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Is Silicon Valley Libertarian?

By Sonia Arrison
May 20, 2005 5:00 AM PT

Last weekend, hundreds of libertarians and conservatives descended upon Las Vegas to discuss and celebrate freedom. One topic that drew a great deal of interest was the question of whether innovators and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are really as libertarian as everyone thinks.

Is Silicon Valley Libertarian?

Back in 2001, tech author Pauline Borsook penned Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech. As the name implies, Borsook didn't like what she saw as the selfish "libertarian" culture in the Valley. But while some of her discoveries may have been accurate, the premise that the problem comes from libertarian ideas misses the mark.

Screaming Freedom

Libertarianism, as a political philosophy, can be described as a belief in both economic and social freedom. That is, like conservatives, libertarians believe that government involvement in the economic transactions of society should be minimal. However, they also believe, like liberals, that a person's social life should be free of interference.

To put it in issue terms, most libertarians think American businesses are over-taxed and over-regulated and they also don't think government should paternalistically decide issues of abortion or gay marriage. Of course, some Valley Democrats support higher taxes and many Republicans are pro-life, providing the first clue that the Valley isn't exactly libertarian. But there is something about the area that screams freedom.

The libertarian ideology is forward-looking and assumes the goal of humanity is progress. That's where there's much in common between Silicon Valley types and hard-core libertarians. Silicon Valley is, after all, all about the future. Future gadgets, biotech cures, and even space travel are common themes around the lunch table in places like Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

Silicon Valley's most well-known "libertarians" include Cypress Semiconductor CEO TJ Rodgers, Sun Microsystems president Scott McNealy, Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, tech activist John Gilmore, Craig's List founder Craig Newmark, and's Mark Pincus, to name a few.

Dynamists and Stasists

Yet while these folks might all be lumped in the same category by outsiders and the press, there's a good deal of diversity among them when it comes to specific public policy issues. For instance, while John Gilmore is fighting hard for the right to board a plane without having to show identification, Scott McNealy supports the idea of a national ID card.

This diversity on important issues of freedom leads one to conclude that perhaps a better way to look at Silicon Valley is through the lens provided in The Future and its Enemies. Author Virginia Postrel distinguishes between two types of actors: Stasists and Dynamists.

Stasists seek to control most aspects of the world and believe that knowledge can be easily articulated and shared -- these are the technocrats, reactionaries, and central planners. Dynamists, on the other hand, want to limit rules to general frameworks and believe that knowledge is often dispersed and tacit. These are the folks who believe in individual freedom, trial and error, and diversity.

Willing To Fight

The Valley is full of Dynamists. Their world is about moving ahead, disruptive technologies, and the freedom to innovate. Consider the issue of intellectual property.

Much of Silicon Valley supports the idea of less restrictive laws on copyrights and patents, even though that could mean a loosening of a commitment to property rights, a necessary part of a capitalist and libertarian world. Valley denizens regard Hollywood, which seeks stricter intellectual property laws, as slow, reactionary, and lacking in creativity.

On the issue of outsourcing, the Valley perspective matches up well with the libertarian goal of free trade. But one gets the sense that this stems from the fact that outsourcing can help push innovation, not that Valley movers and shakers think it is good to have freedom in and of itself.

Valley folks care very much about the freedom to change and grow, but unfortunately they don't often think deeply about the idea of freedom in general. This is further proof that the Valley isn't libertarian in the way most think. And this could lead to problems in the longer term. If one uses freedom, but doesn't put effort into defending it, it can quickly disappear.

Next year, it would be nice to see more Silicon Valley entrepreneurs at the Freedom Fest.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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