The Disreputable Optimist
A Manifesto and a Movement, Part 2
I ended my examination of Marc Andreessen’s Techno-Optimist Manifesto by noting the generally hostile reception it has received on the left.
Partly this is because of Andreessen’s insistence that “centralized planning is doomed to fail,” a clear repudiation of the advocates of “industrial policy” and their proposals for a pro-growth agenda managed and directed by government. But that’s not really what got him into trouble.
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What got him into trouble is his long list of the “enemies” of growth.
Our present society has been subjected to a mass demoralization campaign for six decades—against technology and against life—under varying names like “existential risk,” “sustainability,” “ESG,” “Sustainable Development Goals,” “social responsibility,” “stakeholder capitalism,” “Precautionary Principle,” “trust and safety,” “tech ethics,” “risk management,” “de-growth,” “the limits of growth.”…
Our enemy is statism, authoritarianism, collectivism, central planning, socialism.
As I pointed out before, this is a little too scattershot. There are good arguments for unmasking the anti-progress mindset behind slogans like “existential risk,” which inflates every potential risk into an apocalypse, or “stakeholder capitalism,” which in practice is a heckler’s veto on innovation. “Risk management” and “trust and safety” (which refers to content moderation on social media) are more complex issues. What is rational risk-management, and how much moderation is needed to make a private forum usable? But that’s all too much to try to discuss in such an offhand way.
Andreessen does lock on more effectively to one of those ideas: the “precautionary principle,” which holds that we should stop new technology if we can even imagine any negative effect.
Our enemy is the Precautionary Principle, which would have prevented virtually all progress since man first harnessed fire. The Precautionary Principle was invented to prevent the large-scale deployment of civilian nuclear power, perhaps the most catastrophic mistake in Western society in my lifetime. The Precautionary Principle continues to inflict enormous unnecessary suffering on our world today. It is deeply immoral, and we must jettison it with extreme prejudice.
So he really is taking aim at core ideas of big government and the welfare and regulatory state, and he got some of the defensive reactions you might expect.
At the core of the collective critique is a profound misunderstanding of the way the world works—specifically why everyone everywhere used to be really poor and why that’s no longer the case. This quote from Gizmodo’s Ropek (bold by me) is telling:
In general, the most distressing thing about the techno-optimist’s manifesto is that it’s basically just a big apology for unrestrained capitalism. Andreessen’s document is a hodgepodge of bad libertarian economics that aren’t based on anything resembling social or fiscal realities but are, more or less, an excuse for bad corporate behavior…. For example, here is one snapshot of Andreessen’s thinking: “Productivity growth, powered by technology, is the main driver of economic growth, wage growth, and the creation of new industries and new jobs, as people and capital are continuously freed to do more important, valuable things than in the past.”
That “snapshot of Andreessen’s thinking” isn’t “libertarian economics” or “trickle-down economics” or “neoliberal economics,” it’s economics. Like, total Econ 101 stuff, really.
He goes on to quote, in support of this claim, such wild-eyed radical libertarians as Paul Krugman.
The most compelling criticism of Andreessen is that he does not practice his exhortation that “it’s time to build”—that his venture capital fund has backed scammy cryptocurrencies and NFTs, or that it funded Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, which has destroyed a lot more value than it has created. Fair enough. But this doesn’t take on the ideas, just their messenger.
The more interesting reaction comes from those we would expect to be sympathetic to Andreessen’s message: the so-called “Supply Side Progressives,” center-left commentators who have cautiously begun to embrace the idea that excessive regulation and sclerotic government are getting in the way of growth and future prosperity.
For those writers, however, the Techno-Optimist Manifesto poses a particularly dangerous dilemma: a challenge to their precarious perch on the fence. I have described Supply Side Progressivism as a halfway house for those who are trying to be more open to the power of markets and individual initiative but who still want to maintain their “progressive” credentials. The Techno-Optimist Manifesto is a challenge to them because it so forcefully argues that a pro-progress agenda is not “progressive”—or rather, the other way around: that what is called “progressivism” today is profoundly anti-progress.
This, I think, explains some of the ambivalence of the reactions from people like Noah Smith and Matt Yglesias.is far more sympathetic, but he tries to carve out a role for “statism and central planning.”
[A]nyone who thinks that technology is pushed forward solely by scrappy inventors in their garages, while government and big business merely parasitizes off of their labors, is deeply wrong. And anyone who thinks that technology is pushed forward solely by government planners, while the private sector merely parasitizes off of government’s efforts, is also deeply wrong.
In effect, Smith argues that it is not either-or but both-and, and he argues for an “all hands on deck” approach toward progress in which government and private enterprise will work together. I regard this as the triumph of hope over experience, but it is the most reasonable response to Andreessen.
Matt Yglesias does not cope as well. He creates a straw man version of Andreessen’s manifesto (while specifically denying that he is doing so), with such gems as this one:
[W]hile the anti-nuclear activists drastically overstated the safety issues with nuclear plants and the difficulty of dealing with nuclear waste storage, it is true that these are real issues. Like if you just didn’t store the waste and flushed it down the toilet instead, that would be really bad. And while we should not regulate reactor designs so strictly that we are left using more dangerous sources of energy instead, this is obviously not a space where you want an everything-goes free-for-all….
And that’s to say nothing on the weapons front. You can’t go down to Walmart and buy a tactical nuclear weapon. They don’t sell ICBMs over the internet.
Yep, that’s not a straw man at all. Marc Andreessen complains that we stopped building nuclear power plants, so that means he’s in favor of flushing nuclear waste down the toilet and selling ICBMs on the Internet. It’s kind of embarrassing, frankly. I suspect that Yglesias’s previous endorsements of ideas similar to the Techno-Optimist Manifesto prompted him to make such a strenuous—and strained—effort to differentiate himself from those icky free-marketers.
