Election 2016

Sorry, Peter Thiel, but We Don't Need a Manhattan Project for Everyday Life

The visionary tech billionaire is right that government is dysfunctional but wrong about its core responsibilities.


Dan Taylor, Flickr/Wikimedia

Peter Thiel's speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was the highlight of that generally misbegotten event (when Scott Baio is your celebrity, you've got real problems).

Speaking on the same evening as Donald Trump, the tech billionaire, legendary venture capitalist, and hero and villain to journalists everywhere may well have pushed the GOP into a post-culture-war era by declaring, "I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American." In the same speech, he attacked stupid wars (waged by both both Republicans and Democrats this century) and called for grand, new government-funded projects that would, to borrow a phrase from Trump himself, make America great again.

In today's Washington Post, Thiel is at it again. He's always worth listening to, even though there is, I think, a major mistake in his analysis and rhetoric about the role and function of government in creating an innovative, forward-looking, and more prosperous society. Here's his opening:

Our government used to get things done. The Manhattan Project coordinated the work of more than 130,000 people in over a dozen states. It was difficult, unprecedented — and successful. Less than four years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the go-ahead, the United States detonated the world's first atomic bomb.

Today our government finds it hard just to make a website. Our newest fighter jet has already been under development for more than 15 years and it costs more than 15 times as much as the Manhattan Project (adjusted for inflation), but last year it lost a dogfight to a plane from the 1970s.

Similar dysfunction is everywhere, at every level. One of the most dramatic examples is in the nation's capital: Metro was a marvel when it opened in 1976, and today it's an embarrassing safety hazard. Ticket machines don't work; escalators are broken; the trains sometimes don't even stay on the tracks.

Let's pause over this strange progression for a moment. In three short paragraphs, Thiel goes from the single-most concentrated military-research project in human history—launched in 1942, when the outcome of the planet's most-total war was still in doubt and the federal government controlled virtually every aspect of commercial civilian life—to talking about the pathetic excuse for a subway system in the nation's capital (a topic that Reason covers with appalling regularity).

Simply put, the Manhattan Project—or for that matter, the Apollo mission, another of Thiel's go-to examples for the once-greatness of American government—is not relevant to the everyday functioning of government. Nor should it be. There is a vast, unbridgeable gulf between true existential crises such as World War II and creating a viable, public transit system and it only confuses the proper size, scope, and spending of government by speaking of the two things in the same breath. You want to fix problems with urban mass transit not just in DC but everywhere else? Here you go, with very little public money and no tax dollars for research. The warfare state is not a useful metaphor for the peacetime state.

None of this is to give a pass to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) which is a useful shorthand not for how government fails at moon shots but how it wastes tons of money on useless exercises in nostalgia and avoidable payouts for passenger-injury claims. But Thiel, who to his immense credit is funding longevity research as well as seasteading and a million other projects out of his own pocket, paints a romantic picture using unrestrained government as his brush. Is that what 21st century America needs more of? A government that has slipped the surly bonds of the Constitution more than it already has to print money indiscriminately, run up massive amounts of debt (as it did, for understandable reasons, during World War II), issue ration coupons on every commodity and scarce resource?

Certainly not. In fact, what we have witnessed for the entirety of the 21st century is a government—and two parties, in pretty much equal measure—that uses the language and rhetoric of existential crisis to do whatever the hell it wants. The Axis powers dominating the entire globe and declaring war on the United States was an existential threat in a way that al Qaeda, ISIS, and the broader concept of "Islamic terrorism" simply is not. As V.S. Naipaul wrote after the 9/11 attacks, "The idea of [the terrorists'] strength is an illusion. The terrorists can fly a plane, but what they can't do is build a plane. What they can't do is build those towers." Health-insurance coverage, recessions (even "Great" ones), China, Russia, unemployment, automation, immigration, synthetic drugs, gang violence, the homosexual "agenda," godlessness, godfulness, you name it: None of these is an existential threat. Yet we live in an age of never-ceasing crises that only the government can solve! Conservatives and Republicans have their long-and-growing list of crises, and liberals and Democrats have their list. FFS, we even regularly go through paroxysms of fear that obesity is a major "national security threat" (this isn't a new concern, by the way, as the St. JFK ploughed the same fertile ground back in the early '60s).

In the 2016 election, what we might call "existential-crisis arbitrage" is at a fever pitch. Hillary Clinton's main attraction is that she is not Donald Trump. Trump, Thiel's own candidate, has built his candidacy on the phantom menace of rapist/drug-carrying/plague-carrying Mexican immigrants, whose peak occurred around 2007 (thank you, Great Recession!). Trump is nothing if not a male hysteric, flipping out about a national crime wave that exists only in his head.

