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May 21, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Feeling the Thiel

The story of the world’s freest man

German-born Silicon Valley Libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel is on a mission to change the world with radical ideas. But don’t expect him to do a Donald Trump and flirt with a run for political office any time soon. Thiel’s political message is simple: the masses have given up on unregulated capitalism, so those who support unregulated capitalism should give up on the masses. Who is this man, and could he affect the course of human history?

Perhaps some of you only know Thiel from his depiction in ‘The Social Network’. Thiel was the first outside investor in Facebook, making a $500,000 investment (now worth $1.7billion). The directors make their intended portrayal of Thiel perfectly clear: Dramatic and ominous music sets the scene as a young Mark Zuckerburg is told “We’re walking into the offices of a guy whose hero is Gordon Gekko”. This guy is a billionaire super-capitalist: He knows how to get very rich and if you’re lucky he’ll take you along for the ride, so don’t fuck with him.

Is Thiel just an out of touch, cold hearted rich prick? I don’t think so, but at times he hasn’t done himself a lot of favours. It’s hard to look at the Thiel Fellowship, a scholarship which gives 20 young people $100,000 each on the condition that they drop out of college, and not see a hint of narcissism; if education was an unnecessary detour on his path to his venture capitalist riches, why would anyone else bother? Thiel clearly has an ultra competitive streak; in 2002 whilst celebrating the sale of PayPal over a few drinks he played 10 games of chess at once. He lost one, and reportedly smashed all of the pieces off the board in anger, declaring “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

You have to look beyond this to see Peter Thiel the ideologue and philanthropist. On the one hand Thiel looks to science and technology as the future of human development, and backs up his beliefs with cold hard cash. In 2006 he made his biggest ever donation—$3.5million—to the Methuselah foundation which aims to extend the human life span, potentially by hundreds of years. Thiel has also donated to the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. More broadly, Thiel continues to invest in technology start ups, he even made a $15 million investment in the New Zealand Venture Capital fund, and is part owner of New Zealand accounting software start up Xero.

Thiel channels his Libertarian beliefs to create a better society. In a controversial column penned for the Cato Institute (a Libertarian think tank) in 2009, Thiel declared that “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible”, arguing that suffrage for women, among other things, had entrenched a democratic anti-freedom super majority, and that further erosion of economic freedom was inevitable. Thiel’s solution is for individuals to use technology to escape the clutches of government. One of the original aims of PayPal was to create virtual currencies incapable of being controlled or manipulated by central bankers. More recently, he has talked about using gold as an alternative to greenbacks, even tentatively endorsing a gold-backed Google-run currency at a recent presentation. Thiel also wants to create communities beyond the reach of government. He has supported space exploration and Seasteading (the creation of permanent, autonomous communities on the ocean), donating $850,000 to The Seasteading Institute, a charitable organisation run by Milton Friedman’s grandson.

Is Thiel’s desire to take his billions away from the taxman how you think of freedom? Possibly not, but don’t forget the name because he isn’t going away.


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