Libertarian History/Philosophy

What Vox Thinks Tech Nerds Don't Understand About Politics

Mostly that reflexive distrust of it shows you need a smug handholding "explainer."


Amazing "just the facts" primer for tech nerds about what everyone really needs to understand about politics, from David Roberts at Vox, the site dedicated to helping you "understand the news and the world around you. It treats serious topics seriously, candidly shepherding people through complex topics…"

Headline is: "Tech nerds are smart. But they can't seem to get their heads around politics."

What dumb techies need to understand about the complex topic of politics, from Roberts, summarized and quoted: 

politics is one area where the general science/tech nerd ethos has not exactly covered itself in glory…. And it's a shame, because if tech nerds want to change the world — as they say with numbing frequency that they do — they need to figure out politics, the same way they're figuring out solar power or artificial intelligence, in a ground-up, no-preconceptions kind of way…

No preconceptions! And what is the troubling, so-obviously-wrong-I-don't-need-to-say-why preconception too many techies start with?

a distaste for government and politics. Sometimes this shades over into ideological libertarianism (see:Peter Thiel, who wants to build a floating libertarian city), but often it's just a sense that government is big, bloated, slow-moving, and inefficient, that politicians are dimwits and panderers, and that real progress comes from private innovation, not government mandates. None of which is facially unreasonable.

It's not only not facially unreasonable, it's vitally important when thinking about politics and imposing political solutions.

Yet Roberts' primer goes on to largely pretend that point was never mentioned or needs to be considered with grave seriousness.

What he goes on to discuss instead actually is all interesting, and here are bits and pieces of it so you can follow what Roberts thinks is all-important for someone to know about politics, apparently obviating any actual complaints or even knowledge about how government actually works, as opposed to the choice process in politics:

The key thing to understand about independents is that they generally vote like partisans….

If the ne plus ultra of rational thinking is switching between parties, splitting votes from election to election, then there are very few rational voters in America. (You can decide for yourself how plausible that seems.)

….the most myth-encrusted phenomenon in US politics is the "moderate." The popular conception of moderates is that they gravitate toward the political center, splitting the difference between the mainstream positions of the two parties.

If that's a moderate, then America doesn't have many of those either. In fact, the relative prevalence of moderates in popular polling is almost certainly a statistical artifact…..More engaged voters will tend to follow the lead and adopt the positions of party leaders…A voter with deeply informed, mildly center-left positions will code as "more partisan" than a moderate who has ill-informed positions that are all over the map, but that doesn't mean the moderate is more centrist or more rational.

Third, in practical coalitional politics, the "center" will tend to be shaped not by rational thinking but by money and power. If there is any space left for bipartisanship in US politics, it is around measures that benefit corporate elites.

Sure. What any of that has to do to deny either a vague or precise libertarian, anti-government position on the part of techies or anyone is unclear. In fact, that third point seems a strong point in favor of a reflexive dislike for politics or political solutions.

But the above is all just preface to his real point: that Republicans are dumber than Democrats, driven by quasi-racist identity politics, and that that is preventing the obviously-right global warming solution of a carbon tax.

Roberts further thinks the techies he's critiquing don't understand, "While it may be true that government cannot force major innovations, as [Elon] Musk and [Tim] Urban [the author of the Wait But Why website and targeted victim of Roberts' long, patient explanation of why he's so mistaken] agree, it is still very much the case that government can help or hinder innovation."

Yes, and the "hinder" part is a lot more on the mind of many techies and libertarians, which may be unbalanced in Roberts' mind, but it's an important reality that complicates Roberts' smug explainer about why being disgusted with politics means you don't get politics. He also thinks its a given that the anti-political techie who cares about global warming "should look with horror on the paltry resources the federal government devotes to" clean energy research. (See Ronald Bailey here at Reason for a little wider perspective on government money and clean energy.)

