Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman on Their Way Forward

Peter Thiel talks about stuff at Cato Unbound magazine.

I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years: to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good. I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. For all these reasons, I still call myself “libertarian.”

Like most immortalist libertarians, Peter wants to connect together immortalism with libertarianism, boosting libertarian transhumanism. In transhumanism, the battle between socialists and libertarians is one of endless “excitement” to old-timers and confusion to journalists trying to report on the movement.

Let me comment that most restrictions on freedom come from finite resources. The development of simple self-replicating factories, fed perhaps by acetylene, water, and the Sun, ought to render irrelevant most of the awfully boring debates between libertarian and social democratic transhumanists.

See my interview with Robert Freitas for more on this angle. Dale Carrico calls this superlative vision the “programmable poly-purpose self-replicating room-temperature device”. I argued before with Richard Jones that molecular manufacturing doesn’t need to be room-temperature to be revolutionary, it can even require temperatures around absolute zero. Even if all MNT fails, we can still use synthetic biology for high-throughput manufacturing, including for organic electronics, if we can’t use synthetic biology to create atomically precise inorganic patterns.

Patri Friedman makes the argument elsewhere on the Cato Unbound site: direct political activism is pointless, instead try spending your time on developing new technologies that alter the web of incentives that dictate how the whole game is played. This could apply to democratic socialism as well.

Back to Peter again, he basically says that since libertarianism ain’t working in the current environment, it’s time to go to cyberspace, outer space, and seasteading to deal with the lack of authentic freedom. Patri’s article mentions that he thinks that full jack-in to cyberspace won’t be possible in the near future, but I disagree. I would consider immersive VR plausible by 2025, CRNS (Current Rate No Singularity). Even today, games like Crysis are approaching realistic visual scenes. Speakers and projectors will soon be made that are small enough to fit in a helmet lightweight enough that you can put it on and not remember too easily that you’re wearing a helmet. The mass popularity of WoW and SecondLife should be an indicator that massively shared worlds are a step away from becoming truly mainstream, but people are still being skeptical. While being filmed recently for a documentary on virtual worlds, I said the turning point will be when mass amounts of people can legitimately make money by doing real work in the context of such worlds. Work like mechanical engineering, not like designing gothic virtual clothing.

As for outer space, it’s back to that same criticism I was talking about in my recent posts on space. In the near term, where near term means decades from when mass space travel becomes feasible, which is decades away CRNS, space travel will just get you more political attention, not less. The only reason that the asteroid belt gets so little attention right now is that no one lives there. In his essay, Peter points out that the Heinlein sci-fi future won’t be here for a bit:

We must redouble the efforts to commercialize space, but we also must be realistic about the time horizons involved. The libertarian future of classic science fiction, à la Heinlein, will not happen before the second half of the 21st century.

That is the vision that so many transhumanists and readers of this blog hold to, because they were raised on that stuff and it serves as the core of their selfhood. Only now are they beginning to adopt the view that Marshall T. Savage articulated in 1992 and I’ve been going on about since founding this blog: that the future is right here in exotic places on the planet, not in outer space. Libertarians as a whole have been particularly slow to pick up on this, preferring to fantasize about space, requiring leaders like Thiel and Friedman to slap them upside the head and yank them along, saying, “this is what we’re doing now”. Why so tremendously slow?

Thiel continues on to say:

The future of technology is not pre-determined, and we must resist the temptation of technological utopianism — the notion that technology has a momentum or will of its own, that it will guarantee a more free future, and therefore that we can ignore the terrible arc of the political in our world.

This notion of technological utopianism is pretty much the vision championed by Kurzweil: technology is a quasi-spiritual force advancing independently of individual human choices, and we can deal with unfriendly AI by ensuring that markets around the world are free. Right.


  1. Jef Allbright

    Plenty to like in this essay:
    * that the only future that matters is the future we create in the here and now
    * that the misdirected energies of enthusiasts identifying with a space-cadet glow impedes real progress
    * the idea that “unfriendly AI” will be subject to market forces (despite the essay concluding with an at-best ambivalent, more probably sarcastic “Right.”)

    Now, if we could just grow beyond the antiquated notion of market dynamics dominated by rational actors, toward a more ecological model of increasing synergies discovered and exploited.

    And drop all allusion and pretense of the “spiritual”, quasi or otherwise, in recognition of a deep hierarchy of evolving values needing no external justification.

    Ah, well. Baby steps…

  2. “the future is right here in exotic places on the planet..”

    Like Somalia, libertarian paradise.

  3. @J. Hughes: Like Somalia, libertarian paradise.

    I don’t think that the libertarians actually want Africans to die. I think they just like being free in so much as it doesn’t hurt other people. Well, at least this is what I hope Thiel et al believe.

