Caroline Bird: The Good Years: Yours Life in the Twenty-First Century; E. P. Dutton; New York.
Richard Louv: America II; Jeremy Tarcher/Houghton Mifflin; Los Angeles.
There are some serious people in the United States today attempting to ensure that the next generation of Americans has a decent place to live. Unfortunately, none of their work is recounted in either of the volumes reviewed here. Instead, these books are a product of the cottage industry within the publications establishment that projects “developing trends” into a vaporous future, assuming that everything will continue in some “inevitable” direction. Successful practitioners of such forecasting have the good sense to grab onto some obvious trends (e.g., greater use of computers) and some primitive human instincts (most obviously, the desire for survival). Combine them, and presto! We arrive at the prediction that, in the future, we are going to have security forces that rely upon video screens and computer controls rather than the beat patrolman of yesteryear. Both Mr. I.ouv and Mrs. Bird are companions in the effort to expand such basic observations into book length impressions that they see more into the future than most of the rest of us.
The depth of their insight is reflected most accurately in the character of the questions that these people never ask; they manage to miss some of the most basic questions that have always troubled human beings. Although violence has been a factor in life since Cain slew Abel, both of these authors tend to wish it away. Mrs. Bird apparently assumes that as our society “matures” (i.e., as the median age rises and we have more old people and fewer young ones), the crimes of passion and violence that we customarily associate with youth will decrease in due proportion. She never really confronts the problem, just permits it to disappear over time.
Mr. Louv, on the other hand, recognizes that an element of violence will continue in society, but believes that its consequences will be managed better as we move to condominiums equipped with exotic security arrangements, the better to observe untoward incidents in a systematic manner and either prevent the execution of crimes or apprehend the criminals more swiftly than present arrangements permit. What Mr. Louv views with obvious distaste, however, is that these increased security arrangements are being facilitated through forms of institutions which he lumps under the oxymoron “private governments.” This term is intended to encompass the private security guards, condominium associations, neighborhood groups, and other voluntary associations that band together to establish neighborhood standards when the local constabulary cannot perform its functions. Mr. Louv is uneasy about the tensions that exist between private security forces and the state; private forces, after all, operate with less training than the police and with less supervision by our courts. Moreover, these private security arrangements are available only to those who can afford to live in arrangements apart from the poorer elements of the community. The idea that more established members of the community might have good reason to fear some of the poorer elements in our society is the kind of phenomenon that Mr. Louv treats as a result of insufficient familiarity with folks who, in most significant respects, are very much “like us” except that they cannot afford the increased “isolation” ( others tend to call it “security”) that wealth can provide. Mr. Louv appears to believe that wealthy members of American society actually enjoy paying huge sums for sophisticated security devices. He views the development of “private governments” as a threat to future social homogeneity, and thus misses the most critical element of this trend: people are fearful enough to employ “private governments” only because they have experienced the consequences of the failures of the governments that they elected.
The indifference that both books demonstrate toward criminal violence within our society extends into the international arena. The authors ignore international affairs, although they do pause to note that some nasty American entrepreneurs are “exporting” labor intensive jobs to other societies, where labor is something less than union-scale expensive. The idea that this world might be populated by nations hostile toward the vision of a peaceful future that these two project or, on a deeper level, that other nations might be ani mated by religious or other impulses to impose some other way of life upon us, does not surface in either volume. TI1e idea of conflict, or even competition in serious Ways, appears not to have trou bled these authors in either their foreign or their domestic observations.
The absence of conflict and competition in the books indicates that the authors predicate their expectations about the future on a very diminished conception of the people who will live in those societies. The Federalist, in contrast, is a treatise on the contributions that ambition, conflict, and contention can make to human progress. Different people in a free society will see opportunities for better ways of life in different channels. Given that ambition cannot be eliminated from human nature, it is permitted to express itself in various ways-though under limited controls — in the hope that the ambitions will serve the interests of the whole polity. Virtually every serious thinker, from Aristotle through Hobbes through Adam Smith to even as mild a man as George Gilder, has recognized that ambition-a desire to make tomorrow somehow better than today — is essential to any meaningful human progress. People grow only when they are challenged.
Richard Louv recognizes that some thing will be lost if future generations of Americans congregate in segmented enclaves, each one suspicious of the intentions of surrounding elements of the community. The idea of “one nation” cannot sustain itself for long unless there is some common core which is the focus of enculturation. For Louv, “America II” is our current “transitional period” between an older and fading industrial age and some vague future “road” where we find “destinations, which are not so much out there as they are within ourselves, [where] we could find our place and touch each other.” Such vapid communitarianism is simply oblivious to the fact that when some people touch others they use fists.
Caroline Bird, in contrast, is writing for the geriatric set. The people who inhabit her vision of the next century are cruising into comfortable retirements. Everyone works shorter hours, doing the things that they like to do, and life never inconveniences anyone. Mrs. Bird’s future is a world that is squeaky clean, an environmentalist’s dream, with no contact with the grubby problems that arise whenever someone attempts to implement such visions. Mrs. Bird can wax enthusiastic about the potential of a world in which we get our power from garbage without ever considering that somebody would have to confront the basic work of operating an incinerator. Mrs. Bird’s book is a rambling reflection of the world that she envisions: a world where everyone writes books despite having nothing to say. She fails to address the most significant questions that serious books about the future must ultimately encounter: Where will she find people of such limited character that they would want to live in such a diminished world? cc