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Universal values

Some values may benefit small groups such as startups, without necessarily being good for people’s everyday lives or even society as a whole. For example, overconfidence. Paul Graham tweeted that, “overconfidence … has its disadvantages. But it’s just what you need if you want to take on a problem most rational people would conclude was too hard.”

Today, it’s generally assumed that people who work in tech are on the left – San Francisco values across the board. This wasn’t always the case. In earlier days, when the city was an afterthought and the valley was in charge, the stereotype of a tech worker was a backwoods libertarian free thinker. But then high wages led to stricter educational requirements which led to workforces completely dominated by people with “CS Degree or equivalent”. The pipeline bringing these people in had its source in East coast universities, and brought with them a culture of strict, almost puritan left wing values. This culture, which I’m provocatively calling puritan-left, believes in absolute moral standards, in proselytising, in holding others to account, in original sin and in equality of outcome. Of course, the libertarians are still out there, but these days they keep their heads down.

But what if libertarianism is particularly well suited to building startups? Maybe we’re losing something by converting tech en masse to the puritan-left culture? I’m not making the argument here that libertarianism works for society, but that it’s peculiarly successful as a guiding ethos for a small group of creators. And that the puritan-left ethos may confer disadvantages of its own.

Puritan-left thought requires holding oneself to an unreachably high moral standard, knowing that you will always fall short. It demands that you continually model others’ capacity for offence in your head, and review and adjust your behaviour in the light of it. It frowns on questioning axioms and assumptions because many truths belong to others. This is not an optimal basis for starting out to rebuild the world. To take on hard problems you need to ignore naysayers, question all assumptions and have a certain disregard for society as it stands.

Libertarian values, on the other hand – autonomy, freedom of choice and assembly, individual judgement – seem admirably suited to startups. A code which teaches “demand nothing from others” can be a forcing function to make sure a startup stands by itself and builds something really useful.

And – to be clear! – this isn’t a argument that these values should be universal (I’ll save that for another time), but that they can be successful values for a group of people setting out to build something new. Silicon Valley’s mascot is the college dropout which to me has always represented a libertarian rejection of orthodox institutions. If that college dropout is replaced with a right thinking liberal arts graduate, we might be in trouble.

Richmond, London, 16/01/2020

Tags: #startups #libertarianism #left