If America’s technology sector had a “founder” it was Uncle Sam.
Every regime has a founding myth—a self-validating account of its origin, propagated by its elites to confer legitimacy upon them. In Silicon Valley, the fabulously wealthy entrepreneurs who regard themselves as the Sun Kings of American prosperity have a story they tell about “founders.”
The Valley, in this story, is the cradle of progress because obsessive geniuses congregate in garages to invent new technologies and launch start-ups, taking enormous risk and reaping a small part of the reward they bequeath upon us all. Its pantheon of billionaires—Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, et cetera—presents the scrappy entrepreneur as the archetype of success.
The “founder” myth begets a culture of superiority among the techno-elite that demands deference from the political system. Beyond mere paeans to entrepreneurship, Silicon Valley expects policymakers to accept without reservation its preferred blend of self-regulating markets and limited government. Theirs is the land of “permissionless innovation” and “failing fast,” and any public servant who dares intercede risks killing the golden goose.
Some in the Valley go even further. Venture capitalist Katherine Boyle advocates for tech bros to “tak[e] on important missions of government” because it’s “easier to solve critical national problems through startups.” Her case in point: the Middle East. “The best comparison is that in the last two decades,” she explains, “roughly $1 trillion has gone to venture-backed companies in the U.S., while $6 trillion went to the War on Terror and failed nation-building in Afghanistan. The outcomes are different due to incentives, not investment.” What’s app-building, after all, but nation-building with a better stock-options plan?
Libertarians and fellow believers in market fundamentalism rely on the myth to advance their own, even bigger myth: that innovation, progress, and growth are the product of government’s absence. As Adam Thierer of the libertarian Mercatus Center has argued, “The best role that public policy can play at this time is to clear the way for…innovation by removing barriers to entry and trade.” As in every domain, the recommended innovation policy is no policy—and here, at least, the libertarians claim some empirical evidence on their side.
While all founding myths contain exaggerations and even fictions—that’s what makes them myths—good ones reinforce that which is best about a regime and provide a foundation on which a community can build. But Silicon Valley’s founder myth has things backward, misunderstanding the source of the regime’s power and flattering its worst instincts.
Silicon Valley was the product of aggressive public policy. The key technologies of our digital age were not the happy accidents of “permissionless innovation” in the “self-regulating” market, but of deliberate and prolonged government action. Public officials “picked winners” and decided the trajectory of technological development—from the materials used in chips to the protocols for networked computers. When the Valley was humming, it did so as a symbiosis of capitalist pursuit of profit and government pursuit of the public good. Left to its own devices, it has devolved into a “unicorn” hunting party while subsequent waves of innovation happen elsewhere.
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On this episode, Oren Cass is joined by John A. Burtka IV to discuss how to cultivate and educate a better elite, what the “mirrors for princes” tradition has to teach today’s leaders, and aristo-populism.