I get that Roberts thinks global warming is a huge problem that he can't imagine ameliorating through anything less than a carbon tax, and that he might, even rightfully, think that that is such a vital issue that nothing else at all about politics matters. In which case the piece should have been framed as "what techies don't understand about why we don't have a carbon tax," a more limited argument.

As it is, his (pretty long) handholding explanation of what techies don't get about politics ignores a lot of relevant considerations, ones perhaps more relevant than analysis of "independents" and "moderates" and how ignorant Republicans are or "the complicated web of historical, economic, and demographic trends that have shaped American public life" that he insists silly techies must get a better grasp of.

Roberts thinks there is nothing worth saying about, or any complications in politics raised by, things like whether government efforts and government spending equal intended accomplishments, or whether resources funneled through the state might get wasted, or whether public or private incentives work better for any given goal, or the insights of public choice about how we can actually expect government to operate.

Certainly no ethical issues at all involved in using institutionalized force for achieving goals cross Roberts' technocratic radar screen at all. What would that have to do with politics?

Knowing he's arguing against people doubtful about politics in the first place, it's the height of technocratic managerial hubris to believe that the information and arguments he presents here are going to straighten out those techies pretty little heads about politics.

Roberts wants you to believe ignoring all the considerations above is being truly sophisticated and "getting" politics.

The very fact that Roberts and the managerial/technocrat/Democratic Party class he and Vox speak for believe that quite sincerely is indeed an important fact about politics to remember. I daresay that techies with doubts and misgivings about politics already know that though, even if only inchoately.

Jesse Walker had a smart look at another manifestation of this elite D.C. attitude, those whose "political preferences are objectively valuable goals that are beyond politics, even as they apparently require a political wizard to enact them."

NEXT: The New Republic Discovers the Libertarian Legal Movement

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  1. Peter Thiel, who wants to build a floating libertarian city

    He sounds like a cad. I bet he even wants to use private monies, too! What a jerk!

    1. No offense to y’all, but between managing the orphans and the salt mines, a personal floating estate would probably be a better solution.

  2. Here’s what tech nerds need to understand about politics:

    It’s where the truly stupid and incompetent yet highly ambitious go to obtain power over everybody else.

  3. “government is big, bloated, slow-moving, and inefficient, that politicians are dimwits and panderers, and that they are enabled by a sycophant class of partisan pundits posing as ‘explainers’ who view the public as complete rubes incapable of independent thought and perpetually try to shape people’s perception of reality to conform to political expedience….

    … sorry, i started drifting off there…. what was his point again? was there a “But” coming?

    1. ” that is preventing the obviously-right global warming solution of a carbon tax.”


      Because what we really need to do is give more money to Government. Because something something something “The Weather”.

      And this person thinks of themselves as *very very savvy and wise*

      1. IT’S NOT “THE WEATHER” IT’S THE CLIMATE!!!!!1111!1!!1!!1!!!1!

  4. These people can’t even write a coherent article about their own ostensible topic, yet they posture as the great explainers of everything complex.

    It’s like listening to a teenage girl explain the world to you.

    1. Uhm, like, I don’t know if like, you ever studied it or anything, but like, money? Totally has influence on politics.

      (looks at you patronizingly)

      and like, that’s problematic and stuff

      1. Well, we better not redistribute any of that money. I’d hate to corrupt the poor and the working class people.

        Now, let’s all avoid greed, and think of different ways we can all work for free.

    2. It’s like listening to a teenage girl explain the world to you.

      I derailed one poor girl’s discourse on life, the universe, and everything, by loudly proclaiming to her beleaguered audience that I owned underwear older than her.

      1. And yet you haven’t lived long enough to learn how or why not to be an asshole.

        1. how, sure. but, why….I’m not sure I follow.

    3. Yep. It comes across like “hey nerds, yeah you with your stupid logic and all, you don’t understand politics because its all about the feelz and you dweebs are no good at the feelz.”

