In response to: The Frivolous Valley and Its Dreadful Conformity
Beyond the snarky attacks on me personally and insinuations of my “racism”—cut-and-paste obligatory for the “Right” these days—the responses by James Pethokoukis and (especially) John Tamny to my Liberty Forum essay on Silicon Valley are the usual sorts of press releases that are written to butter up the industry and its leaders in hopes of . . . what?
Here I am at a loss. Some years ago I described what I called the “San Francisco Compromise,” in which the real rulers of California—tech CEOs and venture capitalists—buy off the state’s army of leftist agitators on the cheap, thereby conferring on themselves a patina of moral legitimacy and giving the mob a reason not to eat them.
But what does the Right get out of sucking up so slavishly to high tech? Leaving aside here the question of whether doctrinaire libertarians such as Pethokoukis and Tamny are really “conservative” in any meaningful sense (my answer is “no”), they certainly would appear so from the techies’ perspective.
The tech industry figured out a long time ago that the Right in any form is irrelevant to their lives and businesses—powerless to impede them, utterly useless and unnecessary as allies. With the exceptions of Peter Thiel—whom I assume Pethokoukis and Tamny must disdain because he too is pro-Trump and concerned about the “baleful effects” of high-tech—and perhaps T.J. Rogers, who is now 70 years old, no one in the Valley pays any attention to the Right at all. Except, that is, to restrict their speech through search manipulation, shadow banning, and de-platforming.
I wish I had the space (and time) for a point-by-point refutation but the editors instruct me I don’t. Hence, I will restrict myself to the two or three points of substance that the authors seem to find most devastating. Before I do, let me thank James Poulos for his fine comments, with which I substantially agree.
Apart from one subhead, readers were thankfully spared the by now leaden buzz phrases “creative destruction,” “disruptive innovation,” and the like. But both critiques are infused with the spirit of such sentiment. The unexamined presuppositions underneath are: that “progress” is not merely inevitable but desirable; that technological and economic progress are coeval with intellectual and moral progress; that innovation is per se good; and that wealth-concentration and monopoly power are trifles with which no one should concern himself.
No surprise, then, that I am accused of having “a fundamental problem with capitalism itself.” Guilty, if by that is meant the reservations about mammon-worship first voiced by Plato and Aristotle and reinforced by the godfather of capitalism, Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (the book that Smith himself indicates is the indispensable foundation for his praise of capitalism in the Wealth of Nations). Wealth is equipment, a means to higher ends. In the middle of the last century, the Right rightly focused on unjust impediments to the creation and acquisition of wealth. But conservatism, lacking a deeper understanding of the virtues and of human nature—of what wealth is for—eventually ossified into a defense of wealth as an end in itself. Many, including apparently Pethokoukis and Tamny, remain stuck in that rut to this day and mistake it for conservatism.
Both critics were especially appalled by my daring to criticize modern tech’s latest innovations. Who am I to judge what people want to sell or buy? From a libertarian standpoint, of course, no one may pass judgment. Under this view, commerce has no moral content. Selling time-sucking frivolity, as I called it in my essay, is no better or worse than selling grain, or wood, or cloth, or heroin, or organs, or even (as the most “consistent” libertarians will insist) children. In other words, not only are products that diminish and degrade as legitimate to develop and sell as those that sustain and enrich; to suggest that politics nudge markets to make them favor the latter and discourage the former is illegitimate. In this view, commerce paradoxically transcends morality while somehow also being inherently moral. To homo economicus any choice that does not inflict direct harm is ipso facto not subject to moral scrutiny, yet morality is defined as the efficient, non-coercive, undistorted operation of the market.
Naturally, then, Pethokoukis and Tamny scoff at my claim that Silicon Valley has not produced anything truly good or useful in a long time, but has instead turned to creating and selling things that are actively harmful to society and the soul. Not that they deny the claim, exactly. They simply rule it irrelevant. Capitalism has nothing to do with the soul (assuming the latter even exists). To which I again say: When you elevate a means into an end, that end—in not being the thing it ought to be—corrupts its intended beneficiaries.
