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…..


11 thoughts on “An insight into Libertarianism? George Packer’s Unwinding, Peter Thiel and techno-Libs”

  1. Fun thought ramble Sam. As a quasi-libertarian I would argue that humans are as subject to natural laws as are our machines. What looks chaotic in humans is actually predictable outcome if we drill down deep enough into our inner sub-routines.

    The devices of today are as the first two dried sticks some caveman idly rubbed together to catch spark a few milliseconds ago in geologic time. Machines will become as complex and more so than their makers and to a casual observer just as willful and capricious.

    Complex systems needn’t be maddening, I’d say understanding them is more of an enjoyable challenge.

  2. A friend at work calls it “Adult Onset Autism” for the typical white, male tech worker. I’m confident in most of them it is a learned/chosen behavior. While they share occasional superficial likeness to Autism spectrum behavior, it’s really slander of actual Autism spectrum people to relate the two.

    My anecdotal experience with people on the actual Autism spectrum is they have the normal population spread – maybe even a vague Left lean – on political spectrum. These white male IT/engineering types are a semi-solid wall of callous Right views.

  3. Frank

    I dont think you’re right here. Perhaps a Libertarian would say that people do/should behave in rational and predictable ways, and as a quasi-lib you’re saying they do behave in rational aways, but we dont see it and cant predict it because of our lack of understanding of the underlying factors.

    One problem with that view is a practical one. If I choose chocolate ice cream over vanilla, and the underlying causality is my brother took away my chocolate ice cream cone when I was three, it’s unlikely even I know that, and you never can. Or pick another example. The point is that there are many, many factors at play in people’s decision making and it’s impossible to know them all, so pragmatically, if we can’t ever understand the underlying rationality then does it matter if it exists? “There’s an answer but we’ll never know it” isn’t much help.

    However, I’m not even sure that’s right. There’s a lot of research that says many of our decisions are driven by emotion, which is part chemical and part multivariate and part related to how our brain stores, changes and accesses memories and thus inherently impossible to understand and predict with accuracy. (Dawkins argues the human brain is more complicated than the macro-universe.) To the extent we can present logical cases for some of our actions, the research says this is our mind coming up with a logic story after the decision is made, not logic making the decision. Or as one scientist at UVA says, “Conciousness is just the PR department for our behavior.”

    Now as an engineer and a Univ of Chicago efficient market/rational expectations guy, irrational behavior has been a very hard reality to get my head around. Where I’ve come out is that 90% of decisions/behavior are rational and that 90% of those are from transparent and discernible drivers. But there’s some percentage that are rational but not transparent, and some more that aren’t rational at all. So roughly 80% conform to the Lib view of the world, 10% fall into your bucket and 10% fall outside the Lib framework.

    I’d guess Sammy would disagree strongly with percentages, but I think a few obvious drivers (culture, economics, information assymetry) explain most behavior pretty well.

    But not all.

    By the way, this is new thinking for me.


    1. Your disagreement is welcomed O. Perhaps my understanding of libertarian philosophy is too simplistic. In a nutshell “Personal liberty is the grail, government is the necessary evil.” I call myself a quasi-libertarian because while agreeing in principle, like you, my pragmatic side recognizes the absolute necessity of watering it down. We can’t all be hogs on ice and not crash into each other. My only problem with authority is when its corruption outweighs its good

      As to the predictability of humans versus machines let me just say that everything under the sun and beyond complies with the same natural scientific laws that we’ve only begun to discover, define, and harness for our own purposes. If Dawkins thinks one snowflake is more complex than the snowstorm it came from, well, I think we know better.

      The point is, we’re babies barely dried from the womb and soon the lines between humans and their creations machines will begin to blur. Already humans queue up every day on medical assembly lines to be fitted with synthetic parts and I guarantee you organic machines are not a generation or two away.

      Things can go a million different ways for humans, and half or more involve extinction. But if we don’t kill ourselves or get wasted by some superbug or asteroid, the odds are significant that we will unwind the human brain and what today seems like chaos of action will in the not too distant future be easily mapped and defined down to which group of synapses actually picked that chocolate ice cream and why.