  4. M C

    I find the future is a meeting-of-minds place for my girlfriend (a socialist) and myself (a libertarian).

    Maybe that’s a reflection on what’s in store for politics once basic needs are met in a bottom-up way.

  5. “The development of simple self-replicating factories, fed perhaps by acetylene, water, and the Sun, ought to render irrelevant most of the awfully boring debates between libertarian and social democratic transhumanists.”

    I think this is a misconception that future nanotechnology will do this. It’s sort of analogous to people who said the internet would transform the market and there would be a huge subsequent economic growth. The internet did transform things in a lot of ways, but hardly to the extent people thought it would. There is still a lot of poverty in the world. I think there are diminishing returns to what any technology can do and we have already reached many limits as to how much technology can make things cheaper. I’m not saying that things couldn’t become cheaper, I just think the idea of superabundance to me usually falls flat. Just because products are cheaper doesn’t mean that they diffuse to all parts of the world either. I’m a natural pessimist, though, so I hope I’m wrong.

    Also Dr. Hughes I hardly think that Somalia is an example of a libertarian state. Libertarians are not anarchists. I totally understand wealth inequalities and I think the internet coupled with artificial intelligences has the capability of creating even more massive wealth disparities fairly quickly. However, mischaracterizing the position of libertarians is not helpful. It would be better to correctly acknowledge the points of intelligent libertarians who actually know what they are talking about (a minority of people I will admit) instead of making irrelevant quips. I like a lot of the writing on the institute for ethics and emerging technologies, but I find some of the economics positions to be misconceived.

  6. Like Somalia, libertarian paradise.

    Speaking as a foaming-at-the-mouth libertarian: No. Not even remotely. A libertarian paradise would be someplace where individual liberty is maximized.

    You don’t get that simply be abolishing the state.

    “Don’t make me go all wordy up in this bitch.”

  7. Just FYI, I am a centrist, but I welcome libertarians creating seasteads and implementing their policies on them among consensual parties. What the seasteading effort will create is a new competitive economy of government structures, so if libertarian principles really are so agreeable, we should see a convergence towards them in these new societies. If not, we won’t.

    The government bailouts are a great test of libertarian vs. socialist principles. If the economy recovers quickly and becomes stable, it will look really bad for libertarians. If it doesn’t, it will look really good for the bailout advocates. Instead of endless ideological argument, we can use stuff that just happened as evidence. Libertarians don’t seem phased that the world economy just sort of collapsed due to non-interventionism in the American financial sector. Even Greenspan admits that his philosophy of libertarian economics was mistaken.

  8. I agree with Mike that technology will never cure scarcity, but for different reasons. Human desires are surely unlimited. Even if it becomes possible to fab any physical thing for next to nothing and AI slaves do all our work for us, focus will simply shift to things that do remain scarce: services that our robot servants can’t, by definition, perform. It seems very likely to me that people will sometimes care whether people providing some services are human.

    On Somalia: some libertarians are guilty of thinking that government is responsible for all the evil in the world, but most recognize the importance of informal institutions and the problem of private coercion. There is reasonably good evidence, though, that Somalia is in fact better off without a government (see here, here and here. That’s not to say that it’s good compared to developed countries, since the same factors (basically a lack of social capital) which make it such a terrible place to live now also gave it a terrible government. Somalia would be much better off if the sort of government we have in the west could be transported, but that’s just not how things work.

  9. And it’s Cato Unbound, not Libertarianism Unbound.

  10. Sorry, it’s just really confusing when things are euphemized on a constant basis, a lot of people don’t know what the Cato Institute is, so I wanted to make it obvious what they stand for. I’m not trying to be derogatory, just direct, but I guess it’s a bit snide so I’ll change it.

  11. Libertarians don’t seem phased that the world economy just sort of collapsed due to non-interventionism in the American financial sector. Even Greenspan admits that his philosophy of libertarian economics was mistaken.

    Greenspan… libertarian economics? In the same sentence? Oh, dear.

    If you’re going to comment on an ideology or group based on a particular set of circumstances, you should at least know what that ideology or group has to /say/ ’bout those circumstances. Not encouraging in the least.

    The reason, by the way, most of us aren’t ‘phased’ ’bout the collapse is because so many of us knew it had to happen sooner or later. And the problem with your statement about the bailouts is that they //will// work. Or at least, they will appear to work. I could go into it, but this is not a political blog, so I won’t go into political discussions any further than is necessary to correct false statements of fact. (Such as the idea that Greenspan’s policies were in any way libertarian.) Remember, kids; “Fiscal conservative” != “Libertarian”.

  12. Generation Z

    If there is to be immersive VR, AGI, or even the Singularity in our lifetime, it means that the humans actually making them happen are alive right now or will be born pretty soon. Who are they? What are they doing? What is REALLY happening, in terms of transhuman tech, right now, and where?