From 140 to 280, Big Whoop
That the Valley may once again do something useful or good is of course still possible. Pethokoukis cites the possibility of “autonomous vehicles, with the potential to bring trillions of dollars of savings and prevent millions of unnecessary deaths.” Even I would have to admit that they would, almost certainly, save a lot of money and lives—not to mention make getting around faster. But there would be costs—to society and to the soul. To mention but one: further atomization and erosion of community.
One can almost hear Pethokoukis (and Tamny) laughing at this assertion. Yet every technical innovation carries such costs. Things all three of us take for granted—cars, airplanes, computers—are not unalloyed goods. But at least there is good in them. What real good has Silicon Valley done lately? In Thiel’s immortal words, “We wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters.” But hey—now it’s 280! What good will yet another photo-sharing app do for the happiness or wellbeing of the United States or mankind?
Pethokoukis then cites “artificial intelligence” without so much as a second thought about the possible downsides. One does not need to be an “economic nostalgist” to see potential problems. Notice how the Chinese government is using AI and IT to further cement its tyranny. Looking ahead is even scarier. Don’t take it from me. Cambridge University’s David Runciman—a man of impeccable Davoisie credentials who goes out of his way to give the techies the benefit of every doubt—nonetheless worries that, if the tech industry ever gets around to inventing something other than a photo-sharing app, it might inadvertently do something very bad to humanity. We might at some future date long for a time when the worst thing that could be said about Silicon Valley is that it promoted time-sucking frivolity.
But we can’t even say that now. Pethokoukis and Tamny trip over something worse, only to deny it’s a problem. Tamny in particular assures us that “dynamism” and more “innovation” will (one day) end the monopoly power of Silicon Valley’s holy trinity of Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Companies in the Valley go under all the time, he points out.
Though that seems to have been written in earnest, one wonders how it could be said with a straight face. It would be like saying, circa 1900, “Not to worry about concentration in the oil sector; oil companies go bust all the time.” Well, one didn’t! In fact it got rich, big, and strong in part by gobbling up—and/or destroying—all the others. This is in part what big tech is doing to information flows today. Libertarians naturally don’t care about that because for them the highest—the only—arbiter is “the market.” If the market says that a handful of people in Silicon Valley shalt have near-absolute power over discourse in the United States, then God has spoken, and who is this Anton to question God?
Theirs Is the Side that Gets Censored
To return to an earlier point, it seems not to have occurred to either Pethokoukis or Tamny that the information oligarchs are not on their side; that they use their monopoly power to suppress even glancingly “conservative” speech while excusing monstrosities from the Left. Including this, from a few days ago—from an elite professor, no less:
Look at thus chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement. All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.
(After conservatives raised a stink, the good professor was suspended by her university, but she was not so much as tsk-tsked by Twitter.)
The issue is not whether this vileness should be allowed—it is the blatant double standard. In our foolishness, we have permitted a tiny number of private hands to control discourse in this country. The fundamental purpose of free speech in a free republic is not to threaten genocide or tweet cat memes. It is to deliberate—and disagree—about fundamentally public questions. Our tech overlords are deliberately restricting speech in ways that harm the side that Pethokoukis and Tamny claim to be on. Not that this alone should be the test. The fact of monopoly power should itself be alarming, but if recognition of that fact is too much to ask of libertarians, they at least ought to be able to recognize threats to themselves.
But they can’t. Or won’t. The reason, I suspect, is because they agree (certainly Tamny does) with the central premise of our tech overlords: The techies really are superior human beings, deserve what they have, and ought to rule. It’s clear at the very least that Tamny believes the techies are superior to me! Yet I would at the very least ensure that his and Pethokoukis’ fundamental natural rights were secured, including their right to blather nonsense. Maybe the techies have not yet snuffed out that right, but they have the power to do it. There is no one who could stop them from doing it if they chose to—which makes the right, in practice, a privilege.
At any rate, I can assure Tamny that the techies do not reciprocate his high regard. They look at him—at Pethokoukis, at me, and at many hundreds of millions of other people—as, more or less, gnats. To the extent that we’re useful, it is in buying their products. To them, all humanity is divided into three categories: peers, serfs, and everyone else. Those who cannot code fall into the last category.