      1. maybe. there’s a guy, whom i forget but he’s one of the big internet/silicon valley pioneers who’s making an effort to catalog every single input and every single action he makes. he’s digitally saving every appointmnet, scratch pad, word, conversation, etc. somebody cerf, maybe?

        certainly theoretically, if you could capture all the inputs and know the mechnanics involved, you can predict the outputs, so by definition you’d be able to define a “rational” path to every decision. (with rational defined as deterministic)

        now, that’s still not easy because some of the mechanics are a little screwy, like what scientists call “the illusion of control” and “recency effects” that make people weight information very differently than statistics says we should. but again, just like a tape measure that’s a quarter inch short, as long as you know it’s a quarter inch short you can still use it. so if we know an individuals set of biases, presumably we could factor those in. we are indeed machines, albeit organic ones.

        now to sammy points. that still doesn’t mean it would be logical or reasonable. a serial killer who thinks in a world of 6 billion one life doesnt matter may be very rational but that doesn’t mean his thinking process is a reasonable one. even more importantly, again to sammy’s other point, it also means the “rational decision” may not be “right” because of differences in innate computational ability.

        i don’t know, but i do know we are so far away from understanding behavior that it means that the libertarian assumption of rationality is just not usable today. so while you may be right that the day will come, it aint close to being here yet.

        now your soft form version of libertarianism, an inherent distrust of government, is very american and you don’t need to be a strong form lib like those sammy describes to buy into that. I think we all, those on the right and those on the left, are scared shitless of the government.

        (and by the way, i also found dawkins statement a little bold, but i think he was trying to say it’s real, real complicated mathematically. the factoral of 100 billion (the number of neurons in a human brain) is……………..well, it’s a big number, i know that. :))

      2. Sometimes I find myself thinking about how big “infinite” really is. When you take quantum mechanics seriously – as in, what we perceive as as objective reality is really nothing more than a probability curve, and each possible branch in what could happen at a given moment opens up a new universe – it takes about ten seconds before you realize that a single human path attains something like infinity in a single day.

        So I’m sitting here sifting this last comment through THAT filter, and in doing so I’m giggling at the idea that ANYTHING is predictable.

        Life is an equation. And it’s all variables. Time for a beer.

    2. Sammy isn’t sure about those percentages, and hell if I know how we’d measure them. But in principle those are probably the right buckets. Maybe the argument ultimately boils down to the tolerances we assign to the word “rational.” The whole system hinges on said rational actor being informed, and the good folks who brought us this way of thinking assumed that anyone, free to do so, would act to inform themselves as much as possible about the world. This was probably understandable, given the context of the time – it made some good faith judgments about how people who didn’t currently have the freedom to do much more than bust their asses trying to survive would behave given a shot at self-determination – a good bit of noble savage in this view of human nature, and even if I think you’re wrong I can hardly think you a bad person for it.

      Of course, we now know, really without argument, that said savages are slothful to the core, and that assumptions like “rational action” and “class warfare,” to reference another ideology that works a lot better on paper than it does in the wild, are a lot less useful than something like “pursuit of leisure.”

      I’m willing to allow that one can be rational, within certain parameters, without being a genius. And the outcome of rational decisionmaking probably varies directly according to IQ. Interesting idea that – to what degree does rationality depend on intelligence? Can a dolt make a bad decision that is nonetheless rational from a certain perspective?

      Probably. Which is why when it comes to politics, for me most things boil down to education.

      1. I agree, if there were to be proof of the utter irrationality of the human race, the mindless idolatry of sports and sports figures would prima facie. It’s all so “bread and circuses” when we have so many more important things to worry about.

        Yet many of us, intelligent thoughtful humans, go simply apeshit over child’s play. Oh, but wait, it makes perfect sense to those engaged in the behavior doesn’t it? A way to strengthen the mind and body, build character, teach dedication and responsibility, loyalty, team spirit, ad infinitum.

        No, on second thought, sports are a logical derivation, as is all human activity once followed to its roots. The fact that we think each other crazy because we don’t understand one another’s motivations is in no way proof that we are crazy…even though we may of course all be crazy (G).

  4. Those readers who might not buy your caveats about the assumptions of rationality ought to read Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire by Alex Abella and The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.

    These books underscore this sentence in your fourth graf: “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.” Now, imagine this on a global stage since World War II. Think Milton Friedman, the Chicago School, and Donald Rumsfeld and like-minded minions. They all played on the global stage, and what a fucking mess was left behind.

  5. libertarians (i consider myself one)have the tendency to read books,articles,,watch you tubes that support our own beliefs,(search for information bias) we dismiss people as ill informed, ill willed, even evil if they challenge our reasoning.overstate the benefits of libertarianism.disregard evidence for government intervention.,i know thats what i did and probably still do.(its hard to change positions when the most evidence tho i gained it pretty poorly only supports my beliefs)

    but after saying all that i think liberals in fact all people have the tendency to do the same thing,its so easy to see the bias in other groups , but when one realises history is littered with dead men fighting fighting for lies they told themselves .maybe the biases we most need to expose are our own. .

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