  5. Oh hey, i guess we found where Tony works.

  6. Whenever someone brings up Vox, I can’t help but think about how the Verge has totally gone to shit since Josh Topolsky left and they put Nilay in charge. They very quickly declined from a damn good tech-and-culture site to a place where this brat complains that her lunches and dinners have the same cuts of chicken.

    1. I read the article, but I still have no idea what she’s complaining about. A company using the same ingredients for different good products? The fact that she made one food delivery service more profitable than others, and than it wouldn’t work outside of her area? I really don’t understand why she wants an ‘asshole tax’ on herself, except self-loathing.

      1. It’s trendy to hate your own privilege.

        I got something nice today! I must self-flagellate now.

    2. The only thing I ever read at The Verge was a retarded argument that Far Cry 4 is anti-environmental cultural appropriation and *unnecessarily violent* (for a First Person Shooter?)….

      …. and that a Scientist’s shirt is actively oppressing women and is more important than landing a rocket on an asteroid.

      Oh, wait – they’re by the same *!(@$!#$ person? Color me shocked.

      I am going to take a wild guess that this asshat is probably one of the people who made GamerGate a thing by accusing everyone of being sexist hatemongers for not agreeing with everything he says.

      1. “The Verge was a retarded argument that Far Cry 4 is anti-environmental cultural appropriation”

        Did you see the one calling Witcher 3 racists cuz there were not enough people of color in mythical dark ages Poland?

        That one was at polygon not the verge though.

      2. “this asshat is probably one of the people who made GamerGate a thing”

        Yes Chris Plante wrote one of the 14 articles calling gamers dead. He wrote the one at polygon.

        In fairness his was one of the least SJW of the bunch. Mostly just called gamers gross spoiled children.

    3. Oh, that is brilliant. “I don’t like the service, BUT I JUST CAN’T STOP ORDERING.”

      1. It’s the new “I’m too lazy to send back my Netflix DVDs.”

    4. I order weird food from an app because I don’t want to leave my apartment.

      She lives in The Mission – what a surprise.

      To be fair, she does accurately describe herself as an “asshole”.

    5. How about Polygon, another retarded member of inbred Vox family? Their article on Rock Band 4 launch can only be truly experienced through means of a Cultured British Voice.

      1. SFed the second link:

        Cultured British Voice

        1. Holy shit, that’s fantastic. Nothing like a formerly dirt-poor Englishman shitting on elitism.

          1. Couldn’t be that poor. TB did go to university to study law before he started posting World of Warcraft videos on Youtube.

            1. Until very recently, universities in UK didn’t charge tuition, and a lot of expenses were handled by state grant. Used to be easier for smart kids from shitty areas to get into university when they had grammar schools, but of course those were not social justicy enough and they got cut in 70s.
              But you may be confusing him with Sargon of Akkad, who claimed dirt poor childhood. Not sure how TB was, but at least he had a computer growing up (Acorn, if I remember right).

              1. “But you may be confusing him with Sargon of Akkad”

                No confusion for me.

                I do no know about TB calling himself “drit-poor” but yeah he has said he comes from a “working class” family.

                My contentions is if you can go to university for law you are not dirt poor even if the government pays for it. In fact if you are living in a county which pays for it means no one is dirt poor.

                When i think of dirt poor i think of a dirt floor and cooking your food using dried animal dung.

                1. The “confusing” was for John Titor, not you.

                  1. I’m basing this on John Bain talking about how he was from a shitty, dirt-poor mining town in County Durham, Northern England when people didn’t believe him when he talked about how the British are more obsessed with class than race.

                    1. And that was a godawful sentence, right there. Either way ‘dirt poor’ was probably a bit much. ‘Not privileged’ is probably better.

      2. The idiot I mentioned above who applies the SocJus cookie-cutter to everything is the co-founder of Polygon.

    6. this brat complains that her lunches and dinners have the same cuts of chicken.

      and conflates capital investment with the price of her meals.

