Benefactors and bad philosophy

There’s a reason I don’t often turn to Slate: Jacob Weisberg. Too often he approaches a great idea only to turn from it in revulsion.

Take his current profile of Peter Thiel. “Having given up hope for American democracy, [Thiel] writes that he has decided to focus ‘my efforts on new technologies that may create a new space for freedom.’ Both his entrepreneurship and his philanthropy have been animated by techno-utopianism. In founding PayPal, which made his first fortune when he sold it to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002, Thiel sought to create a global currency beyond the reach of taxation or central bank policy. He likewise sees Facebook as a way to form voluntary supra-national communities.” Thiel’s current project, which Weisberg calls his “worst yet,” is a plan to pay “would-be entrepreneurs under 20 $100,000 in cash to drop out of school. In announcing the program, Thiel made clear his contempt for American universities which, like governments, he believes, cost more than they’re worth and hinder what really matters in life, namely starting tech companies. His scholarships are meant as an escape hatch from these insufficiently capitalist institutions of higher learning.”

Weisberg’s view of the world is par for the course from a Yale grad, so narrow and institutional-centric it is. What he fears in this program is that those who take Thiel up on it will thereby halt “their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood, maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible, and thereby avoid the siren lure of helping others or contributing to the advances in basic science that have made the great tech fortunes possible.”

Does Weisberg think he’s aiding the great cause of enlightenment? The prejudice his condemnation rests upon is that what worked for him will work for everyone else. It’s obvious! Every bright person should be funneled through the college mill and siphoned off into (if at all possible) science, government or charity. A sillier idea can hardly be imagined. College education is far over-valued, today, ill-preparing students for the rest of their lives. Further, the notion that people aren’t exposed to — or develop — ideas outside of college or after college age is wrong as a categorical statement — but does indicate, perhaps, an acknowledgement that colleges and universities do serve as great propaganda factories for Weisberg’s own prejudices. Could this be a source for his hysterical drive to keep the Higher Ed Bubble inflated?

Face it: If a few entrepreneurially minded young folk wander away from college and enter productive life in the marketplace, we’d all be better off.

Besides, if they are, indeed, entrepreneurs at heart, college is hardly the place for them. With a thousand Weisberg clones barraging them with anti-market folly, their souls might be spoiled for the unfolding of their own entelechies. Instead, college life for the entrepreneurially inclined breeds a pod-people race of conformist MBAs (think of our first MBA prez, GWB) instead of the opportunity-alert creative types markets justifiably reward. For an entrepreneur to abstain from (or merely postpone) his or her true calling in order to conform to the illusory rigors of a college curriculum is no way to prepare young souls for the future, or for reality.

Of course, Weisberg is one of those narrow-visioned folk who think that “helping others” means working in government or charity. Nonsense, of course. It’s in markets that we find most of our aids in life. The best thing government does is keep out of our hair; the second best is to keep others out of our hair.

Unfortunately, governments these days even license hair-care professionals. Do-gooders, egads.

The Thiel Fellowship strikes me as a pretty good idea. Americans are over-schooled and under-educated. Taking a few entrepreneurs out of college and into the marketplace is a great idea. Hail, Thiel!

On one point, though, I’ll not hiss or boo Weisberg. His description of Thiel’s philosophy of cutthroat capitalism, with his calous complaints about “losers” and such, has its points:

To describe Peter Thiel as simply a libertarian wildly understates the case. His belief system is based on unapologetic selfishness and economic Darwinism. His most famous quote — borrowed from Vince Lombardi — is, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”

I won’t defend such nonsense. The view strikes me as that of a bad winner. Capitalism is not primarily about competition. That is secondary. (Important, but secondary.) The first thing to understand about markets is that contracting parties gain. People choose to trade when they can better themselves in doing so. Both parties to any trade expect to gain, because of reciprocal and reverse advantages. That’s the basis of the genius of this form of co-operation.

And it’s why entrepreneurs do so much good: They find new ways to please and empower more people. They do this by encouraging voluntary action, not forced, regimented responses (which is, after all, the bailiwick of government). Indeed, because entrepreneurs and workers and businessmen and so forth serve others via markets, we train people in schools, to prepare them for sociable, mutually advantageous living. Postponing students’ entry into this vast network of co-operation cannot be a good in and of itself. It (schooling) should be tolerated only to the extent that it increases the utility/productivity of students. When colleges siren-sing people out of the market and into the academy, or — worse yet — into government, they do us a great disservice.

Weisberg wouldn’t know a real benefactor of mankind were said benefactor to employ him.

But the idea that the competitive side of capitalism should be stressed, with its “winners and losers,” is puerile. Weisberg is right to mock Thiel, on this count. Indeed, the great thing about the big winners in capitalism is that they help out even “the losers,” the people who don’t make it big. In markets, even the poorest traders win by trading, and the more successful the most ingenious entrepreneurs are, the more the poor also benefit. To talk about winners and losers in the market context is to engage in a profoundly narrow vision of the process. And it plays into the hands of simple-minded critics.

You know, benighted folk like Weisberg.

While entrepreneurs may gain from Thiel’s philanthropic venture capitalism, capitalism itself loses from Thiel’s philosophy.

An earlier version of this appeared on Wirkman Netizen.