Libertarians Diss Democracy

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky May 14, 2009
Biopolitical Times

People worry about misuses of human biotechnology for many reasons. At the core of our concerns, if I may wax abstract, lie our commitments to democracy, social justice and human rights. These priorities, as well as our specific objections to a designer-baby future of genetic elites and non-enhanced commoners, tend to put us at odds with libertarians and transhumanists.

Transhumanists are fringe futurists who want to use technology to "transcend the limitation of the human condition" - upload our minds onto a computer chip, achieve immortality, re-engineer humanity, that sort of thing. One wing of transhumanism argues that there can be a designer baby in every cradle, that all of us can live forever, and that their vision is thus compatible with democracy and social justice.

Now, two transhumanists who are less concerned with the hoi polloi have put their disdain for democracy in writing. The first is Reason magazine science writer Ron Bailey, who argues at some length and with some erudition that "democratic transhumanists" have it all wrong. According to Bailey, his misguided colleagues are guilty of "fetishizing democratic decision-making over the protection of minority rights" - the minority in question being, of course, transhumanists.

The second and more eyebrow-raising of the anti-democrats is Peter Thiel, the co-founder and former CEO of PayPal who now runs a $2 billion hedge fund and who, according to a recent article in The Futurist, has "invested more than $4 million of his own money in groups working toward immortality." Thiel also "regularly speaks at trans-humanist gatherings." Writing about himself on the libertarian site Cato Unbound, Thiel begins by boldly declaring,

I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual.

So as to dispel any doubts about what he might mean by that, he goes on to affirm that he "no longer believe[s] that freedom and democracy are compatible." The trend has been bad for some time, Thiel continues:

The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women - two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians - have rendered the notion of "capitalist democracy" into an oxymoron.

Thiel's "no girls allowed" lament has been well drubbed by a number of bloggers (1, 2). Though few of them seem aware of his association with transhumanism specifically, several note his $3.5 million donation in 2006 to the anti-aging (and anti-death) Methuselah Foundation and his recent half-million dollar contribution to The Seasteading Institute (TSI).

Since we're having so much fun already, just what is The Seasteading Institute? The organization's website defines seasteading as "homesteading the high seas." In a manifesto published on Cato Unbound alongside Thiel's screed, TSI executive director Patri Friedman (grandson of free-marketeer Milton) calls on libertarians to join him on an ocean platform "where we can build new city-states to experiment with new institutions." Seasteading, Friedman says, "dramatically lowers the barrier to entry for forming a new government, because expensive though ocean platforms are, they are still cheap compared to winning a war, an election, or a revolution."

New America Foundation Senior Fellow Michael Lind thinks that seasteaders sound a lot like Peter Pan. He offers this response:

Here's an idea. Thiel could use his leverage as a donor to combine the Seasteading Institute with the Methuselah Foundation and create a make-believe island where girls aren't allowed to vote and where nobody ever has to grow up. Call it Neverland. It would be easy for libertarian refugees from the United States and the occasional neo-Confederate to find it. Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.

It's hard to top that. But for me, seasteading brings to mind a similarly deluded group of secessionist-oriented futurists who in 1975 formed the L5 Society. L5ers believed that space colonies were just over the horizon, so to speak, and held on to their vision for a couple of decades.

Wikipedia notes that L5 Society was a "focal point for many of the people who later became known in fields such as nanotechnology, memetics, extropianism, cryonics, transhumanism," and so on. Though it makes perfect sense, I hadn't known that. But I do remember the L5 Society's slogan, and it chills me now as much as it did three decades ago: "The meek shall inherit the earth. The strong and the wise keep moving."