On Liberthielism

"It's my dirt"

Photo credit: Voice of America

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of Peter Thiel, and if you’ve heard of Peter Thiel you surely have opinions. You might see him as a prolific venture capitalist, a savvy political strategist, and a visionary investor in Facebook, SpaceX, Palantir, etc. You might think he’s the devil incarnate for his role supporting the Trump transition, his avowed distaste for popular democracy, and his bald profiteering off of invasive tracking technologies.

I’m not here to weigh in on whether Peter Thiel is a goody or a baddy. But I do have some thoughts on the nature of his famous “turn” from outspoken libertarian to Trump-adjacent nationalist over the past half-decade. So, at the risk of giving him more credit as a political thinker than he deserves, here goes. 

Thiel was recently in the news because of some statements he made about how Bitcoin is being bought and sold. While claiming to be pro-cryptocurrency— that’s money produced and distributed ostensibly outside the clutches of the state—he portrayed the most important such currency as a potential threat to American security.

Via Bloomberg

“I do wonder whether at this point, Bitcoin should also be thought [of] in part as a Chinese financial weapon against the U.S.,” Thiel said during an appearance at a virtual event held for members of the Richard Nixon Foundation. “It threatens fiat money, but it especially threatens the U.S. dollar.”

He added: “[If] China’s long Bitcoin, perhaps from a geopolitical perspective, the U.S. should be asking some tougher questions about exactly how that works.”

This might seem rich coming from someone like Thiel, who has been bullish on crypto. Can you be pro-America, anti-China, and a self-professed “crypto-maximalist” at the same time? Can you be against state interventions in markets—except if it’s American interventions in Chinese positions in markets? Has he finally given up on the emancipatory potential of crypto and chosen nationalism over techno-libertarianism once and for all?

This apparent contradiction is just a small part of a supposed conundrum pundits have been trying to untangle since Thiel started talking about politics in the first place. For context, this is a guy who gave buckets of money to arch-nationalist Donald Trump but has also single-handedly has done more to amplify “exitarian” or secessionist projects such as the Seasteading Institute (creating new countries on floating platforms on the high seas) and Charter Cities (optimized micro-jurisdictions within existing jurisdictions) than probably anyone else alive today.

On the surface, Thiel’s hot take on China, in the wake of his Trumpism, could seem to represent a choice between the two strains of thought. It may strike some as a sign of the hollowness of his libertarian beliefs, or an endpoint to his intellectual pretenses.

I don’t think there’s necessarily an inconsistency between his wacky old libertarian projects and his new nationalist ones. Is it really so crazy for a nationalist to also advocate for varieties of self-determination, or for an independence-seeking libertarian to be deeply chauvinistic about the state he’s chosen? Is it unusual for a nationalist to endorse the use of a new currency in order to further his own national agenda but not his enemy’s? Nationalists have agitated for self-government on ethnic, religious, civic or ideological terms for the past and some hundred years.

If you add technology and throw in some talking points about freedom, is it really so different?

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I was recently at a Zoom conference about the idea of “Exit” that featured seasteader extraordinaire Patri Friedman, crypto activist Nic Carter, another guy named Nick who works on Urbit (tldr: decentralized computers (I think?)), and Dryden Brown, a young American who’s working on creating a new and improved city-community, but found sudden notoriety for his Ghanaian adventurism and subsequent, inevitable scrape with the citizens of Twitter. 

These guys might be broadly called libertarian globalists: they want their freedoms within a jurisdiction, but also the option to roam freely in a personal and corporate capacity between jurisdictions—ideally landing in or creating one with an optimized set of rules. I am sure they all disagree on a lot within these boundaries, but what I’m trying to say is that they’re not the types to have Don’t Tread On Me snakes on their pickup trucks and American flags on their lawn.

Also: Peter Thiel’s money has in some form trickled down to (at least) three of those four speakers via their business or nonprofit ventures. These investments represent the '“libertarian” side of his politics.

The Zoom conference framed cryptocurrency as part of a broader “exit” strategy: an alternative to ordinary government-backed money. It lets people transact with less involvement with the state; perhaps someday it will also help people (or China) undermine it. For skeptics of fiat currency who abhor what they consider to be inflationary monetary policies, dealing in crypto serves a dual ideological purpose: sticking it to Big Keynes.