  7. Yes, a bunch of smart, technically minded people really ought to be influenced by the village idiot a journalist.

    Fucking assholes want so much to believe that they are the intelligent ones who should be making all the real important decisions.

    1. I work in an office with a guy like that now. He teaches a class on analytic thinking and he’s one of the worst critical thinkers I’ve ever met…constantly gathers facts to fit his preconceptions rather than building his opinions around the facts. A lot of what he teaches also has to be taught on a particular suite of computer programs, few of which he’s able to operate at even a basic level (and he puts in very little effort to learn). And of course he’s ultra-liberal, has never worked in politics or the real private sector (we’re government contractors), while most other people in the office have done one or both of those things, so of course it’s everyone else who’s ignorant, naive, and lazy when he disagrees with our opinions.

      We’ve built a game around who can ruin his day fastest by sending him off on a rant that will leave him infuriated for hours. You’d think he’d have caught on after a year, but maybe he lacks the self-preservation tools of the ignorant and naive in our office. 🙂

  8. Not only are they cynical, in my experience most ‘tech nerds’ view modern identity politics as a joke to be mocked.

    Anecdotal, but I work for a small internet provider. Last week there was about a half dozen of us, mostly IT, just doing work and chatting. One of the guys is really into shoes for some reason, and one of the other guys was playfully making fun of him for it. Half-away through the conversation I say to the mocking guy “don’t push your heteronormative gender assumptions on him’ and everyone in the room burst out laughing. They thought it was the funniest shit and there is absolutely no way anyone of them would ever take something like that seriously.

    1. I don’t think the guys I work with care too much about politics, but the ones who do pretty much hate the government and the SJW crowd.

      What I found interesting, I play D&D with a couple that you would think to be the most hardcore liberal SJWs but they really aren’t. The wife teaches 3rd or 4th grade at a private school and the husband coaches girls lacrosse for a college.

    2. Don’t you dare mansplain why I shouldn’t wear suede shoes!

    3. Eh. I work in Silicon Valley and while there are some who believe like you, the vast majority have no problem with the idea that the vast majority of Americans are simpletons who need an enlightened technocrat to run their lives for them.

      These people daily point out why X market preference is harmful to the person, so there is no reason why there shouldn’t be a law obviating that preference.

      In short, these people may hate Ivory Tower academics and SJWs, but that’s just because they consider themselves smarter than those cats. They have no problem enforcing their (often very liberal) remedies for every social injustice on society as long as it is THEIR self-evidently obvious remedy.

  9. crazy that people who work in a meritocracy based system where people are promoted on their ability to make rational decisions would be skeptical of the machinations of a tenure based “good old boys” network where promotions are based on connections… It’s almost as though they’re skeptical of the ability of an irrationally organized, bloated system (with no accountability to any sort of quality assurance) to have efficient, correct outcomes… stupid techies – think with TEH FEELZ and everything will work out better! Try it in your software, too! what could go wrong?

    1. if (tehFeelz ~@ blue) {
      6 ? intA ## intB;

      1. COFOL – Common Feelz Oriented Language… I like it

    2. One of the worse things about the IT world (especially in smaller companies) being a meritocracy is that it tends to result in real integration.

      I’ve worked with just about every nationality on various IT projects and it really doesn’t matter to most people where they come from, just if they are a good developer or not. Same with degrees, doesn’t really matter where you went to school. Even my Memphis State degree isn’t held against me.

      1. PJ- Exactly. It’s even better when it’s real work. No one cares about your ethnicity or sexual orientation- as long as you can hump 3000 lbs of glass off the truck in an hour,

  10. Humanities majors are almost universally stupid. Their main skill is being able to sound smart and well-read while talking about topics of which they have almost no understanding.


    2. Coincidentally I majored in sounding smart and well-read while talking about topics of which I have almost no understanding.

  11. Vox method for luring tech nerds.
    Step 1. Insult their intelligence.
    Step 2. Be condescending.
    Step 3. Make wild claims about the supposed benefits of (leftist) politics, to people who tend to work from evidence based assumptions, without citing statistics or providing corroborating evidence.

