Understanding the Tech Right
The next decade will be shaped by Silicon Valley fully entering our politics
What’s happened with free speech on the internet in the last year is quite remarkable. Twitter was a platform that dominated public discourse, amplifying left-wing points of view and suppressing conservatives. It was the main tool relied upon by those in media, academia, and activism to cancel those with views they disapprove of. And then…a guy just bought it. As I pointed out before the sale to Elon, conservatives adopting an approach of “let income inequality run wild, and hope a few of the rich guys are on your side” is not a bad strategy. In fact, it’s a better strategy than winning over intellectuals, who I see as having a tendency towards being effeminate and conformist, in contrast to guys who make a lot of money. Maybe that’s what the Paul Ryans of the world were doing the whole time.
Timnit Gebru, one of those people whose whole career is to make sure AI doesn’t say anything politically incorrect, has coined the term TESCREAL, which stands for Transhumanism, Extropianism, Singularitarianism, Cosmism, Rationalism, Effective Altruism, and Longtermism. An academic named Émile Torres is very concerned that TESCREAL is rising as a self-conscious ideological movement.
Gebru and Torres are easy to mock, but they’re generally correct that there’s something very interesting happening in tech. In addition to Musk buying Twitter and boosting data on race and crime, one can point to the long-running intellectual and political activity of Peter Thiel, Andreessen and Balaji as openly right-wing pundits, Brian Armstrong shutting down woke activism at his company, and David Sacks and Joe Lonsdale joining Elon as major supporters of DeSantis. Last year, you even had Bezos putting out some anti-Biden tweets. One can consider Vivek as part of this shift too, with his background in bio-tech. There are also conservatives in the industry who usually don’t discuss their views publicly but are Republican donors, a category that includes Douglas Leone of Sequoia Capital, former Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and current CEO Safra Catz. Substack itself was created to explicitly push back against leftist suppression of speech. While it wouldn’t be correct to say that most tech entrepreneurs are conservative, the industry has produced a large share of right-wing thinkers and activists of a higher stature than what we’re used to.
If you want further evidence that there’s a large right-wing contingent in Silicon Valley, note that when I polled my readers about their backgrounds and occupations, by far the most common field was tech.
This might be surprising, given that I’ve never worked in tech, have no connections to the industry, and have written next to nothing on the topic. But the chart above makes sense if you think TESCREAL has real influence, since the ideology as described by its critics is not too far off from my worldview.
Over the years, I’ve followed successful tech entrepreneurs who have reputations as public intellectuals, while getting to know some of them personally.
There are clearly some things that unite this group, and other than scholars in the field of TESCREAL studies, I haven’t seen anyone try to spell out exactly what they are. Since TESCREAL sounds horrible to my ears and is painful to look at, let’s call it the Tech Right. This moniker fits both because many of the intellectual leaders and inspirations of this movement work in the tech industry, and because its views on technology are fundamental to its worldview.
Here, I’ll spell out what the Tech Right believes, explaining where it disagrees with the left and different strands of the right. While the Tech Right is right wing, it can’t be called “conservative” to any meaningful extent, unless you want to define the term as whatever is opposed to modern American liberalism. Finally, I’ll share some thoughts on where the Tech Right goes from here. While it has differences with American conservatism, there’s no reason the two sides can’t work together for the foreseeable future. The shapes of our politics and culture in the coming decades will depend on how and to what extent they do.
Right-Wingers for Progress
In our current politics, one can simplify the world by saying that conservatives are in favor of hierarchy and against change, with liberals against hierarchy and for change. While this isn’t how things always work out in practice, and there are many nuances and qualifiers one could add, this is at least how each side perceives itself. The Tech Right combines the acceptance of inequality of the right with the openness to change of the left. The pro-change, anti-equality quadrant is the sweet spot for support for capitalism, so of course they tend to favor free market economic policies. This explains the enthusiasm in this world for Bitcoin, which represents the longstanding libertarian dream of society moving away from fiat currency.
The Tech Right believes in biology having a large role in determining individual and group outcomes. This is simply a matter of what liberals call “following the science,” except in this case that’s actually what they’re doing. Traits like intelligence and work ethic, in fact all traits, indeed have a strong genetic basis. When talented individuals create new things, it inevitably disrupts old technologies, practices, and ways of life. History shows that the tradeoff has pretty much always been worth it. If you think the Enlightenment was a mistake because eventually we got transgenderism, you need some perspective.