The Zoom conference was interesting because it took the idea of “Exit” to vastly weirder and more expansive territory than what its godfather, the economist Alfred Hirschman, intended when he wrote Exit, Voice, and Loyalty fifty years ago. It’s curious that this crowd, and the more well-known free-market Cato institute, embrace Hirschman, because my understanding is that he was basically a lefty and the first chapter of the book is a not-so-subtle dig at Milton Friedman—but hey, that’s the beauty of big ideas. “Exiting” doesn’t have to be confined to switching toothpaste brands or other small acts of consumer rebellion. Exiting from the state can mean opting out of the dollar by buying things with crypto; using decentralized, distributed internet infrastructure like Urbit; or indeed, creating new states or state-like entities to fit your hopes and dreams.

If you pull that off, then you get… government. With rules. Bureaucracy, small claims courts, a Department of Autonomous Motor Vehicles. Maybe all of these things are less annoying and stupid than the ones we deal with today (it would be hard for them not to be!) but unless you have a blanket open-door policy and admit anyone who wants to live in your city/seastead/community, “exitarianism” and nationalism aren’t fundamentally at odds.

Making your own state, in your own image, out of dissatisfaction with your own circumstances—that’s what nationalists of all stripes have done over the past hundred and some years. Perhaps the difference between a coup and a secession just a matter of geography.

When I think about these things, I always end up with the same scene in my head. It’s the part in Don DeLillo’s White Noise where Jack, the protagonist, is considering his daughter’s bathing habits.

In bed two nights later I heard voices, put on my robe and went down the hall to see what was going on. Denise stood outside the bathroom door.
"Steffie's taking one of her baths."
"It's late," I said.
"She's just sitting in all that dirty water."
"It's my dirt," Steffie said from the other side of the door.
"It's still dirt."
"Well it's my dirt and I don't care."
"It's dirt," Denise said.
"It's my dirt."
"Dirt is dirt."
"Not when it's mine."

With that out of the way, two narratives can be true at once.

One is that Thiel once flirted with libertarianism out of youthful idealism. In the process, he realized—rightly!—that sovereignty is routinely bought and sold. The investments he made in the potential future sovereignties borne of seasteading and charter cities may have seemed expensive, but by the time he made them he was so rich that they amounted to pocket change. They put him on the map as a political thinker, and allowed him to cultivate an entourage.

Were they weird? Sure. Interesting? Definitely! Did he believe in them? Who cares.

The other narrative is that Thiel has always been kind of a conservative guy whose involvement in these projects is a function of this nationalist, America-first belief system. Because the America he wants is one that might not (always) exist, he wants to be free to leave. He also wants leverage (in the form of, say, tax competition) from other states to make his America better. Hence his sustained interest in “competitive governance”, or neoliberal globalism—in the service of the nation.

He knows not everyone agrees with him, but that’s fine, because he can afford both a proper, established insurance policy (he bought a New Zealand passport some years back) and to diversify his ideological assets: giving some cash to seasteaders and the like. Exit is the nuclear option, and he’s made sure it’s a plane ride away, but it’s much easier to stay put. That is the context in which he operates.

This is all to say that there’s an internal logic to “liberthielism” and that it has as much to do with a particular intellectual tradition as it does with Thiel’s position within the American political system. This is a guy who wanted his own country and realized it was easier to capture the state he was in. And frankly, if you don’t like it, then that’s on America. Thiel doesn’t need to move to New Zealand—at least not yet. He also doesn’t need to construct a new country on the high seas over which he is sovereign. Why? Because U.S politicians like Trump and now J.D Vance are here to slurp up his cash, no questions asked, and there’s a whole media ecosystem ready to eat up his every word.

If you need proof, consider how intertwined Thiel’s dealing have become with the U.S state. Palantir, one of his tech-babies, is piecing together the digital border bit by bit—a sovereign’s prerogative if there ever was one. He’s suddenly defensive of the evil, statist dollar—a dollar that he probably has an awful lot riding on it. He’s suddenly not against the state per se, but he’s definitely not a fan of the Chinese.

That’s not shocking and it’s not contradictory. It’s his dirt, and he doesn’t care.