BOOK REVIEW: ‘History of the Future’

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HISTORY OF THE FUTURE:THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD TO COME IS VISIBLE TODAY
By Max Singer
Lexington Books, $24.95. 198 pages

Stockbrokers will tell you that predicting the future is risky. Max Singer’s method in “History of the Future” is to assume the future will be like the past, which skirts a multitude of pitfalls. He worked with Herman Kahn at the Rand Corp., and his book, in its optimism, would have met with Kahn’s approval. Later they founded the Hudson Institute together. In outline, Mr. Singer’s thesis is straightforward: Over the past 200 years, a sizable number of countries have moved from traditional ways and customs to an embrace of modernity. The rest will follow.

These modernizing regions and countries - Western Europe, North America and Japan are the most obvious - have “completed their passage to modernity,” Mr. Singer writes. They haven’t stopped changing, but they have passed from one plateau to another, and they won’t change fundamentally. Mr. Singer gives various indexes of modernity. Compared with the traditional world, most people in modern societies can expect to live longer, enjoy a high school education and live mainly in cities, where we are protected from the environment. Mostly we work with our minds, contributing to information-dominated economies. We enjoy freedom of choice in many matters and are self-governed (by majority rule). Families are much smaller than formerly.

Modern societies are far richer than traditional ones, and Mr. Singer’s vision of the future is simply stated. Traditional societies will go down the already beaten path to modernity and prosperity. The inequality of wealth between the two sets of countries will diminish because poor societies can catch up more quickly than modern ones can keep up the pace. The future, then, is broadly egalitarian.

Mr. Singer’s future in bare outline strikes me as plausible. Changes already happening in traditional societies are approaching modernity as defined by Mr. Singer - conspicuously so in Brazil and India. Were it not for its ruinous 30-year diversion into the dead end of communism, China would be fully modernized by now. It soon will be. Over the past decade, developing countries have grown nearly four times faster than developed ones. Fertility rates, collapsing everywhere, are the most striking confirmation of Mr. Singer’s prediction.

His optimism is conspicuous in his chapter on the “Jihadi challenge.” Although much of Islam is in conflict with modernity, that will change. Arabs, and Islam generally, will “insist” that “groups and rules that impede modernization” will have to give way. A “new synthesis” will then prevail. Islam will endure, but its reformation cannot be long delayed. Societies in which Islamists attempt to dominate by violence will immediately become poorer and therefore will self-correct. In short, economics will trump ideology. He may be right. In recent decades, oil money prevented much of the Arab world from seeing how its practices obstructed the creation of wealth. Traditional Arab rulers misconstrued their geological good fortune as theological virtue.

“The Decline and Fall of the War System” is perhaps the book’s most interesting chapter, and the one that owes least to Herman Kahn. Land is unimportant as the source of wealth in the modern world, Mr. Singer argues, and wealth today cannot be achieved by conquest. Western Europe has confirmed these new realities, and that is not thanks to the European Union’s suppression of nationalism. On the contrary, the new “zone of peace” in Europe made the European Union possible. Nations increasingly “act as if they believe that international law governs the conduct of all countries.” Conflicts are settled by negotiation. Armies will dwindle. They don’t cause wars but are a response to them.

Following Kahn, Mr. Singer wisely ignores the Malthusian warnings of resource exhaustion and environmental doom-saying that are now so fashionable. Societies that take them too seriously will only harm themselves. But in his chapter on demography, Mr. Singer uncharacteristically hedges his bets. He argues, convincingly enough, that the present decline in fertility might turn around quickly. Six hundred years from now, he says, the world population could be anywhere from 100 million to 100 billion people. So all bets are off.

But short-term predictions can still be made confidently. If Western Europe’s low fertility rate endures for just another 20 years, for example, the welfare states of those countries (consisting mostly of transfers from dwindling workers to ever-growing elderly cohorts) will be unsustainable. So huge changes are coming and can be foreseen just as next spring’s water flows can be measured in today’s mountain reservoirs.

Mr. Singer lives in Israel and may know more about that country than any other. Yet he says little about it, and one would like to hear his “history of the future” there. Would his optimism survive a Middle Eastern analysis? If his book has any defect, it is its steady reliance on generalities and abstractions. But his predictions ultimately depend on them and the book is stimulating on every page.

Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator.

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