Jacob Weisberg vs. the Libertarians, Round LXIX


A Jacob Weisberg article is like a poverty-row B movie with hammy acting and a tired storyline: You can't take it seriously on its own terms, but it's a wonderful document of the time, place, and mentality that produced it. Consider the columnist's sneer at the libertarian entrepreneur and philanthropist Peter Thiel:

Jacob Weisberg's message to the kids: Stay in school!

Thiel's latest crusade is his worst yet….The Thiel Fellowship will 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.

Where to start with this nasty idea? A basic feature of the venture capitalist's worldview is its narcissism, and with that comes the desire to clone oneself -- perhaps literally in Thiel's case. Thus Thiel fellows will have the opportunity to emulate their sponsor by halting 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….This threatens to turn the risk-taking startup model into a white boy's version of the NBA, diverting a generation of young people from the love of knowledge for its own sake and respect for middle-class values.

Click through Weisberg's own links, and you'll find Thiel's actual argument for the program: "From Facebook to SpaceX to Halcyon Molecular, some of the world's most transformational technologies were created by people who stopped out of school because they had ideas that couldn't wait until graduation." In other words, Thiel says he's trying to better the world by helping good ideas get off the ground. If Weisberg wants to convince the rest of us that this is a dumb argument, he should start by engaging the argument itself, not some strawman in which the fellowships exist only for "getting rich as young as possible" and the motive is merely Thiel's narcissistic need to breed mini-mes. (Thiel, incidentally, has a graduate degree, so the dropouts who receive these grants will not "emulate their sponsor." Not unless they decide to return to school later -- which of course they'll always be free to do.)

So as a critique, this is shoddy stuff. But as a window into the Weisberg worldview, it's very valuable indeed. Count the assumptions:

1. Intellectual development halts when you leave school.

2. Entrepreneurs do not "help others" or "contribute to advances in basic sciences."

3. Launching a startup is a "white boy" thing.

4. Respect for middle-class values and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake are inconceivable if you avoid the higher-education path that Jacob Weisberg followed. But Thiel's the guy who wants to clone himself.