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  • 11.08.15

The Politics of Silicon Valley

In part 1 of this new series, Gregory Ferenstein explores the belief systems of Silicon Valley’s elite, from immigration to education.

Over the course of my career as a technology journalist, I’ve found that Silicon Valley is home to a unique political and moral ideology: a pro-business liberalism that often gets mistaken as libertarianism. Philosophically, people who found Internet startups (“founders”) are best described as idealists: They believe that there is always a better solution to problems, a solution that benefits most people and reduces conflict.

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A lot of writers have scratched their heads trying to classify Silicon Valley’s unusual politics, calling it “quasi-libertarian” and “peer progressivism.” Back in the ’80s, a tech-obsessed faction of the Democratic party called themselves “Atari Democrats.”

I suspect these terms never stuck because nothing ever really captured their ideology. That’s why I set out to study the politics of Silicon Valley more thoroughly. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share what I learned in a series of posts.

As part of my research, I polled 129 Silicon Valley founders about their belief systems (you can learn more about my methodology here–please feel free to share your questions and feedback on my methodology in the comments). Here’s an overview of some key characteristics I discovered as I worked toward creating a definition of the Valley’s political category:

Most Tech Founders Belong To The Democratic Party

Eighty-three percent of employees at top tech firms gave money to President Obama‘s election campaign in 2012, and 64% of donations from founders and investors have gone to Democratic candidates. Forty-three percent of startup founders self-identify as Democrats–while 31% don’t identify with any political party.

Founders Tend To Be Libertarian-ish

There are a lot of critiques of Silicon Valley’s politics. Nearly all of them claim, in some form or another, that the tech elite are apolitical technocrats who just want the government to get out of their hair while they build products that solve problems much better than bureaucrats ever could. Indeed, many startup founders seem like libertarians —at least when it comes to free trade and labor unions:

Like Democrats, Founders Support Government Programs

Founders are often fans of federal programs. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick (who, for a long time, prominently displayed Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as his Twitter avatar) seems to like Obamacare, declaring: “[Obamacare is] huge. . . . The democratization of those types of benefits [allows] people to have more flexible ways to make a living. They don’t have to be working for The Man.” (More on why Obamacare is good for Uber here).

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When a Wall Street Journal op-ed discounting the role of government innovation went viral, Google executive and Internet “godfather” Vint Cerf went livid, accusing the author of blatantly misreading history. “The U.S. government, including [military agencies] ARPA, NSF, DOE, NASA, among others, absolutely facilitated, underwrote, and pioneered the development of the Internet,” he fumed. “The private sector engaged around 12 years into the program (about 1984–85) and was very much involved in powering the spread of the system. But none of this would have happened without [the government’s] research support.”

Many founders love some big government programs. They are not your run-of-the-mill libertarians.

Many Founders Are Optimists

From the horses’ mouths:

“I am an optimist. I think you need to be, to be an entrepreneur.” ~ Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

“I’m maybe the most optimistic person I know. I mean, I’m incredibly optimistic. I’m optimistic arguably to a fault, especially in terms of new ideas.” ~ Netscape founder and investor Marc Andreessen

“What makes Silicon Valley special? Eternal optimism of the innovative mind.” ~ Tech blogger Om Malik

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“I’m a pathologically optimistic person.” ~ Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales

Calling oneself an optimist is more than just fluffy rhetoric; it’s founded on two core philosophical assumptions about the world:

1) Change will nearly always make things better
2) There’s no inherent conflict between major groups in society (for example: workers vs. corporations, citizens vs. government, or America vs. other nations).

Founders’ breed of optimism or idealism is rooted in a belief that most of humanity have the same goals–and anytime we think we’ve found a good solution toward those goals, there’s always a better solution worth exploring. Change, over the long run, is nearly always good in the mind of the typical Silicon Valley founder. To disrupt simply means to shed imperfection, exposing ever more perfect solutions beneath.

Founders Believe All Problems Are Information Problems

Founders believe that the solution to nearly every problem is more innovation, conversation, or education. That is, they believe that all problems are information problems.

Founders build information products because they seem to believe that transparency is a panacea. For instance, founders believe that we should prioritize sharing information at the expense of individual privacy, and believe dialogue alone (understanding the other side) can solve disputes between military enemies.

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To measure faith in information, I asked two questions:

1) “Some people believe we must choose between saving lives and keeping sensitive health information private. If this conflict ends up happening, and we must choose, do you value privacy or saving lives more?” (For background on this controversy, more here).
2) “How often do you believe that military enemies can resolve their differences through dialogue alone?” (If a respondent answered “rarely,” I took it to mean that they don’t put much stock in the idea that conflict is just a matter of failing to understand the other side.)

As an example of transparency as an ideology, here’s tech investor Tim Chang explaining why he thinks virtual reality technology can solve centuries-old religious strife and social inequality:

One way that you could potentially solve against wars and poverty and all these things is if a billionaire could live a day in a life of a homeless person. . . . Don’t you think he or she might have more empathy for what that person’s situation is like? If you know that an Israeli and someone from Palestine were to swap their day in each other’s lives through this kind of technology, it would create more room for common ground discussion.

There’s no doubt founders want to make money. But they believe it’s profitable to solve endemic issues through transparency. Hence, I describe them as idealists.

Founders Are More Likely Than The Public To Believe In Interdependence

Founders often criticize a “zero-sum” view of the world. “Most economic fallacies derive from assuming there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another,” tweeted Google chairman Eric Schmidt, quoting economist Milton Friedman.

At the same time, 49% of founders believe that nearly everything people do–even what someone eats for breakfast–makes a significant impact on other people’s lives (versus 20% of libertarians). Though many founders reject an atomistic view of society, Democrats (60%) are even more likely than founders to believe in this type of interdependence.