Thiel continues,

Today we live in a financial age: The right is obsessed with tax cuts, and the left is obsessed with funding increases. Republicans joke about the incompetence of government to please wealthy donors who don't want to pay for it; Democrats enable incompetence because they are beholden to public-sector unions that expect their members to get paid whether or not they do the job….

Lost between the two extremes is the vast majority of citizens' common-sense expectation that the country's transportation, health care and defense systems should actually work. As a result of both parties ignoring competence while they fight over money, today we have the broken D.C. Metro system, the hobbled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and justified public skepticism of government health care.

The establishment doesn't want to admit it, but Trump's heretical denial of Republican dogma about government incapacity is exactly what we need to move the party — and the country — in a new direction. For the Republican Party to be a credible alternative to the Democrats' enabling, it must stand for effective government, not for giving up on government.

I believe that effective government will require less bureaucracy and less rulemaking; we may need to have fewer public servants, and we might need to pay some of them more. At a minimum, we should recognize that success cannot be reduced to the overall size of the budget: Spending money and solving problems are not the same thing.

When Americans lived in an engineering age rather than a financial one, they mastered far bigger tasks for far less money. We can't go back in time, but we can recover the common sense that guided our grandparents who accomplished so much. One elementary principle is accountability: We can't expect the government to get the job done until voters can say both to incompetent transit workers and to the incompetent elites who feel entitled to govern: "You're fired."

These are fine sentiments, and they are sweet, sweet music to libertarian ears. I especially agree with the idea that government needs to restore confidence by mastering core tasks. As I've noted before, distrust in government's competence counterintuitively leads bigger and bigger government. Libertarians are not anarchists and we don't believe in no government but in (sharply and clearly) limited government.

But the real question is: What exactly does anything Thiel says have to do with Trump? While there's no question that Trump's ascendancy has driven much of the GOP establishment onto the fainting couch, the reality TV star embodies almost every negative mentioned in those paragraphs above. He has pledged to cut taxes and his spending ambitions, like Hillary Clinton's, will simply explode government spending, including on such projects as infrastructure (read: DC Metro systems). Trump talks like a czar rather than a bureacract, which leads to its own immense problems when runninng a country as opposed to a business venture (and even then…). Virtually all of his policies (think immigration and foreign policy) are constantly being revised to the point of being unknowable. He seems one taco-bowl-induced blood-sugar spike away from declaring martial law, doesn't he? As important, his fixation on a great, big, beautiful wall is precisely the sort of grand project that is not only sure to fail (remember, there are fewer and fewer Mexicans coming here, 40 percent of illegals enter the country legally on visas, etc.) but misguided. If "making America great again" is synonymous with protectionism against people and goods, well, good luck with that. Should the great purpose of the federal government be overseeing the exact mix of the labor market via immigration policy? No, and it will fail at that the same way it has failed at foreign wars that either never should have been fought in the first place (Iraq, Libya) or under vastly different strategies (Afghanistan). When you are doing something you shouldn't be doing, technical expertise is irrelevant.

Trump may well be what former political consultant and ABC News analyst Matthew Dowd has called an "accelerator" for the demise of the current Republicand and Democratic duopoly, but I'd argue that that's because he is the reductio ad absurdum of conservative Republicanism, not its opposite. By almost perfectly following the script the GOP has used for the past 10 or 20 years, he puts the lie to the idea the GOP is a party of limited government or serious about governance.

Now more than ever, we need (and want) a government that spends less and does less, but is also competent at those things for which it is responsible (national defense, some roads and courts, basic social safety net). For different reasons, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are boundless in their beliefs about what government can, must, and should do; with Trump there is the added worry that he seems to mistake his ambitions with those of the volk. The ticket that most shows the restraint and wisdom Thiel calls for in the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, who have, as one of their ads puts it, been there and done that. That is, they've worked not to make government bigger and bigger in every way but to get it out of the way, so we can all pursue our individual and voluntary Manhattan Projects, to live our lives as works of art.

We're not in Bismarck's Germany or the era that birthed the modern welfare-warfare state, and we're not in the depths of World War II or even a "new Cold War" (thanks for nothing, Donald Rumsfeld). Thanks exactly to characters such as Peter Thiel, who counsels at the end of his energizing business book Zero to One to get off our asses and build the world we want to live in, we are living in a Libertarian Moment in which increasing numbers of disaffected citizens are doing exactly that, far outside the realm of government. If the operating system of the long 20th century (let's stretch that definition to beging with Bismarck and, hopefully, to end with the 2016 election) was all about centralizing control of people in mostly top-down systems of control (workplaces, nation-states, education, medicine, information, immigration, access to technology, and more), the OS for the 21st century is all about dispersion, decentralization, and deregulation of economic, cultural, and political life. We have more choices of how to live and more comfort with more choices. The politics, policies, and parties of the near future will not likely resemble the choices incarnated in Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, but it will up to us to build the alternative platform, just as Peter Thiel has helped to build outfits such as Facebook and Lyft.