Keeping in mind the belief that the pieces that we most disagree with inspire the best responses, we must react to a recent The Nation article entitled “No, Millennials Are Not All Libertarians“. That article, inverting the mantra that capital-G Government is the best way to solve Intractable Problem X actually turns the genre on its head – arguing that government has dropped the ball on many occasions in the lives of young Millennials, so, therefore, we must throw more money at it at the expense of the private sector.
Word Choice and a Couple Strange Lists
Once you get past the fact that the phrases “Technology Lover” and “Libertarian” have been combined into a portmanteau which is supposed to be negative: Techno-Libertarian, you’ll quickly realize just how poorly the entire argument comes across. Only if you’ve spent years inside a Governmental bubble – perhaps working and going to school around Washington, DC without private sector experience – could you begin to believe that the true dynamism from the emerging power that is the Millennial generation will come from inside the halls of government power.
And, yes, (Spoiler Alert) this piece ticks every box attempting to blame technology for the recent failures of governments, both foreign and domestic:
- Engineers riding buses cause transit strikes and CEOs not directly involved in the strikes and with no chance to influence them sometimes have opinions about those strikes that some people disagree with
- Silicon Valley crowd-funding crowds out government social programs and doesn’t deliver enough help
- Technologists skilled on social networks are naive about the real world so can’t deliver the right type and amount of help but governments understand it and can
- Entrepreneurial drive is a “corrosive ideology” which breaks down political institutions
- Voluntarily allowing companies to access information on our lives lets those companies have too much information on our lives
- Technology firms use Democratic party connections to cover for sheltering tax money overseas
- Bitcoin is bad because someone once stole some of it and can’t be found
- Allowing full open platforms on the internet for free speech is bad because some extremists will use it to speak
- Giving internet to poor people at great cost with ambitious programs is just a ploy to gain more advertising dollars
Even the listed heroes of the governmental variety are strange: Eisenhower, MacArthur, FDR, Kennedy, and Oppenheimer – war heroes, Presidents during wars, and the scientist who managed a nuclear program to success before the Germans or the Russians could. Contrast that with the listed “anti-heroes” of technology – Gates, Jobs, Page, and Zuckerberg – who, as far as we can tell, weren’t involved in a single war and have (through capitalism and private charity) brought immense benefits to all of the world through the private sector.
Et Tu, DQYDJ?
So, what’s our qualification to defend the Millennials’ chosen political ideology and, for that matter, Silicon Valley? First, our status as either a young Generation Xer or an old Millennial (for the record, our coworker says the cutoff is having first seen Beavis and Butt-Head not in a rerun – but I’m not 100% comfortable with that label having been born in the 1980s). Second, we’ve hit three Millennial hotspots in our young life – born and raised in the Boston Area, schooled in Los Angeles, and now living, working, and raising a family in Silicon Valley. Our career has spanned everything from start-ups to the largest household names – in both the Route 128 tech corridor and here in Silicon Valley… in both government contracting and the private sector. And, three, (perhaps most importantly), our only exposure to politics was losing a bid for a position in high school due to some rumored shifty vote-counting, voting in every election we’ve been qualified to vote in, and joking around on Twitter.
So, yes, we feel qualified to defend ourselves and Silicon Valley, along with the free market philosophy in general.
My problem with this article really boils down to a pretty simple idea: all of the listed faults of the private sector solutions are not equal to to faults of the system they are attempting to assist… or the problems that existed before the solution came about!
Take, for example, the strange argument about Google’s floated plan, pun intended, to float internet enabled hot air balloons over ill-internet-served regions: “Maybe when the mother searches for how to save her child from malaria, she’ll click on an ad.” I know, Poe’s Law and all of that – but what’s worse… a child dies because a mother doesn’t know how to diagnose malaria, or find help for malaria, or treat malaria, or contact someone to tell them about malaria… or a mother has to deal with ads taking 3% of the monitor while performing said malaria searches? That’s even allowing that the argument is sound and the number one reason Google want to float the balloons is to beam ads to third world countries… highly unlikely.
Annoying, for sure, we don’t deny that – but one of these problems is not equal to the other.
Or, take this exasperated passage: “The only hitch, many observers noted, is that getting a visa between Pakistan and India is very difficult. Those pesky governments! Don’t they understand that, in a connected world, peace and democracy are inevitable?” Milton Friedman, this writer is not – recall that in Professor Friedman’s famous pencil lecture, his secondary point was that free trade promotes peace and prosperity between state actors, even when those states have populations practicing different religions and speaking different languages. It’s hard to fight the folks you do tons of trading with… and it’s hard for me to entertain blaming Google for of the failure of mid-20th century British colonialism (nor were Google’s co-founders even alive then).
So – even if the plan is naive, is attempting to solve the problems of divided families and friends in the living memories of some of those families and friends somehow worse than the political motivations behind the initial split? Again – naïveté vs. the enmity of adjacent nuclear states – one of these problems is not like the other.
Embracing Innovation and Free Markets
Yes, while this piece might argue that believing in empowerment through connectivity and the free market is deeply troubling, from my perspective here in the “corrosive” private sector, even the problems that the new solutions seem to create are less severe than the problems that existed before the solutions.
And, it’s also fair to say that the huge, unparalleled improvement in the world’s general condition which started in the mid-80s didn’t come from a restriction on trade or from more government control of the private economy – at the extreme, only China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam claim the banner of Socialism in today’s world. A free market does work, and it even works when government itself is very strong – witness the “socialist market” economy of China versus the plain-old-regular-socialist economy there in the last century, or witness the rising wealth of the former socialist states of the USSR. And, the classic of the genre – the so-called Miracle of Chile – grew from a Socialist government experiencing hyperinflation and moved to explicitly free market conditions (literally defined by free market economists from the University of Chicago) under an oppressive military junta.
Is there any comparable example of a country which quickly moved to more market restrictions and thrived? Do you want to argue for Argentina or Cuba (maybe next year…?)?
Now, let’s circle back to this piece’s title – the “obvious truth” which was followed by all of the above referenced arguments. While it’s simple (and, sadly, effective) to paint with broad brushes when depicting one’s ideological enemies (every Democratic voter is a communist, every Libertarian is an anarchist!), the vast majority of the “opposing side” fall somewhere in the middle. The so-called “Techno-Libertarians” are not anarchists – and as “Libertarian-ish” as Beltway insiders claim we, the majority of engineers, are – we aren’t clamoring to completely eliminate government in general. No, you don’t have to worry about the “Allow Tech Firms to Raise an Army and a Navy!” protests to start in earnest – but you better believe the Valley gets annoyed when our firms are banned from cities due to regulatory capture and cronyism. Lyft and Uber and AirBnB, anyone?
But, let’s take the olive branch extended at the end: the insistence that we should aim our giant Silicon Valley Disruption Cannons at government instead of the private sector – yeah, well, that would work if the government could accept what disruption means:
- More efficitent
- Completely different than what came before
Now, do you think Washington DC will really want help in the form that Silicon Valley will provide? If so, I promise you that Silicon Valley is willing to help.