    I don’t think that’ll work.

    1. It’s worked on plenty of people before. It’s pretty much the basis of the entire social justice movement.

      1. I have a feeling there aren’t many techies in the SJW movement. It’s not a feeling though, I could be wrong.

        1. Techies tend to be used to shunning already. They generally don’t feel as guilty when someone tries to shame them into conformance.

          1. Yep. See #GamerGate

        2. There aren’t. The ones who claim to be are generally in sales, marketing, or HR and don’t understand why that’s not considered as techy as engineers and programmers.

        3. They’re not predominant, but they’re there. A couple of my former CS classmates are constantly sharing things about how it’s “legal to kill someone due to trans panic in forty-nine states,” for example, on Twitter.

    1. In terms of the front of house experience, it’s fully automated, with all meal ordering done via in-store iPads. Not a human in sight, though there is a team of about five or six back-of-house kitchen staff (or as I like to imagine, magical elves) who are hidden from view and prepare the food. There’s also one attendant on hand to help the tech challenged.

      So it’s just like now except there’s a wall between me and my food being prepared by people. I guess that’s better in some ways. But I would not call that fully auto.

      1. Yeah, that’s just good marketing. Come see the technological wonder of our restaurant.

      2. I would not call that even partially auto.

        completely meat-free


        1. Well, the front of the house is automated. It’s a modern version of the Automat.

          1. The Dutch chain FEBO has that covered.

  12. If the ne plus ultra of rational thinking is switching between parties, splitting votes from election to election

    It’s not.

  13. Knowing he’s arguing against people doubtful about politics in the first place, it’s the height of technocratic managerial hubris to believe that the information and arguments he presents here are going to straighten out those techies pretty little heads about politics.

    So you’re saying this is the…ne plus ultra of Vox explainerism?

  14. Republicans are dumber than Democrats, driven by quasi-racist identity politics, and that that is preventing the obviously-right global warming solution of a carbon tax.

    Vox is useless. I can get that message right here.

  15. What dumb techies need to understand

    is that you mine a fucking rune spot, not the creep path! Jesus!
    Can Vox do a fucking explainer on that?

    1. Alright, I play a lot of vidya games but I don’t get this.

      1. DOTA2 has a “hero” called Techies, whose signature is laying landmines all over the map, and suiciding themselves. Well played, they are a nightmare for the opposing team. Poorly played, they are a nightmare for their team. In either case, game with techies in it will be full of recrimination, dickery and saltiness, even more than is normal for a DOTA match.

  16. What some tech nerds understand is that Vox makes some of the shittiest, most dishonest choropleth maps you’ll ever see on the Internet. Of course, if you point it out to them (as many do) they’ll delete your comments instantly.

    Like a lot of progressives, Vox doesn’t understand most of what they talk about that well and try to mask it by pretending that it’s everyone else who’s stupid, instead of them.

    1. “If you point it out to them (as many do) they’ll delete your comments instantly.”

      Vox has comments?

      I thought the whole point of their Prog-Smug was that no one could criticize it?

      1. No, they don’t have comments.

        1. I remember Verge (which is part of Vox) shut down their comments about 2 months ago.

        2. They used to, but removed them when they realized that allowing people to offer feedback on their terrible articles meant that they couldn’t pretend that their articles represented a unanimity of opinion from the “average” American…since most of the comments were hostile and critical of the articles.

      2. They used to. The comment sections disappeared right after the article with the gun control map came out, actually. Possibly because the comments on that map were absolutely brutal…the guy who wrote the article was an absolute imbecile. The map he posted didn’t even display information on the subject he was talking about.

        Best part was when he tried to defend himself in the comments and acted the douche…the commenters tore him apart.

