Silicon Valley used to have a reputation for having a “libertarian” streak, consistent with its role as a center for freewheeling innovation. But it has since moved left, embracing a lot of fashionable lefty causes—and Democratic Party electoral politics.
But the blame isn’t just on Silicon Valley’s side. If technology entrepreneurs are ignoring the ideas of the right, many on the right aren’t paying much attention to the big technological changes that are shaping our future. In distancing ourselves from that world, we risk missing our role in shaping the future.
Enjoying a career as a political commentator on the right before starting a new site that focuses on future technology, RealClearFuture, I have been a bit surprised, and even more distressed, to see how little overlap there seems to be between these two worlds. It shouldn’t be like that.
We should all be interested in the future, because we’re eventually going to live there. People on the right should be especially interested in the rapid and astonishing advances in technology because this is the beating heart of capitalism, free enterprise, and American ingenuity.
There are whole constellations of companies rushing to market with bold new ideas that are going to make our lives a lot better. Self-driving cars are going to expand our transportation options and free up countless wasted hours of our time. Virtual reality will make sitting on the couch watching television seem as quaint as sitting around the wireless listening to a radio show. Artificial intelligence, which despite its fancy name just refers to advanced ways to get computers to recognize patterns, is going to automate dozens of routine tasks and make it a lot easier to interact with our machines.
Technology start-ups and industrial giants are throwing huge amounts of capital and ingenuity at these tasks, rushing to get the best products to market and to do it first. That’s the spirit of adventure and innovation that made America great.
It’s also true that technology companies tend to thrive in areas where they enjoy a lot of freedom from government interference, because the whole field is totally new and nobody has gotten around to regulating it yet. They take advantage of the differential between the speed of innovation and the slow plodding of government. By the time government officials trying to punish you for your “monopoly” on a Web browser drag their case through the courts, Web browsers will have become irrelevant and the whole center of gravity of the technology industry will have moved on to something else.
Many innovative new companies are using technology to undermine whole regimes of regulation. Uber and Airbnb are usually described as technology companies, but they are really just using technology to exploit vague spots and loopholes in antiquated regulations, breaking down rules that favor taxi monopolies and big hotels over individual entrepreneurs. So the darlings of Silicon Valley are actually in the business of subverting irrational regulations.
In short, the spirit of the free market is alive and well on the frontiers of technology.
Which raises the question, Why then do the people who work in this field tend to give political support to the left?
Part of the reason is that, from the standpoint of cutting-edge technology firms, the Democrats kind of look like a pro-business party. The Obama administration may want to regulate the health care industry into oblivion, but its policy on commercial space exploration has been described as laissez-faire. Regulations on drones are loosening rather than tightening. Big cities, including the ones controlled by Democrats, are falling over themselves to clear the way for experiments with self-driving cars.
But their leftward leanings give them blind spots, such as thinking that the biggest technological innovations in energy are relatively inefficient solar panels and electric cars, rather than fracking and improvements in the internal combustion engine. They can’t acknowledge these innovations because it wouldn’t be politically correct. People will fall for a lot of flim-flam when it’s dressed up with environmental buzzwords.
Tech firms are also susceptible to arguments that treat future technology as a fantasy sandbox in which to project the circumstances in which we will finally be able to make leftist policies work. For example, the flipside of overly optimistic boosterism about autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence is the fear that these machines are going to take away everybody’s jobs—but that will be OK because we’ll just implement “technological socialism” and put everybody on the dole with a so-called basic income. There is so much wrong with this, and a basic understanding of the economics of the free market can set it right—and that’s just why we need people from the right to inject some realism into these debates.
To do that, though, we have to confront a kind of cultural reflex of leftism. Most of the people working in cutting-edge technology hail from the college-educated upper middle class, and they tend to share the attitudes of their peer group. Think of it as a form of identity politics. The left stokes identity politics among minorities. Recently, there has been a lot of worry about the right being led down the path of “identity politics for white people.” Fashionable Silicon Valley leftism is identity politics for the educated upper middle class. It’s what you do to relive the good old days in Sociology 101. People who work in technology tend to cling to that cultural identity, even if it’s the opposite of what they actually do in their professional lives, where they are freewheeling individualists.
The solution to this cultural inertia is to become part of high technology and change it for the better. Technology is what has replaced the Wild West. It’s where enterprising individuals go looking for the freedom to open up new frontiers and make their own fortunes. We ought to be there supporting this, defending it, cheering it on—and helping to explain what actually makes it possible.
The irony here is that people on the right are the ones who often describe themselves as “conservatives,” which carries the implication of looking to the past instead of the future. But free markets, free enterprise, and capitalism are the real forces of progress, while it is the left that keeps coming up with barriers to economic growth and innovation—whether it is Elizabeth Warren worrying that Airbnb contributes to inequality, or Vox wringing its hands about autonomous vehicles taking away our jobs, or calls for antitrust action against the latest Silicon Valley innovation.
Some conservatives may have their own worries about artificial intelligence or “transhumanism,” though I would argue that this requires taking seriously a lot of overblown hype—another reason why it is worthwhile for the right to get to know the prosaic reality of these technologies. James Cameron movies are fiction, and when you get past Hollywood’s relentless dystopian pessimism, you realize that it’s a pretty amazing world we’re building, with lots of awesome new gadgets and wide-open possibilities.
The political defenders of freedom, opportunity, growth, and optimism ought to be part of it.
Rob Tracinski is a senior writer for The Federalist and the editor of RealClearFuture, www.realclearfuture.com.
Photo by Julian Fernandes via Unsplash.