Peter Thiel’s Radical Political Vision
The right-leaning tech billionaire offers a look into how Silicon Valley could transform the way we think about politics.
If Silicon Valley ever secures enough money to take over Washington, D.C., it’s unlikely that they’ll dismantle the government in a fit of bottled-up libertarian rage. “Most of Silicon Valley, most of the executives, tend to be Democrats; I think a lot of the engineers tend to be more libertarian,” PayPal billionaire and noted Republican donor Peter Thiel tells me during the tour for his new book, Zero to One.
In the last few years, high-profile libertarian Republicans have made frequent campaign pilgrimages to Silicon Valley in the hopes that closet Bay Area conservatives will help libertarians rise to power, in the same way they helped Obama’s rise back in 2008. Last month, likely GOP presidential hopeful Rand Paul went so far as to open an office in the Bay Area in order to court the Silicon Valley elite.
But tech money still skews left. Obama raised more money in Silicon Valley than he did from either Wall Street or Hollywood, and his campaign team enjoyed in-kind support from the top social media minds on the planet.
As one of Silicon Valley’s most influential right-wingers, Thiel is one of the few (and fascinating) data points about the Bay Area who could influence the future of the Republican Party. According to OpenSecrets, Thiel made over $5 million in political donations since 2004, and nearly all to groups that advocate for a smaller government.
First and foremost, Thiel thinks innovation is the key to mankind’s ills—and he isn’t happy with Washington’s apparent lack of interest in technological progress.
“I don’t think we can solve any of our problems without technological progress,” said Thiel. “That is, in my mind, the single most important issue. It’s one that’s not particularly high on the political agenda of any of our leaders in Washington, most of whom are fairly scientifically illiterate and an uninterested or hostile to technology.”
Technological advancement, Thiel believes, is the key to solving many of our most pressing concerns, and his most radical solutions seem to lie outside government. For instance, he’s funded both a floating island-city free of government regulation and a program that encourages entrepreneurial high schoolers go into the startup world instead of the Ivy League.
But calling him a “libertarian” may be a bit of misnomer. He seems brazenly ambivalent about the very concept of liberty—the “leave me alone” philosophy that has gripped the grassroots insurgence within the Republican Party.
“I’m not dogmatic about government having to have a small role, but it depends on how well the government works,” he says. “If you had a government as effective as the New Deal government or say the Kennedy administration in the ’60s, you could have a much larger role for government.”
Thiel is unfazed by typical liberal policies like minimum wage and coercive regulation, which trigger the 1984 alarm bells among the hyper anti-government wing of conservatives. When I asked him about how Silicon Valley could help solve some of the vicious inequality that technology has created, his normally nuanced answers became terse. He almost seemed bored.
“I would be supportive of higher minimum wage laws,” he says, but it he’s worried about welfare policies that discourage work and let skills “atrophy.” It’s not that Thiel doesn’t care about the poor, but that he seems to see redistribution as a kind of Band-Aid placed on an ax wound.
“I believe it’s generally an issue of stagnation. I believe if we have 4 percent a year of GDP growth, all these problems would get solved,” he argued confidently, in a much more lively tone.
Perhaps the best way to understand Thiel’s ethos (and, perhaps the tech elite’s) is that they care more about progress than they do about our current crises. Political skirmishes over inequality are to him the historical equivalent of fighting over how doctors should be distributing leeches to the poor.
Speaking about technology’s role in solving big issues like cancer and mental illness, he noted, “I always find it odd that people are as complacent as they are about things. One out of three people at age 85 has dementia and this is not even cause for general alarm.”
Much of Thiel’s startup-advice book makes the case that capitalism is a game of Monopoly. He advises young entrepreneurs that the entire goal of any good businessman is to completely own their market. Google, he claims, is a “good monopoly” because it keeps pumping out fresh ideas. But were it to sit idle, and prevent a new crop of entrepreneurs from innovating, it would be acceptable for the government to step in and break it up.
From this vantage point, government is not so much the harbinger of evil as an ineffective nuisance, only to be invoked when businesses lose their way in advancing society.
Indeed, to give you an idea of just how little faith Thiel has in the government, I asked him what he would do as president. For a man who invests in cures for aging, his answer was surprisingly unambitious.
“There’s always questions as to what you could do within the limits of the possible in our political system,” he mulls. “I think there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in our government and we need to ask how the government can do more with less.”
Instead, ever the optimist, Thiel wants us all to set our eye on the prize: “I think it would be good for us to realize that we live in an very imperfect world and to never give up the dream of perfecting it.”