        1. Here’s Forbes discussing that article.


  17. Vox. I applaud the *audacity* of social dem hacks starting a “zine” and flat-out naming it after the ’92 jack-off book Bill and Monica so enjoyed. Did “wunderkind” Ezra ask himself: “Now, what name signals blind subservience to the Clintons + masturbatory omphaloskepsis? Oh! Oh! i know…”

    1. What the hell are you talking about

      1. I’ll google it 4 you:

        “Vox (1992) consists of an episode of phone sex between two young single people on a pay-per-minute chat line… The book was Baker’s first New York Times bestseller. Monica Lewinsky gave a copy to (then) President Bill Clinton…”

        1. Right but I mean…you do realize that Vox is Latin for voice, right?

        2. Vox is the Latin word for “voice”, as in vox populi (“voice of the people”), which is a more likely candidate for the “inspiration” of the website’s name.

          Hugh beat me to the punch (crappy Internet connection) but I wanted to elaborate on where they (probably) got the name from.

          1. what’s Latin?

  18. In my experience, while Republicans resent independents, Democrats have a dislike and outright fear of independents that is borderline hatred. One is better off being Republican than independent around the progressives I’ve met. The “you’re either with us or against us” mentality they espouse is reminiscent of 9/11-era Bush/Cheney.

    1. And to them libertarians are “Republicans who smoke dope.”

  19. “the managerial/technocrat/Democratic Party class he and Vox speak for”

    No, it is no longer Vox speaking for them….it is now Comcast which bought Vox Media through NBCuniversal about 3 weeks ago.

    1. Holy crap, I missed that – god damn it, Reason, why was that not in PM links?!

      $200 million?! I got to say, that’s some fine crony capitalism! A Russian politician would look at his favorite oligarch and say “hey, ve can lern someching!”

      1. Might have been in the PM links. I do not recall where I first read about it…

        Drudge is my first guess though

  20. Is this the site that Ezra Klien and Matt Yglesias cofounded? Because I would rather read an entire catalog of posts consisting entirely of dog turd sculptures than one essay’s worth of their dreck.

    1. Yes, and it apparently has $1 BILLION DOLLARS valuation.
      I’m not kidding.

    2. Ezra came later.

      don’t know about matt.

      Kos of the daily Kos was one of the founders.

  21. politics is one area where the general science/tech nerd ethos has not exactly covered itself in glory…. And it’s a shame, because if tech nerds want to change the world ? as they say with numbing frequency that they do ? they need to figure out politics, the same way they’re figuring out solar power or artificial intelligence, in a ground-up, no-preconceptions kind of way…

    Jesus, what an enormous pile of stupid in one place. I wonder if the author could list a group of people who have “covered themselves in glory” in politics. (All I can think of when I write that is, “Watch out, kemo sabe, don’t step in the glory.”)

    There’s also a massive amount of unexamined assumption in the second paragraph: That you can change the world through politics. (I assume they mean “change for the better”.) That you SHOULD change the world through politics. That it’s somehow at least as good a way to do so as scientific and technological development.

  22. Here is the real problem. “techies” tend to work for small companies where real people accomplish real things.

    If you’re a govie whose only exposure to the corporate world is a lobbyist, you’re going to wonder what all the fuss is about. Megacorps aren’t qualitatively different from big government. The only difference is that they are sometimes allowed to die a slow death when they become too obsolete.

    Can you imaging a Voxer getting a tour of Verizon and then being told that private enterprise is the solution to our problems?

  23. I think that operationally, moderates are people who don’t always vote for their preferred party. Doesn’t mean that they will vote for both parties.

    I split my votes between libertarians and Republicans. And sometimes I don’t bother to vote.

    I suspect that classifies me as a “partisan” in vox world. To me, it simply follows from the observation that while most Republicans suck, all Democrats are evil.

    1. “all Democrats are evil.”

      GamerGate taught me different. Their are a lot of principled hard core civil libertarians among the left. None of whom work at Vox Media.

      All media Democrats are evil is more accurate.

      1. There are a few. If there were ‘a lot’ gamergate wouldn’t have happened.

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