A Philosopher's Blog

Democracy, Capitalism, Freedom and Sci-Fi

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2010
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While America is supposed to be a capitalist democracy and the two are supposed to go hand in hand, there is actually a long history of conflict between the two. One of the latest chapters involves Peter Thiel, perhaps best known for being the first outsider to invest in Facebook.

About a year ago Thiel said “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” As he seems to see it, the fact that the people do not seem to support his brand of unregulated capitalism entails that he should no longer support the people. He goes on to assert that “since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women-two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians-have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.”

Thiel’s solutions to the problem seem to be the stuff of science fiction. He is, in effect, trying to create a non-state community via technology. While this seems a bit far-fetched, he already has the currency system in place (PayPal) as well as a vast community that transcends nations (Facebook). He also has backed the Seasteading movement and pushed for expansion into space. As fans of science fiction will recognize, there are numerous stories that have anarchist societies evolving at (or under the) sea and in space. Of course, the mere fact that these ideas seem like science fiction is not a mark against them. After all, yesterday’s science fiction sometimes turns out to be tomorrow’s reality. Perhaps Thiel is actually laying the groundwork for a radical change in human civilization. After all, there are 500 million people on Facebook and it seems to have at least the potential to evolve into a new social system. Of course, Facebook mainly seems to be just a huge time sink (and money sink via the paid goods and services). But perhaps this is the future that Thiel envisions: a mass of people funneling money his way with minimal interference from the state.

On an even more sci-fi note, he has also generously funded the Methuselah Foundation. As the name suggests, this organization is dedicated to extending the human lifespan. This is, of course, a common theme in science fiction and nicely fits his philosophy.  After all, moving online, to the sea and into space enables people to put some spatial distance between themselves and the states. By living longer, a person can put temporal distance between himself and the states. Perhaps Thiel plans to outlive his foes, the states that are not pure in their capitalism. Of course, these states are not his only foe. Thiel is also rather critical of the education system.

While some folks are content to complain about the state of education, Thiel has taken action. However, he has decided not to improve the existing system. Instead, he is taking the same approach he has taken towards the states: it cannot be reformed but must be abandoned (at least by the “best” people). To this end he created the Thiel Fellowship that offers young (sub 20) potential capitalists $100,000 to leave college and instead pursue their business plans.

While some, such as Newsweek’s Jacob Weisberg, have been rather critical of this plan, it does have some positive aspects. While it might seem odd for a professor to say this, college is not a necessity for everyone and there can be cases in which a person would do greater good for herself and others by leaving the academy and getting (literally) down to business. There are, of course, numerous role models for this in American history: folks with no formal college education who go on to do great things.

Of course, Weisberg and others do raise some legitimate concerns. While it is tempting to dismiss many aspects of a liberal education as useless (or worse than useless), there is much to be said for learning about such matters as ethics, political science, history, art, and the sciences. There is also a lot to be said for completing the college experience. True, people can educate themselves and many people go through college and are but a little improved by the experience. But, it is reasonable to consider the consequences of Thiel’s Fellowship plans and how they would shape the recipients.

While Thiel’s “brave new world” might turn out to be nothing, it does seem worth watching the influence of things like Facebook, PayPal and his Fellowship on the social fabric. After all, the nature of civilization does change and powerful individuals can shape that change. My main concern is that Thiel’s value system seems to be focused on a very limited sort of freedom (mainly the freedom to make money). I am also concerned that he does not seem to see that freedom, paradoxically, requires limits on freedom. As Hobbes argued, complete freedom is, in effect, a complete lack of freedom.


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6 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on October 28, 2010 at 7:55 am

    From Robert Heinlein:

    Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

    This is known as “bad luck.”

  2. WTP said, on October 28, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    “the fact that the people do not seem to support his brand of unregulated capitalism entails that he should no longer support the people. ” Do “the people” support him? Perhaps “the people” should support themselves.

