An insight into Libertarianism? George Packer’s Unwinding, Peter Thiel and techno-Libs
In their fascination with technology, are Libertarians really just seeking certainty?
I just finished reading George Packer’s remarkable, if not especially uplifting, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. One of the people he considers in his biography of the modern US is billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel.
Thiel is, among other things, a diehard Libertarian. Packer is … not. But the author doesn’t let his decidedly progressive perspective get in the way of telling Thiel’s story and representing the man’s perspective.
Toward the end, in a discussion of Thiel’s belief in the power of technology to free us from the innately limiting drag of politics, something occurred to me. In a nutshell, I think Thiel’s take on tech might reveal something critical to our understanding of the Libertarian psyche.
Begin with an observation and a caveat: first, Libs usually tend toward an extreme degree of philosophical purity. That’s the observation. Now the caveat: no, they aren’t the only ones. Adherents of most political, theological and economic -isms frequently fail to grasp that theoretical models, no matter how sensible, logical, etc., simply don’t map onto reality. All are built on a set of assumptions that, in one way or another, fail to account for how individuals and collectives actually behave in the wild.
It’s perhaps true, though, that “pragmatic Libertarians” are harder to find than pragmatic Christians or pragmatic Democrats or whatever. My S&R colleague Gavin Chait is a rare example of the Lib who understands a bit about how the world actually works, but he’s South African. I cannot think of a single American Libertarian – and I have known a few – who isn’t utterly captive to an ideological frame that’s at odds with the empirical workings of our society and economy. So maybe this is really an American thing.
The result is often a profound dysfunction on the part of these folks, many of whom are certainly intelligent. Perhaps it manifests as frustration – as in, why isn’t this obvious to everyone or if only government would get out of the way. Other times the issue is denial – they will describe a situation in a way that is patently at odds with how it actually is, or maybe they’ll explain that people, under certain circumstances, will do X when time and time again those very people do anything except X.
Where Thiel comes into play is with Libertarians and their fetishization of technology. Not all Libs are technophiles and not all technophiles are Libs, but anyone who has worked anywhere near corporate America can’t help but have noticed the phenomenon of the Techno-Libertarian. IT departments in businesses across the country are positively infested with this way of thinking, and I, for one, have always wondered … why? What about tech attracts Libertarians? Or maybe it’s what about tech converts non-Libs into Libs? Or perhaps it’s why are Libs so fucking infatuated with tech?
In any case, I wonder if it comes down to a need for certainty and predictability. Libertarian ideology is premised on the idea of the rational actor – given a set of conditions, the individual will act in a way that maximizes his/her self-interest. This usually translates as material self-interest.
On paper, this makes perfect sense. But the games aren’t played on paper, and in real life people – by the millions, every day – behave in ways that are patently irrational. The reasons go on and on. Maybe the individual is uneducated and doesn’t understand what his/her best interest is. Curiously, sometimes they’re overrun by emotional concerns (like Jesus) that lead them astray. Maybe they’re crazy. Maybe there are external dynamics in the system that corrupt their ability to fathom the correct course of action or that mitigate against the benefits of a pure market.
In short, though, people are messy. They don’t always behave the way they’re supposed to. They’re hard to predict, and even the truest bluest believers see this, even if they think it’s the result of factors beyond the system working to corrupt it.
Technology, though – technology obeys laws. If it’s hardware, there is no irrationality in Physics and Chemistry and Engineering. If it’s software, and it isn’t working, it’s because there’s a bug in the code and that bug can be found and fixed. Perhaps the challenge is really advanced – in this case, it’s simply that we aren’t there yet. But we can and we will get there – so long as government doesn’t intrude.
The chaos of humans and human systems must be maddening for those who believe in the primacy of rational action. And for such a person, adrift in a veritable sea of entropy, systems that adhere to logic and process must be mightily appealing.
As I type those last couple of paragraphs I realize that I’m dangerously close to characterizing Libertarianism as a higher functioning mode of Autistic spectrum disorder. That isn’t at all what I set out to argue, and it isn’t what I intend to argue here. But I’m free associating, to some degree, and it does strike me that there is perhaps a way of viewing this particular politico-economic perspective as a manifestation lying along that continuum.
By now it’s probably clear that I’m not making a definitive pronouncement. Call it a rambling think piece, if you like, and understand that I’m often more interested in starting conversations than I am in winding them up.
Also, understand that no disrespect is intended. I have Libertarian friends and regard Gavin as one of the smartest folks I know. All of us at S&R take him questions that we’re considering because we value the intellectual depth and good faith of his judgment, even when we’re sure he will disagree with us. I also have friends who rate at various points along the high-functioning end of the Autism spectrum (Asperger’s, in other words) and would never regard comparison to them as an insult.
Just throwing it out there, I guess. Interested to see if anyone has any thoughts…..