High-Tech Hogwash

Article excerpt

Byline: Jacob Weisberg

What's wrong with Silicon Valley libertarianism?

If you've seen the Social Network, you may have caught a glimpse of Peter Thiel. He was the first outside investor in Facebook, putting up $500,000 to finance the site's original expansion in 2004. In the film's version of events, he connives with Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, to deprive Mark Zuckerberg's friend Eduardo Saverin of his 30 percent stake in the company. Aaron Sorkin's screenplay devastates the German-born venture capitalist in a line: "We're in the offices of a guy whose hero is Gordon Gekko."

While he clearly enjoys playing Richie Rich--profilers have commented on his McLaren supercar, his apartment in the San Francisco Four Seasons, his white--jacketed butler--Thiel fancies himself more than another self-indulgent tech billionaire. He has a vision, and has lately been spending some of the millions he has made on Facebook and PayPal--which he founded--trying to advance it.

Thiel's belief system is a mixture of unapologetic selfishness and economic Darwinism. In a personal statement produced last year for the Cato Institute, he announced: "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible." The public, he says, doesn't support unregulated, winner-take-all capitalism, and so he won't support the public any longer. "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," he writes. If you want to go around saying that giving women the vote wrecked the country and still be taken seriously, I suppose it helps to hand out $100 bills.

What differentiates Silicon Valley's style of libertarianism from Glenn Beck's raving-weeping variety is its laissez-faire attitude toward personal behavior and the lack of demagogic instinct. Thiel, who is openly gay, wants to flee the mob, not rally it through gold-hoarding or flag-waving. Having given up hope for the United States, he writes that he has decided to focus "my efforts on new technologies that may create a new space for freedom." Both Theil's entrepreneurship and his philanthropy are animated by techno-utopianism. With PayPal, he sought to create a global currency beyond the reach of taxation or central-bank policy. …