The Failure of Political Logic

Peter Thiel’s Rise to Wealth and Libertarian Futurism : The New Yorker

The closer science gets to politics, the more vague and less convincing Thiel’s thinking becomes.

Despite, or perhaps because of, all this activism, Thiel has recently begun to express a strong antipathy toward politics. He doubts that it can solve fundamental problems, and he doesn’t think that libertarians can win elections, because most Americans would not vote for unfettered capitalism. “At its best, politics is pretty bad, and at its worst it’s really ugly,” he said. “So I think it would be good if we had a less political world. I think it was Disraeli who said that all merely political careers end in failure.” (Actually, it was the Conservative British politician Enoch Powell, who said, even more depressingly, “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure.”)

I’m sorry for being so obtuse that I never realized before that I was channeling Peter Thiel. It is enlightening that the author of this article places this after the point where Thiel expresses doubt about the value of politicized (that is, completely useless) science such as evolution and climate change; notes disapprovingly that Thiel doubts that politics can solve fundamental problems; and then describes the reality of political failure as depressing. The cult of the progressive idolizes politics.

The next great technology revolution might be around the corner, but it won’t automatically improve most people’s lives. That will depend on politics, which is indeed ugly, but also inescapable.

It is inescapable as a part of the human condition, as is defecation. That is no reason to worship it, though.

At the end of the article, the author makes a final swipe by equating libertarianism with infantile idealism:

The libertarian worship of individual freedom, and contempt for social convention, comes easiest to people who have never really had to grow up. An appetite for disruption and risk—two of Thiel’s favorite words—reflects, in part, a sense of immunity to the normal heartbreak and defeats that a deadening job, money trouble, and unhappy children deal out to the “unthinking herd.”

That may be true, but it is curiously ironic to make this claim, considering the universal inadequacy of progressive idealism, as well as Thiel’s critique of narrow optimism that was presented earlier in the article:

Thiel—who grew up middle class, earned degrees from Stanford and Stanford Law School, worked at a white-shoe New York law firm and a premier Wall Street investment bank, employs two assistants and a chef, and is currently reading obscure essays by the philosopher Leo Strauss—holds élites in contempt. “This is always a problem with élites, they’re always skewed in an optimistic direction,” he said. “It may be true to an even greater extent at present. If you were born in 1950, and you were in the top-tenth percentile economically, everything got better for twenty years automatically. Then, after the late sixties, you went to a good grad school, and you got a good job on Wall Street in the late seventies, and then you hit the boom. Your story has been one of incredible, unrelenting progress for sixty-one years. Most people who are sixty-one years old in the U.S.? Not their story at all.”

Basically, the author of this article just cannot understand how Thiel can be so contradictory and contrary to stereotype. He thinks this is a kind of pathology, like compulsive lying; and my experience is that most people likewise consider me pathologically contradictory and contrarian. I would say that they are pathologically logical, believing irrationally that because a certain thing is true then they “must” accept another coincidental thing to be true; and that moreover, anyone who doesn’t is deceptive or insane.


Notes Essays—Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup—Stanford, Spring 2012


6 thoughts on “The Failure of Political Logic

  1. Yes, the article does get “judgmental” near the end (good word to throw back at these socially-aware types!). Yes, unwarrantedly so. But it is only air criticising air, in my opinion. Thiel seems to have got lucky twice, once with PayPal, then with starting a fund in the aftermath of the dot-com collapse, in 2002, when any fool could make money from any fool investment – even I did, for a while. Soon to be one with the investment geniuses of the 1920s, I’d hazard (Thiel I mean, not me).

    In my limited knowledge (I used to work in radar), life-changing technology, for the last hundred years or so, has stemmed in the main from solid engineering developments – like the microprocessors of the 1970s, visionary as their creators were. The area I’d highlight, and I’m backing it to a degree with my modest remaining capital, is “biosimilars” – genetic engineering products (proteins as well as DNA), which are becoming “generic” as the IPR comes off patent. Absolutely no investment advice intended!

    As for politics – it best to ignore it, I find, as most people do. I mean, when is the last time a politician said something and you thought “yes, he is right, that is exactly what we need”? I can’t remember any instance of this at all – perhaps vaguely with Mrs Thatcher in the very early 1980s, though I couldn’t tell you what it was I agreed with. Anyway I was younger then.

    Oh and Nigel Lawson (forgotten UK chancellor i.e. treasury secretary) who introduced a half-decent investment tax shelter later that decade. Since then – nothing, it’s a blank.

    This doesn’t mean I don’t vote. To put the matter simply, honest politics is about identifiable material interests, which are usually pretty easy to understand. The Conservatives, by default, most closely represent my own interests, which centre on lower taxation and enjoyment of property generally, so I vote for them. However, I don’t know how or if this translates into US terms.

  2. Thiel is definitely a risk-taker, as indicated by his big losses in 2009. I don’t have any opinion on investment strategies.

    I would suggest that social and scientific advances in the past 200 years have relied almost exclusively on incremental technological advances, whose impact has been amplified by market forces at key points. These market forces have used new communications technologies to increase demand (and thus capital flow) exponentially, enabling certain technologies to pass over a threshold and present as “breakthroughs.” Science itself is primarily valuable as a conduit for technological experimentation, recording, and dissemination.

    As far as potentially explosive technologies, I am mostly familiar with computer technology, and it seems now that most of the retail market potential is in making the desktop computer interface obsolete. The “computer” will probably be gone from most homes in ten years, replaced by a dozen invisible computers performing specialized functions for entertainment and communication.

    Generally, the British Conservatives would agree with the US Republicans on economic matters. On social and environmental matters they would probably differ on several points. Also, traditional Toryism in support of a strong central government is directly opposed to the traditional grass-roots Republican hatred of the central (federal) government; but that hatred is frankly a rhetorical position rather than a practical one. In the last ten years, Republican politicians have consistently pushed for a stronger federal executive, even while they whine about Obama being power-hungry.

    Supposedly, Republican voters are becoming radicalized by the “Tea Party” movement, and moving further away from supporting a strong federal government; but in fact they are simply shifting their emphasis. A true anti-federalism is rare among people who care about national issues (and only people who care about national issues vote in national elections).

    That is why I lampoon the Tea Party as “Galtistas”–they are not serious in their threats to withdraw their “productivity” from society, since they themselves are desperately sucking at the teat. This is a paradox that many of the middle class cannot grasp: their wealth is not directly proportional to their effort, but rather geometrically proportional, according to their ability to manipulate certain multiplier effects built into society.

  3. Thank you for the news, since I haven’t frequented the forum much. It is very sad. I had a nice, though brief, correspondence with him, and I enjoyed his writing very much.

  4. Yes, dreadful. I too had correspondence with John, going back to just after 911. I’ll never forget his courtesy in replying to me on some inane topic when, as he put it, the smoke was still drifting across to the Jersey shore. Anyway, I thought you might want to know.

  5. I just received a message that John Reilly passed away yesterday Wednesday. He was 58. From what I gather it was a merciful end.

Instigate some pointless rambling

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