Dynamist Blog


Jim Pinkerton Fisks Kassite Yuval Levin's latest TechCentral Station attack on biotech progress. (I eagerly await The New Atlantis's equally open-minded publication of pro-biotech articles.) Let me add a few thoughts to Jim's must-read critique.

Levin and his allies have lately aimed their barbs at never-named "utopian libertarians" who don't cotton to Kassian ideas of regulating science to maintain classical notions of "natural norms." They are attacking straw men; indeed, the only libertarian biotech proponent Levin quotes is Ron Bailey, and then only to admit that Ron's no utopian. They use "utopian" the way some people use "nihilist"--inaccurately, and as a way to link their opponents to the 20th century's totalitarian butchers.

If anything, the Kassites are the utopians, aiming at a perfected version of humanity. They are the ones who believe we know exactly what human beings should be. And they are so determined to maintain humanity in a teleologically defined steady state that they apparently cannot grasp that biotech proponents imagine incremental progress, driven by the individual (and familial) pursuit of well-being.

That process is both modest, since it does not aim at an ideal, and dizzying, since it does not ever arrive at a final destination. Love it or hate it, the one thing such open-ended, incremental progress is not is utopian. It imagines no end point, no idea of perfection. It depends entirely on diverse individual pursuits of happiness.

Why do such smart people make such a dumb mistake? In Levin's case, at least, his training appears to be the problem. His intellectual history is marred by the typical Straussian omission of the pragmatic, skeptical, incremental, profoundly anti-utopian liberalism running from the Scottish Enlightenment through today's Hayekian libertarians--the omission, in other words, of the very intellectual tradition with which he is actually arguing.

If you want to uphold the idea that the world has been going downhill since Machiavelli, and that modernity has added nothing important to the wisdom of the ancients, it helps to leave out the tradition that created Anglo-American freedom, prosperity, and longevity.

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