The problems of libertarian futurism.

The November 28 issue of the New Yorker had a great George Packer piece on the PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel: “Peter Thiel’s Rise to Wealth and Libertarian Futurism” (subscription required). I had previously known of Thiel primarily as the guy who was offering money to college-aged kids to not go to college – his Thiel Fellowship offers $100,000 to young folks (under 20) for a two-year period, during which time the Fellows “focus on their work, their research, and their self-education.”

In the article, Thiel does not come across as rabidly anti-education as his public image suggests. To me, Thiel and his friends as depicted in Packer’s article do not seem to have a very coherent or persuasive case against higher education as an institution – there are vague intimations that universities make you conformist, but I find that pretty unpersuasive (and why stop at universities? Why not high school, middle school, elementary school, or kindergarten?) At a dinner party described in the article, one of Thiel’s friends says he was failed by an English teacher who said he couldn’t write – but this sounds like the problem of one bad apple in the education system, a flaw that the business world certainly isn’t immune to. (Interestingly, another anti-education friend at this dinner party is AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky, author of an elaborate Harry Potter fanfic called “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.”)

The Thiel Fellowship website reflects a more nuanced view, to a certain extent: the site’s page on “the education bubble” focuses on the unethical burdening of young people with untenable student loan debt. I think that’s a very legitimate public policy concern, but of course, it does not follow that everyone should skip college and launch high-tech startups.

In general, this is the story of each libertarian position taken by Thiel, and the problem with libertarianism in general: you start with a extreme position of “free choice,” but are forced to walk it back with caveats and conditions once you learn more about the complexities of the problem. Packer’s article illustrates this a few times, once concerning one of my favorite hobby-horses – the myth of political correctness run rampant on college campuses. In 1995, Thiel, who is gay, co-authored The Diversity Myth, which in part discussed the case of a Stanford law student named Keith Rabois who shouted “Faggot! Faggot! Hope you die of AIDS!” outside an instructor’s on-campus residence – a provocation which earned Rabois’ ejection from Stanford. According to Packer, Thiel (along with his co-author David Sacks) characterized the Rabois case in The Diversity Myth as one “of individual courage in the face of a witch hunt,” and which challenged “fundamental taboos.” Now, apparently, Thiel regrets writing about the incident, telling Packer:

All of the identity-related things are in my mind much more nuanced. I think there is a gay experience, I think there is a black experience, I think there is a woman’s experience that is meaningfully different.

It’s nice to see an example of an ideological libertarian observing and learning something about the reality of the world we inhabit. However, it’s less inspiring to see Thiel shy away from issues, like energy policy or climate change, with live political implications – it seems like he just thinks political problems are too hard. To say, as he does, that “it would be good if we had a less political world,” is like saying “it would be good if we had a less money-driven world” – it’s an impossible utopia. But the failure to recognize that we live in an observably more money-driven world than a politics-driven world shows a shocking disconnect from reality which is, in my view, the fundamental problem of libertarianism.

I can agree with Thiel on futurism, or technological optimism, anyway. Packer notes the Founders Fund manifesto, “What Happened to the Future?” the tagline of which seems to be: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Even through (or maybe even because of) the dot-com boom(s), society’s technological imagination has been meager, seeming to top out at micro-blogging and FarmVille. (Although I’d quibble with the line, “Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise, we got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo,” since we are clearly seeing the beginnings of a robust market in TNG-era flat screen tablets.) Thiel is adept with his science fiction commentaries:

The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’

(Is that a real story? Or shall I write it?) Note also, of course, that in the Star Trek universe, the Federation has progressed past currency, making “entrepreneurship” obsolete.

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