Democracy, Capitalism, Freedom and Sci-Fi
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.
- Hyper-libertarian Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel’s appalling plan to pay students to quit college. (slate.com)
- Peter Thiel: Libertarianism Taken To Its Logical Extreme (themoderatevoice.com)
- The ‘Nasty, Narcissistic’ Perils of a Facebook Style Education [The Rich] (gawker.com)
- Turn on, Start Up, Drop Out (slate.com)