulse television screens capture. It may well be, as T.S. Elliot noted, that “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Of course, that depends on the nature of that reality.
Winston Churchill once remarked that we could “return to the Stone Age on the gloomy winds of science.” Alas, science can usher in the age of plenty or be the handmaiden of destruction. Ultimately, the decisions we make will determine the course of history. Yet there are those who distrust all science as they distrust rationality itself, and these people represent the force of regression, a desire to return to an earlier century. These are theological enemies bound to evoke tyranny. C.S. Lewis in “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” noted that tyranny exercised for “the good” may be the most oppressive of all. “Those who torment us for our good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their conscience.” That is the dark side of our future, the side we must resist with all the energy and willpower we can marshal. In the end, we prefer the living faith of the dead rather than the dead faith of the living.
Linden Blue is a Hudson Institute Trustee member where Herb London is president.