Although the Tech Right may or may not claim Steven Pinker as an inspiration, they generally share his basic philosophy that life has been getting better. The Tech Right looks at the graphs at Our World in Data, marvels at how far we’ve come, and knows that at every step of the way, everything good that we have was at some point opposed with plausible sounding appeals to equality or tradition. What are the odds the naysayers are right this time? Some among the Tech Right think that AI doomers have a good argument, but they usually believe most other supposed existential threats like climate change and misinformation are overblown.
Falling birth rates is another problem that the Tech Right takes more seriously than the mainstream, and if one wanted to seriously argue against progress, pointing to declining fertility is the best case one can make. That being said, no one wants to live like a medieval peasant, and one can’t force people to be religious if science and access to information has made it less plausible, so it’s unclear what traditionalists can actually offer people in this area. Appropriately enough, the Tech Right is more likely to put its faith in technology to get us out of this problem, and we can already see that in Denmark 10% of births are produced by IVF. The experience of Israel indicates that if technology caused lower birth rates, it can also contribute to reversing the trend towards smaller families. In addition to IVF and other services already available, biotech companies are working on delaying menopause, and whether or not any particular procedure or drug comes to fruition, the next several decades are sure to see new consumer products that give people more and more control of when and how they have children, along with what traits they have.
The lack of concern with social and economic inequality is the basis of anti-TESCREAL criticism. You can see the funny ways in which these academics think here, where Torres argues that they’re racist for caring about existential risks to humanity instead of racism, etc, because if you prevent extinction there will still be inequality. To me, there’s nothing inherently right wing about worrying about existential risk, but if your general orientation to politics and life is to be obsessed with race and gender issues and to see everything else as a distraction from them, then I guess it makes sense.
If religious fundamentalism dominated American institutions, the Tech Right would probably be known for its opposition to it, and might have to be classified as a left-wing movement. As such, institutions are dominated by wokeness, and so this is the mind virus it struggles against. Talking to the Tech Right, it seems many of them have had their views shaped by spending a lot of time in San Francisco, and wondering why the homeless are defecating everywhere. As soon as an open-minded individual starts thinking about crime and urban disorder, they find that misguided compassion and anti-racism are why the country can’t have nice things.
A belief in natural inequality causes the Tech Right to also oppose wokeness when it comes to affirmative action and diversity. A lot of liberals work in areas like activism, academia, or government, where there aren’t good objective measures of success or failure, except perhaps the ability to produce a lot of paperwork. This leads to an assumption that there isn’t that much of a tradeoff between diversity and what we want institutions to be able to accomplish. People with backgrounds in business, particularly industries that produce tangible products, tend to take a different perspective.
If the Tech Right sounds mostly like libertarianism, that’s because to a large extent it is. There are a few main differences, however. First, while libertarians tend to oppose almost all forms of government spending, the Tech Right will often make an exception for, unsurprisingly, tech. This might be in part due to self-interest — see the public campaign in favor of bailing out the depositors of Silicon Valley Bank. But it’s also the result of enthusiasm for big projects that can move humanity forward. Even libertarians can acknowledge that the production of fundamental scientific knowledge may be a collective action problem, so may end up underproduced in a free market system. While the left wants to spend money to reduce inequality and the right wants to let the market work things out, the Tech Right is open to spending money as long as it goes towards cutting-edge science and research.
Moreover, “Big Libertarianism” has in recent years funded and supported those in favor soft on crime policies, an effort that is known as criminal justice reform. The Tech Right tends to be strongly in favor of law and order. This disagreement might be rooted in different fundamental ideas about human nature and the causes of individual variation in life outcomes. While some forms of more politically correct libertarianism might tend towards blank slatism, which leads to the belief that criminals can be reformed and turned into productive members of society, biological realism suggests a different path.
The Tech Right has differences with mainstream conservatism that are in many ways much more fundamental than those they have with libertarianism. Basically, if you want to know where the Tech Right and the mainstream right diverge, just look at Elon Musk’s Twitter feed and find the places where he disagrees with his biggest fans. Musk has come out in favor of legal immigration, and euthanasia, at least for adults. He seems to carefully go out of his way to not take a stand on abortion.