    Transhumanism has been around for what, a decade, two, so you arguably should have a list ready with the columns: name; project; ready; impact – like:
    IBM; brain simulation; 2019; synthetic consciousness, first step to uploading

  13. Ian, Greenspan was a member of Rand’s inner circle, calls himself a libertarian republican, and so on. Do you really think that a majority of libertarians would call him a non-libertarian?

    Your snide comment that I am completely off the mark about Greenspan when it is a matter of public record that he is a self-described libertarian and Ayn Rand devotee is just odd. You could say, “well, though Greenspan and hundreds of publications call him a libertarian, he’s actually not, here’s why…” instead of just assuming I’m supposed to randomly know.

    Please, you can talk about it, but already I feel like I’m entering a morass of spin. I get the feeling that older and more knowledgeable libertarians (where “older” is a euphemism for “having read more”, not a direct reference to your biological age) would rather than I got the story from them rather than you, though.

    Bryan Caplan is specifically anarchist, btw. And Tyler Cowen endorsed the bailouts, so how libertarian is that?

    Generation Z, good idea, thanks. There are hundreds or thousands of ongoing projects that contribute to transhumanist goals, if I were you I would subscribe to Eurekalert or Physorg, there are daily press releases that show steps towards transhumanist technologies. For instance, just today there was an article, “Scientists moving closer to ‘artificial noses’”. Also, read The Singularity is Near.

  14. Air90

    Well I’m better than all of you, I’m a Libertarian Socialist.

  15. M C

    Libertarians do not accept state intervention in private dealings, do not accept fiat money, and definitely do not accept that the government should manipulate interest rates. There is no place for the Federal Reserve in a libertarian world.

    It really is of no significance that Greenspan self-describes as a libertarian. Greenspan is just a conservative.

    The economy collapsed because interest rates were artificially lowered by Greenspan, causing debt and housing bubbles. The rates were lowered because it was politically expedient to hide the structural problems caused by the US debt and expedient to postpone a re-adjustment. As a result we are now facing a much bigger adjustment.

    Libertarians, including myself, currently predict a period of stagflation (stagnation with high inflation) caused by the bailouts added to existing debt. We’ll see what happens soon enough.

  16. khannea

    In this regard Dale is right, but he is correct in the most abusive, disrespectful manner – the most prominent H+ians are most prominent because they are salesmen or H+evangelists.

    This annoys the libertarians immensely because they aren’t utopian – they expect the worst of fellow humans and the world – and don’t expect it to be easy. They do not need to be sold anything and expect to draw their gold card to aquire access to H+ian benefits.

    The rest of H+ian people (i.e. the ones dependent on laws, organized society, niceness, big governments, police [taxed infrastructure]) we want our advances safe, tested, low-allergy, strawberry-flavored.

    If there ever was a climate more difficult for polite respect and more easy for hyena-like scavenger-critics like Dale it was now. Dale can switch to left of H+, snapshot for weak points, then to right of H+ and snipe for dim mak points there.

  17. this blog post, for the most part, is very good and quite stimulating
    a tip of the hat to michael, and many of the commentators

  18. Do you really think that a majority of libertarians would call him a non-libertarian?

    In fact, the majority of libertarians do call Greenspan a non-libertarian. We also frequently object to the idea that self-appellation as ‘libertarian’ makes you libertarian. MC was of course dead-on when he noted that the Fed itself is anti-libertarian; being associated with it inherently makes one non-libertarian.

    You can’t be a libertarian and say that libertarianism is flawed, and that we need a centralized control of money in order to ensure stability. The two are rather inimical to one another.

    There are also those out there whom would say — as I do — that Objectivists are themselves also not libertarian (despite the self-appellation).

    Really, now. If you’re going to make something a significant part of your post, you should at least do some basic research on the subject and know what the fuck you’re talking about.

    You’re usually better than this, man. This was not up to speed for you.
    I was snide because you were blatantly uninformed, and you were crass — and insulting, yourself — about it. You’re wrong, here, Mike. It’s a flat-out falsehood, and you’re propagating it. Makes us libertarians plusunhappy.

  19. Thanks for all the good comments, everyone.

    Ian, I’m not politically aware, because I’ve been focusing on tons of science and technology for about ten years straight. I am a science nerd of the most science-focused manner. I’ve only casually been into politics in the last three years or so.

    I can make something a significant part of my post and have no clue what I’m talking about. If I don’t, it’s your job to correct me. I don’t have to pretend to be an authority on everything. Sometimes my posts are just conversation-starters, more like a “first comment” than an intellectual declaration. In the area of libertarianism and politics in general, let me admit that I am quite ignorant.

