Something To Look Forward To

SYNOPSIS: Critical review of a disappointing book by an economist with a very literary style

Visions of the Future

The Distant Past, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

By Robert Heilbroner

Oxford University Press

The New York Public Library. 133 pp. $ 19.95

Literary intellectuals rarely find economics congenial. The field, after all, is territory they have lost in the war between C.P. Snow's Two Cultures, a humanity (in the sense that it studies human affairs) that has acquired the intellectual style of a mathematically driven science. As a result, the economists whom the literary-minded prefer are usually outsiders, men who have little interest in and indeed are often actively hostile to the discipline. Robert Heilbroner is the almost unique exception, a writer who combines an essentially literary intellectual style with a broad knowledge of and respect for economics. He is perhaps best known for his The Worldly Philosophers, an engaging survey of the lives and ideas of economists over the centuries. In recent years he has increasingly turned to the big picture, with titles like An Inquiry into the Human Prospect and Twenty-First Century Capitalism. His latest book, a slim volume consisting of three lectures given at the invitation of the New York Public Library, attempts no less than a selective survey of all human history, organized around a comparison of the different ways that societies have viewed their own future.

Heilbroner divides history into three parts: the Distant Past, when people expected the future to be pretty much the same as the present; Yesterday, the post-Industrial Revolution era ruled by the idea of Progress; and Today, an era in which economic and social anxieties have undermined that earlier optimism. It's a clever scheme, and one might well hope that in the hands of a writer of Heilbroner's erudition it would lead to some striking insights.

Unfortunately, Visions of the Future, while it is a graceful and learned essay, is somewhat disappointing.

One reason is a tendency to make relatively simple things seem complicated. The book offers an elaborate discussion, replete with anthropological and sociological references, of the reasons why people before around 1700 did not envision a future of greater material prosperity. Yet surely the essential point is that they had no reason to do so: In fact, the subjects of Louis XIV were no better fed than those of Tiglathpileser I in ancient Assyria. Nor is there any mystery why: For the first five millennia of civilization, Malthus was right. That is, the gradual advance of technology was never fast enough to outpace the pressure of population on resources, which therefore consistently held living standards at a level at which famine and pestilence could do their work.

Heilbroner also at times seems strangely lacking in historical perspective. For example, when he lists some of the world's current ills and writes that "they have hypnotized and horrified the public imagination to a degree unimaginable some forty-odd years ago when we crossed over the invisible boundary from Yesterday into Today," one wonders whether he really believes that the world looks in worse shape now than it did in 1955, let alone 1941. Indeed, if the divide between Yesterday and Today is the point at which educated people lost their faith that the future will necessarily represent an improvement on the past, it seems hard to argue for a date later than World War I and impossible to argue for one later than the Depression and the rise of fascism.

The most disappointing part of the book, however, comes in its chapter on Tomorrow. In an essay whose whole point is the changing nature of the perceived future, one might expect the author himself to offer a novel and creative vision. Instead, Heilbroner's vision of the future seems oddly, well, old-fashioned. Indeed, his future has what might best be described as a 1950s feel. When he describes the threat that new technology poses to the quality of life, his list of dehumanizing experiences includes those of recorded music in elevators and video entertainment; whether or not you find them as troubling as he does, Muzak and television have been part of our lives for more than 35 years. When he looks for a larger threat, the best he can come up with is technological unemployment -- in other words, he simply resurrects 1950s fears about automation. (And as an answer to these fears he offers a liberal vision of what he calls Slightly Imaginary Sweden -- a vision that would seem more plausible if the real Swedish model were not imploding as we speak.)

Surely there are stranger and wilder things to inspire hope and fear in a world in which genetic engineering and virtual reality are not fantasies but already here. But perhaps the problem is that Heilbroner is uncomfortable with truly speculative visions. It is hard to imagine writing about Yesterday's vision of the future without mentioning H.G. Wells, or Today's vision without mentioning "Blade Runner"; but Heilbroner has, and his book is the worse for it.

Originally published, 1.22.95