On immigration and trade, one can think of restrictionism as a kind of right-wing form of affirmative action. Conservatives realize that diversity leads to a less productive workforce and slows down human progress, but somehow also believe that preferring Americans over the other 7.5 billion people in the world doesn’t have serious costs. Conservatives worry about the second-order effects of immigration and talk about how new arrivals might vote or cause a decline in social trust. But the Tech Right doesn’t believe enough in social science to grant that it can tell us much of anything about the political ramifications of population change, within reasonable limits. It might be bad because new arrivals support socialist policies, or good because it destroys social trust and decreases support for redistribution. If immigration produces difficulties down the line, deal with them then. Engineers tend to work on problems one at a time as they come up, as that’s the only feasible path forward, and public policy should be the same way, particularly since society is much more complicated than any machine or computer program.
The Tech Right tends to be patriotic in ways that are different from a typical Republican. This group may be called globalist in that it thinks internationally and is less inclined than most to make fundamental distinctions in moral worthiness based on whether an individual is a fellow citizen or not. That being said, Tech Right patriotism is rooted in a vision of national greatness, or America as the force in the world that best represents the legacy of the Enlightenment and the one nation still able to do great things. European economic, cultural, and technological stagnation looms large in their minds. Some members of the Tech Right have shown a bit of admiration for China on the same basis, though that has cooled in recent years due to policies like the tech crackdown and zero covid, as it appears under Xi it is following the European path of preferring stability and safety over greatness. All of this is in contrast to the more parochial patriotism of mainstream conservatism, which is simply attached to the country and doesn’t want it to change too much.
My experience with the Tech Right is that this crowd is becoming more tribal, and so individuals will really go out of their way to exaggerate their differences with the left and downplay those with the right. When I try to explain to people in this world that certain conservative positions are bad, they find excuses as to why certain things should be overlooked or why conservatives will never be able to accomplish their ultimate goals anyway. At the same time, when it comes to places where they disagree with liberals, they always imagine them enacting the most extreme forms of their preferred policies without giving a second thought to their feasibility, while having a vivid imagination when it comes to slippery slopes.
Not that long ago, I was talking with a friend whose life is dedicated to working in the biotech space, ultimately for the betterment of humanity. I tried to explain to him that it is the right that is most hostile to his project, and they would be the ones to shut him down if they could. I pointed to evidence like conservatives trying to hinder stem cell research and working to maintain restrictions on gene editing. He refused to accept this, and kept making up scenarios in which liberals ban beneficial biotech on “equity” grounds. I replied that, while that sounds theoretically plausible, in the real world mainstream liberals are for all intents and purposes complete libertarians on reproductive issues, while conservative activists are already talking about when to go after IVF, as their publications screech about every biotech advancement as the road to eugenics. None of this matters. He’s picked the red tribe, and he’s going to ride with it to the end.
Anyway, this is part of the reason I don’t think that the Tech Right and mainstream conservatism will split over their differences anytime soon. In addition to the fact that liberals have more power and therefore unify their opponents, many of the Tech Right have come to identify with the red tribe, which leads them to downplay differences they have with it, even within their own heads. Plus, the Tech Right is pretty much all male, which reduces the salience of reproductive issues, one of the areas where they’re most likely to differ with conservatives.
Where Did the Tech Right Come From?
It’s natural to wonder why it’s tech in particular that has been unique in producing several wealthy and intellectually influential individuals known for being at odds with mainstream liberalism. Why, for example, hasn’t the oil industry or investment banking produced many individuals like Elon, Andreessen, and Thiel? Even when other industries do have politically influential conservatives, they tend to be of a different sort. Charles Koch donates a lot of money to right-wing causes, but isn’t on Twitter sharing his political opinions. If he was, he’d certainly get a lot of attention.
To explain why tech is different, I think it’s useful to look back at a realization that I had while I was in academia. Everyone knows about DEI, but I tended to have more frustrations with IRB, the acronym that refers to Institutional Review Boards. As a professor or graduate student, every time you want to conduct a survey or experiment involving human subjects, you have to waste hours of your time getting “ethics approval.” A media company or any other private firm that wants to conduct a survey doesn’t need anyone’s permission. But universities decided mostly on their own to burden their researchers with useless paperwork. This is arguably required by federal law, but it seems like they could easily get away with not doing it and not suffer any consequences. Then covid came along, and as with “ethics,” we saw universities be the most heavy handed and risk averse institutions in the country.