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For founders, this faith is more of an organizational strategy than a moral code.

Founders Are More Collectivist Than Libertarians

In my questionnaire, I asked respondents if they think everything we do affects other people, justifying government intervention in personal decisions. Most founders agreed. “I feel [government] ‘encouraging’ or even incentivizing positive behaviors is supportive, and thinking personal decisions in health don’t affect others is myopic,” wrote one founder who responded to my survey.

My favorite example of Silicon Valley’s collectivist tendencies is, as I mentioned earlier, when Senator Rand Paul embarrassed himself during a campaign event. Expecting the applause he normally gets when he asks, “Who’s a part of the leave-me-alone coalition?” — and only three people clapped (though the crowd did go wild for his anti-spying stance).

Founders Are More Likely Than The Public To Believe Citizens Are The Source Of Solutions

Examples of this ideology in action are parent-run charter schools, high-skilled immigrant entrepreneurs, tax credits for homeowners experimenting with alternative energy, and community carpools powered by Uber. If citizens are the source of unforeseeable solutions, then it is the government’s job to invest in everyone’s intelligent contributions.

“A united, educated, and inspired society has limitless capabilities,” wrote one founder who took my survey.

In my survey, founders were more likely (24%) than the public (11%) to believe that reducing the number of uninformed and inactive citizens in society can have a positive impact on society.

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Founders Don’t Believe In Equality Of Outcome, But Equality Of Opportunity

Founders see mediocre economic growth as a bigger problem for broad prosperity than discrepancies in wealth (a belief system that, admittedly, benefits a wealthier class). “I believe if we have 4% a year of GDP growth, all these problems would get solved,” Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel once said.

Founders’ honest beliefs about equality are hard to extract. They often skirt the issue by talking about equality of opportunity instead of equality of outcome. But equality of opportunity is not some social contract ethic about what people “deserve” to earn if they’re successful; it’s about maximizing people’s contribution to society.

So I asked them a more difficult question: Is meritocracy naturally unequal? In a perfect meritocracy, one in which income is distributed exactly in proportion to one’s contribution to society and everyone has an equal shot at being successful, what would the economy look like?

One hundred percent of the smaller sample of founders to whom I presented this question said they believe that a truly meritocratic economy would be “mostly” or “somewhat” unequal. This is a key distinction: Opportunity is about maximizing people’s potential, which founders tend to believe is highly unequal. Founders may value citizen contributions to society, but they don’t think all citizens have the potential to contribute equally. When asked what percent of national income the top 10% would hold in such a scenario, a majority (67%) of founders believed that the richest individuals would control 50% or more of total income, while only 31% of the public believes such an outcome would occur in a meritocratic society.

Founders Want The Government To Be Run Like A Business

“If [government organizations] were run in more of a private market environment like startups, they could have better ROI and deliver better service for all. Competition is a healthy way to encourage that,” wrote one founder who responded to my survey.

Founders prefer competition among public services. This helps explain why tech elites, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, have given hundreds of millions of dollars to charter schools.

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Charters are often highly experimental, unionless public schools managed by performance-based metrics. Indeed, the federal education law itself, Race to the Top, is basically a giant prize competition that awards a greater share of federal dollars to schools and districts that outperform their peers.

Teacher unions have aggressively fought performance-based funding. As one New York Times op-ed argued, “Teaching Is Not A Business.”

The Silicon Valley elite have also championed so-called “social impact bonds, which would allow someone like AOL cofounder Steve Case to invest in an experimental prisoner reform project–and profit if fewer criminals returned to jail. It mixes government programs with market performance.

Founders Choose Global Collaboration Over Sovereignty

Founders like international organizations, such as the United Nations–and are almost unanimously pro-free trade.

Whenever they’re presented with options that pit sovereignty versus global collaboration, founders are more likely to choose binding international alliances that require everyone to cooperate.

20% Of Founders Believe In Completely Open Borders

Founders generally want more immigrants in this country–especially high-skilled workers. Twenty percent of founders believe in completely open borders (no immigration limits).

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“I believe in the elimination of borders and free commerce as a route to peace. Barriers necessarily imply violence,” said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Final Thoughts

Is “belief in information” a new ideology? Definitely not. Belief in wisdom is a very old, somewhat forgotten ideology made famous by the ancient Greeks, European Renaissance philosophers, and American Jeffersonians.

About 1,500 years after the Athenians, the patrons of the French Revolution replaced Christian churches with monuments of Reason. (Below is a depiction of the ‘Temple of Reason‘.) This was during the “Enlightenment Era,” one of the few times in history when the belief in Reason (big “R”) was the reigning ideology.

Temple of Reason

About a century later, Thomas Jefferson would propose an unorthodox idea , a universal education system premised on the belief that it would alleviate partisanship, extremism, and indifference. “If the legislature would add to that a perpetual tax of a cent a head on the population of the state it would set agoing at once, and forever maintain, a system of primary or ward schools, and a university where it might be taught, in its highest degree, every branch of science useful in our time and country; and it would rescue us from the tax of Toryism, fanaticism and indifferentism to their own state.” Jefferson wrote.

This kind of info-topianism is an old belief system. It was super popular in the European Renaissance, but it never really crossed the Atlantic in sufficient numbers to create an entire political movement — until now.

Join me here next week as I look at how Silicon Valley is overhauling the Democratic party. In the meantime, be sure to sign up for my newsletter.

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About the author

I am a writer and an educator. As a writer, I investigate how technology is shaping education, politics, Generation Y, social good, and the media industry.

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