But the most revealing argument is from New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, the most prominent champion of Supply-Side Progressivism. Klein complains that Andreessen’s enemy “is anything or anyone who might seek to yoke technology to social goals or structures, who would erect guardrails or impose limits on the John Galts of tomorrow.”
But hasn’t Klein flirted with exactly those arguments? Here is his explanation:
There is a special pain in seeing ideas you believe in deformed for such purposes. Andreessen and I are not that far apart on some of the basics. For years, I’ve been arguing for politics to take technology more seriously, to see new inventions as no less necessary than social insurance and tax policy in bringing about a worthier world. Too often, we debate only how to divvy up what we already have. We have lost the habit of imagining what we could have; we are too timid in deploying the coordinated genius and muscle of society to pull possibilities from the far future into the near present.
So where exactly is the difference? Klein’s answer is revealing.
I’ve been digging into the history of where and when we lost faith in technology and, more broadly, growth. At the core of that story is an inability to manage, admit, or even see when technologies or policies go awry. The turn toward a less-is-more politics came in the 1970s, when the consequences of reckless growth became unignorable. All the manifestoes in the world count for little against the burn of smog in the lungs and the trapping of heat in the atmosphere.
In effect, if people have turned against industry, technology, and capitalism, it is all the fault of the “recklessness” of the advocates of growth, who provoked a necessary and understandable reaction.
But nuclear power, where Klein grudgingly admits “regulation has been too heavy-handed”—quite the understatement—is the giveaway about what this argument really means. What has nuclear power ever done to justify the suspicion and hatred directed at it? Over a track record of many decades, it has proven to be the safest, cleanest, and most abundant form of power known to man. How did it deserve the deeply entrenched campaign to expunge it completely, as Germany is doing, even when it is the only large-scale practical answer to what environmentalists claim is the most important issue of the day?
But taking on this fear-mongering directly would scare the horses. Or as Klein puts it, “Treating so much of society with such withering contempt will not speed up a better future. It will turn people against the politics and policies of growth, just as it did before. Trust is the most essential technology of all.”
In effect, Klein’s complaint is that Andreessen’s pro-progress arguments are disreputable. They are too combative and confrontational. He challenges “progressive” opponents of progress by taking them bluntly head-on. Instead, Klein’s approach is, in effect, moral appeasement. Soothe the progressive left’s fears and suspicions by loudly declaring your fealty to every one of their pet causes, your sympathy to every one of their prejudices—and then maybe they might allow you to build something.
The result he’s looking for is a “synthesis” that attempts to make technological and capitalist achievement tame and respectable enough to be tolerated.
Andreessen is not entirely wide of the mark here. There are ways in which these virtues have become undervalued, in which the left, in particular, has a dysfunctional relationship with individual achievement and entrepreneurial élan. But what’s needed is a synthesis Andreessen doesn’t even attempt.
This makes a certain kind sense, I suppose, for someone coming from a “progressive” background, where even small challenges to the orthodox agenda must make him feel like he has already made a courageous and radical departure and dares go no further. There is no more entrenched aspect of this progressive orthodoxy than a hatred and suspicion of business, of capitalists, and of industrialism. So it must seem that the only option is to gently soothe these fears and jealously guard his credentials as one of the good guys who is not an apologist for those evil capitalists.
This is what I think is most revealing about the reaction to the Techno-Optimist Manifesto. I am not a catastrophist—the American economy is growing vigorously, life in developed countries has never been better, and it is on a path to becoming better still. This isn’t about how the West is going to collapse and we’re all gonna die. It’s about how we could be doing better.
We are not achieving the speed of progress and explosive growth that is really possible to us and to the world. The kind of reaction we see from Klein explains why.
I long ago concluded that the most important factor for achieving growth and progress is that we have to want it. Like Andreessen, we have to see it as so centrally important to personal fulfillment and human flourishing that we place it as a top priority, above other things that might get in the way. Yet for all their aspirations to be pro-growth, this is precisely what the Supply Side Progressives won’t do. They want progress but only if—and “but only if” means: only if they can preserve all of their existing political loyalties. Sure, let's have progress, but don't scale back any regulations, don't cut any taxes, basically don't change the status quo in any significant way. So when someone like Andreessen comes along calling for those changes, they have to shoot him down.
This is the basic dilemma of the "supply side progressives." They want the self-image of being in favor of growth and progress and prosperity—but without losing the respectability of being left-wing “progressives” in good standing. They would like to see things built, so long as they are the right kind of things (solar farms and housing for the homeless), and it’s done by the right people (government officials and non-profit do-gooders), and in the right way (with soothing apologies to all the right activist groups), and above all, so long as nobody makes much of a profit from it. And then they will wonder why reform efforts stall and not much gets built.
Klein talks about how Andreessen “yearns for a kind of person, not just a kind of technology.” But what he doesn’t see is that his outlook is defined by a fear of that sort of person.
The sort of people who build and innovate can be, like Andreessen, rough-hewn and combative. Maybe they will quote Nietzsche, and I hope they make references to Ayn Rand. They may not be eager to explain themselves to grandstanding politician or sooth the prejudices of political activists. They will be disreputable.
But we have to decide that growth and innovation are important enough to override these prejudices, that we don’t want people to be able to come up with new ideas and put them into practice only if they make it through a long approval process, don’t pose any risk, and don’t ruffle anyone’s feathers.
By reminding us of the overriding importance of growth to human life and prosperity, and by poking at some of the delicate sensitivities that would get in the way of growth, the Techno-Capitalist Manifesto has helped remind us of this.