I eventually concluded that there was a common thread between DEI, IRB, and covid. Universities have become a kind of halfway house for the most neurotic and conformist members of the educated class. People who care about truth and are passionate about their work would be outraged by DEI and IRB requirements and less likely to stand for them. If you go into academia, however, because you want the status of being a professor so it can make you feel like an intellectual who is more enlightened than other people, then the more paperwork the better.
You would think people who try to become professors are those most interested in ideas. My experience is, if anything, the opposite. They’re the kind of people who like the idea of thinking about themselves as people interested in ideas, but actually lack genuine curiosity about the world. If they did have curiosity about the world, they would go participate in it, where they’d have real experiences, find out how it works, and not spend their time bogged down in so much paperwork (disclaimer here: I’m talking about the social sciences, I have no direct experience with STEM). To the extent they wanted to produce intellectually important work, they would want to share it with the world, rather than write in impenetrable jargon directed at a select few. Of course there are exceptions, but the majority of academics have little to nothing important to say because they’re playing a status game, not a truth game.
One thing I’ve noticed from talking to conservatives in academia is that the university bureaucracy provides endless opportunities for their enemies to persecute them. The complaint processes surrounding ethics and anti-harassment are extremely easy to abuse, and one’s professional life can be ruined even if an individual has done nothing wrong. Left-wing academics are good with paperwork, small minded, and vengeful, making them very skilled at navigating these system and bending them to their ends. They don’t need to actually ban heretical ideas, but instead use the machinery of academia to gradually grind down those who won’t conform, as they did with Joshua Katz. Always keep in mind that academics are the people who selected into this world, and they did so for less money than they could’ve earned doing something else, since their reward is being part of a priestly class. Of course they’re going to defend established dogma.
One can think of tech as the inverse of academia. The “guy who starts something in his garage” cliché doesn’t get applied to many industries. Peter Thiel talks about how progress has stagnated in the world of atoms while moving forward in the world of bits. There appear to be two reasons for this. First, much of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked in the world of atoms, while software development is a relatively new field. Orville and Wilbur Wright could tinker around for a while and discover how to fly, but you and your brother probably aren’t going to be making advances in aviation on your own. Also, the world of bits, being new and having potential harms that are more abstract, has been subject to much less regulation than the world of atoms. Nuclear power is the canonical example of an industry that has been strangled by government. There are endless barriers to anyone who wants to do anything that requires moving objects around rather than manipulating symbols on a screen.
While the vast majority of the donations of tech employees go to Democrats, corporate PACs and CEOs seem to be more evenly divided. This makes sense from the perspective that leftism is a result of conformity. Those who went out on their own and founded a new industry are more likely to question dogma than those that go to work in the field once it is well established.
One can think of institutions as existing on a spectrum of bureaucratization. At one end, most centered around producing useless paperwork, is the modern university. At the other end of the spectrum is starting your own company, where it can just be you and your friends. Generally, the more bureaucratized the institutions, the more they appeal to conformists. The world of bits has for decades been the place where a talented and independent-minded young man with mediocre or below average social skills and connections is most likely to make his fortune.
Successful tech entrepreneurs at first mostly stayed out of politics. Around 2010, they were generally associated with the left, as Bill Gates began to be involved in areas like climate change and education reform. Then came the Great Awokening. Before that point, a reasonable person could ignore politics and assume that the people in charge were mentally stable and knew what they were doing. Yet it became clear over time that journalists and academics had lost their minds on everything having to do with race or sexuality. The media turned on tech itself, as the press came to blindly hate everything that was successful, or white, cis, and male. Over time, we see the results of the Great Awokening across our cities, particularly in the Bay Area, where the homeless population has exploded over the years.
Interestingly, the Great Awokening might’ve contributed to Bill Gates’ marriage falling apart. It appears that as a liberal, but one who cared about empirical reality, Gates wanted to put his money where it could do the most good. This caused friction with his wife, who wanted it going towards feminist causes without worrying about whether her preferred initiatives could be justified by the data.
Covid may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Having a strong grounding in empirical reality, Silicon Valley was worried about the coronavirus while much of the liberal establishment was saying it was racist to be concerned. Over time, however, it became clear that lockdowns didn’t really help all that much, and we developed vaccines that reduced what already had been a small risk of death for most people down to basically zero. Yet liberal institutions and jurisdictions, particularly in California, hung on to lockdowns, masking requirements, and security theater for way too long. Elon ended up moving Tesla to Texas over the issue.