The great irony here is that these two avengers of the free market are putting their rhetorical skills in the service of people who are anything but. The techie vision of the world has been aptly termed “oligarchical socialism.” The basic idea, according to the techies themselves, is that most of us are dumb losers who can’t hack it in the coming super-complex economy anywhere above the bottom rung (of drivers, delivery guys and gals, maids, janitors, security guards, and handymen). Government will have to be expanded massively to provide for us because the new economy won’t be able to.
Also, the big winners in the new economy want as few full-time employees as possible since they don’t want to pay for benefits. So, let the government take care of all that. Everyone else will scrape by in the “gig economy” and hope the government makes up the rest. As for the taxes required to fund all this, the techies insouciantly take for granted that they can afford to pay them. They don’t really care whether the rest of us can. The flight of middle-class Californians from the state is to them a feature, not a bug. The middle classes are pesky, uppity, and entitled. And not really that smart or talented. If they were, they’d be making apps, too.
If you don’t believe this is their attitude, here’s a suggestion: Ask them. They might not express it quite this way, but their language will be close enough to shock. That is, to those who either don’t already know or aren’t hopelessly awestruck.
However one views that attitude, one thing is clear: It has little to do with building an economy that serves us. It in fact presupposes that a society serves an economy, which in turn serves a very few. We’ve been here before; one might say it has been the default setting of humanity. But an older, better idea of progress—the one held by, for instance, the American Founders—had hoped to change that setting. The techies want to reconstitute the ancien regime on silicon rather than soil. Cheerleaders like Tamny and Pethokoukis, whether they realize it or not, are helping.
An Economy with a Country, or a Country with an Economy?
As one libertarian put it—with admirable, if frightful clarity—“We’re an economy with a country, not a country with an economy.” Most Americans—thank God—don’t see it that way. They understand that politics supersedes economics, and for a reason. Politics properly understood must be concerned with the comprehensive good, which means with the highest good. There are limits to what politics can do, both practically and—yes—morally in interfering with the market. But indifference is not an option for a civilization that wants to survive.
The modern tech information monopoly is a threat to self-government in at least three ways. First its aforementioned consolidation of monopoly power, which the techies are using to guarantee the outcome they want and to suppress dissent. It’s working. How much does anyone wanna bet that either Tamny or Pethokoukis or both will come back with “Well, this is all inevitable anyway.” Whose interests does that argument serve? Which is perhaps one reason they push it so incessantly that people now reflexively repeat it, even people who really ought to know better.
Second, and related, is the way that social media digitizes pitchforked mobs. Aristocrats used to have to fear the masses; now they enable, weaponize, and deploy them. Imagine if the Marquis St. Evrémonde could have utilized, rather than having to flee, the Paris mob. The grandees of Professorville and Sand Hill Road and Outer Broadway can and routinely do use social justice warriors to their advantage. Come to that, hundreds of thousands of whom, like modern Red Guards, don’t have to be mobilized or even paid. They seek to stifle dissent and destroy lives and careers for the sheer joy of it.
Third and most important, tech-as-time-sucking-frivolity is infantilizing and enstupefying society—corroding the reason-based public discourse without which no republic can exist. Libertarians cannot see that, not because I am wrong and tech is actually good, but because libertarianism and degraded “conservatism” have no philosophic or moral framework for judging good from bad or right from wrong. To them, these categories do not exist except at the very lowest level. Little else but outright theft and the (non-consensual) infliction of bodily harm are condemnable.
But all the dynamism and innovation Tamny and Pethokoukis praise only emerge from a bedrock of republican virtue. This is the core truth that libertarians seem unable to appreciate. Silicon Valley is undermining that virtue—with its products, with its tightening grip on power, and with its attempt to reengineer society, the economy, and human life. When and if that virtue is finally gone, it will be an open question whether anything like the high-tech nirvana that Pethokoukis and Tamny so profess to admire can be sustained. If not, well . . .
If it can, it won’t be in a political environment that is republican, much less conservative or libertarian. And we know who will be in charge. At that point, Pethokoukis and Tamny better hope that someone in the Valley has read their mash notes and found them sufficiently worshipful to grant the authors some minor place in the new order.
Michael Anton has a fundamental problem with capitalism itself, and how it is practiced in 21st century America.
Michael Anton is right that our politics and culture will eventually “begin to draw blood” from the gods of entertainment in Silicon Valley.
It’s creative destruction that rules in Silicon Valley, not tech arrogance—and that’s a good thing.