  20. kurt9

    I take it that there are trasnhumanists who do not identify with libertarianism because they think they can convert governments and political ideologies to a pro-freedom, pro-transhumanist stance and that, therefor, libertarianism is spurious.

    All I can say is, good luck with that.

    Established social orders, whatever their form, are pyramids. Innovation flattens the pyramid. Thus, the people at the top of the existing pyramids have strong motivation to prevent or restrain innovation. This is why innovation usually comes from outside the system. This is the inherent nature of bureaucracy. This dysfunctionality is rooted in human nature, which is currently immutable. This is why bureaucracy is incapable of positive work.

    All large social systems, whether they be private or public, are buraucracies. The larger the system, the more bureaucratic it is. Since national governments tend to be larger than the largest corporations, they are necessarily more bureaucratic. Since bureaucracy does not work, belief in the efficacy of any large scale institution is misguided.

    Libertarianism, despite its many flaws, is the only political philosophy that recognizes this reality, along with the human nature that defines it.

    The innovations that we seek, everything from life extension, space colonization, self-replication manufacturing, whatever; will only come from outside the system.

    Consider life extension: The FDA does not even recognize the aging process as a treatable condition. They will not approve any compound that is designed to cure it. The people who are serious about curing aging (like the SENS people) all work outside the existing medical industry and regulatory apparatus. Nixon’s war on cancer has yet to lead anywhere near a cure.

    Same goes for space. NASA has done nothing to drop the cost of access to space. despite 30 years of billions of dollars being dumped into it. All of the promising approaches are being done by start-up companies (SpaceX) or by small research groups working on their own (HPCC Space GmbH).

    Same for fusion power. It is true that EMC2 have received around $1 million or so from the Navy to develop their IEC polywell fusion concept. However, the Tokamak (ITER) has received billions over the decades and has lead to precisely nothing.

    I won’t even mention cryonics.

    The same is true for any other field of technology and human endevour, whatsoever. Government programs do not work. Government bureaucracy is inherently conservative and resistant to change. Only private individuals (transhumanists and non-transhumanists) have the capacity and motivation to create what we want. Governments cannot do this and have, in fact, been serious impediments to what we want.

    This is the true reason why trasnhumanism and pioneering is inherently libertarian and why libertarianism is the ONLY political philosophy that is appropriate to getting where we want to go.

    Everything else is spurious.

  21. Mark Plus

    Every society we know of that has agriculture and metallurgy also produces as state. If, as it seems increasingly likely, states arise spontaneously from human action but not through human design, then a truly libertarian society will remain a fantasy because it denies emergent properties of human nature.

  22. I’ve only casually been into politics in the last three years or so.

    Lemme be the first to say that I’m probably among the //least// argumentative libertarians you’ll meet on any venue.

    The battle raging between deontological and consequential libertarianism has been going on for decades and still shows no signs of slowing down. Neither camp, however, welcomes Greenspan in it. :)

  23. @ Mark Plus — aahhh… no. Not even remotely the case. Anarchism, perhaps, is susceptible to your argument; but libertarianism is not.

    Par exemplorum; Minarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism are both forms of libertarianism, and both accept/posit the existence of a governing body. Minarchism specifically uses the “State”; Anarcho-Syndicalism posits /replacing/ the State with a conglomerate of competing commercial entities. That last actually has something of an analogue in human history — the Althing of Icelandic history.

  24. kurt9

    You guys are missing my point. I was in L-5 Society at the end of its heyday. I have been in cryonics and have generally been around “transhumanism” since the late 80′s. As I said before, governmental systems and the large scale projects they have financed (NASA, Tokamak fusion, etc.) have done essentially nothing to help us get where we want to go.

    One of my best friends, who has done both space engineering and medical research, tells me that at least 40% of published papers in any scientific field are BS (e.g. they made everything up). Another 15-20% at least detail their experimental procedure such that you can duplicated, but you never get the same results as claimed in the paper (e.g. they made up the results of the experiment). This is very common in academic research, which is almost all funded by the federal government. Academic people live to publish. They are measured by how much they publish, not by how much of their research leads to commercial products. The system is corrupt. This is why government-funded science rarely, if ever, works.

    Endless debates about libertarianism or other political philosophies is irrelevant and a waste of time. What is relevant is doing what is necessary to create what we want. Given that none of the government programs and bureaucracy has done anything to benefit us to date, there is no reason to believe this will change any time in the future.

    Thus, it is irrational to subscribe to any political philosophy that advocates a government role in anything we want to do.

  25. Kurt, interesting argument and claims that your friend made about science. Have we met once before, in Sunnyvale?

  26. kurt9

    No, we would not have met. I occasionally make sales visits to the Bay Area (I sell parts and materials into semiconductor fabs). However, I rarely see anyone socially during these visits. The only exception are some of the guys at BioTime ( over in Berkeley.

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