    “Thiel envisions: a mass of people funneling money his way with minimal interference from the state.” You say that like the “mass of people” are getting nothing in return. Money is not a one-way street. Is Theil not funneling products and services in their direction also? I have a FB account and have yet to pay a penny for it. You got a problem with that? Theil doesn’t. What is it with you philosophers and the word “money”? Money is just a temporary storage of wealth/production until it can be exchanged for other goods and services produced by others. Money is essentially worthless without the faith and expectation that it will hold its value until redeemed for other goods and services. Why is this so hard to understand?

    “Thiel is also rather critical of the education system.” And the price of tea in China is what? Because he is paying people to pursue their dreams instead of playing toll gate operator on some sort of devalued credentialing system, he’s a bad guy? But I see you cover yourself later…and I’m Emily Latella.

    “I am also concerned that he does not seem to see that freedom, paradoxically, requires limits on freedom. ” Yes, lest freedom become slavery or some such, I suppose. Freedom requires limits on limiting other people’s freedom, yes. I’m probably not as absolute about it as Theil but I’ll take error on his side rather than the alternative. See “bad luck” by T.J., above.

    “there is much to be said for learning about such matters as ethics, political science, history, art, and the sciences.” I’ve learned much more about these subjects outside of school than inside. Inside I “learned” what I was supposed to think about them, but much of that didn’t fit into the real world. Much I had to unlearn. Aside from math, physics, and chemistry, only about 30% of history. It’s a shame that the other so-called disciplines have become such a mess. I wish I had studied philosophy, but after being exposed to certain people who call themselves philosophers, I think my self-study has been far more beneficial. Bohr, Hiesenberg, Hayek, Freidman, Fermi and Feynman have taught me more about Socrates, Aristotle, Kant, et al than I could possibly have learned in philosophy class. And in a far more practical context.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 29, 2010 at 9:33 am

      The people do support him. Where do you think his money comes from? :)

      I didn’t claim that they are getting nothing in return. You can read that in if you would like, but it isn’t in my claim.

      I have no problem with money-it is a useful social construct and certainly beats swapping goats for turnips.

      He is critical of the education system. He seems to take the view that it is failing (which it is in some ways). However, his solution is to get certain people out of the system rather than try to improve education in general. But perhaps he thinks it is inherently flawed.

      I’m also pro-freedom. My view is based on Mill in that I regard the sole justification for impinging on liberty is to prevent individuals from harming others. People should be able to do as they will provided that it does not harm others nor cost the rest of us to clean up their mistakes. So, for example, I think people should be allowed to use pot (just don’t drive), get gay married, own guns, speak freely, run businesses, and so on. However, I’m also in agreement with Locke that certain core rights against others must be enforced: people should not kill, steal or impinge on the liberty of others except in legitimate defense of those core rights, etc. Yes, a full theory is needed and yes there will be complicated situations and situations in which rights and freedoms clash.

      The important thing is learning. Like you, I learned a great deal outside of the classroom. However, the classroom does have value. To use an analogy, the classroom can be seen as being like a repair shop. Sure, some people can fix their own stuff just fine, but there is a lot to be said for going to a place with the right tools and people who know what they are doing. Naturally, the same problems also apply to education as repair shops: sometimes you get ripped off. But, bad repair shops do not prove that repair shops are inherently bad-just that bad ones are bad. Likewise for education.

      You can study philosophy-just get the books and read them. :)

      • WTP said, on October 29, 2010 at 4:27 pm

        Yes, my mistake. You didn’t make any such claim. Just words.

        So if I read THIS statement, you’re not so much Hobbes? You’re Millian on liberty, just like Locke is. Ah, but then there’s Mill and his weasel claim to my property by saying I have no right to destroy it, opening the door to a whole new can of worms about what it means to own something. If Thiel “wastes” his $100K on “undeserving” people, would a Mill-man object?

        BTW, if I take a $100 bill out of my wallet and burn it, what have I done?

        I, too, like the freedom thing, but with some people it’s just another word.

  3. kernunos said, on October 30, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    “BTW, if I take a $100 bill out of my wallet and burn it, what have I done?” – You have just slightly increased the value of all the currency that is still un-burnt. :)

    • WTP said, on October 31, 2010 at 7:39 pm

      Winner. But what would Mill say?


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