In sum, the story here is basically that one industry attracted a disproportionate share of smart and non-conformist men. They mostly stayed out of politics, until the liberal establishment became too irrational and authoritarian to ignore. And, unlike most other people who have come to develop a justified hatred of liberalism over the years, they had the resources and influence to do something about it.
Whither the Tech Right?
American politics over the next decades will to a large extent be shaped by what the Tech Right does. Currently, they seem to be following trends on the right rather than exercising leadership. DeSantis, for example, has ridden the wave of anti-wokeness to his position as the only real challenger to Trump. He’s therefore attracted both standard conservative intellectuals and members of the Tech Right, with, as already mentioned, Elon, Sacks, and Lonsdale among his most prominent supporters. But there’s nothing in particular about DeSantis or his campaign that shows an ideological or attitudinal affinity towards the Tech Right. The Silicon Valley crowd is simply hitching its wagon to the most plausible anti-woke candidate who isn’t Trump.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Tech Right might start running its own candidates. I doubt this will work. The Blake Masters campaign can be seen as a failed version of that experiment. There’s nothing to indicate that Tech Right types as individuals have the ability to appeal to a wide swath of voters. Of course there may be exceptions; Vivek appears to be a natural communicator, and although he’s unlike to win the Republican primary he’s demonstrated a good deal of political talent. For the most part, however, the impact of the Tech Right will depend on their ability and willingness to fund and influence politicians who agree with them, not becoming elected officials themselves. At the same time, some might plausibly find their way into the federal bureaucracy. Balaji was reportedly in the running to head the FDA under Trump.
In between just becoming another species of Republican megadonor and running for office, there’s the possibility that the Tech Right exerts more intellectual leadership over the conservative movement. They certainly have the money and status to do so. The Tech Right is in many ways anti-populist, and will hopefully stand in the way of those trying to make Republicans more friendly to labor unions, entitlement spending, and economic regulation. There’s been something of a marriage of convenience between populists and the Tech Right based on the fact that both are anti-woke, but in the end decisions about how to govern have to be made.
According to people who pay close attention to the federal budget, we’re eventually going to reach a crisis point where the US will either have to raise taxes on most workers or cut entitlements. Right now, nothing is forcing a split between the populists and free marketers within the Republican coalition. In another decade or so, however, our political elite will have to choose which pill to swallow, and keeping the Republican Party dogmatically anti-tax is the only hope we have for not descending further into gerontocracy. My belief is that whatever economic populism currently exists on the right is only skin deep, something that is most aggressively championed when it can make Biden look bad, while free market ideals, particularly when it comes to not raising taxes, still have a stronger hold on the minds of educated conservatives. For the Tech Right, with its belief in economic and technological dynamism, having the country turn into a giant nursing home along the lines of Spain or Japan is a kind of nightmare scenario. Heading off economic populism now and not letting conservatives become too attached to protecting entitlements needs to be a top priority.
Another place that the Tech Right can push back is against a kind of traditionalism that seeks to run with the naturalistic fallacy and make it central to right-wing politics. I recommend reading this Mary Harrington profile of Peter Thiel. Harrington and Thiel have both spoken at the same National Conservatism conferences, but their views couldn’t be further apart, with one horrified by what she calls “transhumanism” and the other saying the problem with transhumanism is that it doesn’t go far enough. Currently, the strongest anti-progress forces are on the left, but some seem to be rising on the right too, and they’re worth opposing.
One thing the Tech Right provides to conservatism is intellectual and cultural capital. Some time ago I saw a kid in a spacesuit who told me he liked Elon Musk. Of course, no kid is growing up wanting to be Charles Koch, as impressive as he is, or a CNN journalist for that matter. Liberals gain to the extent to which they can give the impression that every smart and successful person in the world agrees with them. The Tech Right having both tons of money and intellectual and cultural influence is a powerful combination, and leftists are right to be worried. They haven’t faced a challenge like this before.
Lonsdale’s Cicero Institute has already worked to influence state policy on issues like homelessness and removing degree requirements, which you can read about here. In addition to impacting our politics more generally, Tech Right figures should hopefully start pushing the Republican Party in their preferred direction by direct lobbying, speaking publicly on important issues, and supporting intellectuals and political candidates they agree with.
Short of that, simply highlighting and naming a phenomenon is a way to give it power and influence. There’s a difference between hearing about a few successful tech entrepreneurs who are becoming politically active and understanding them as part of a movement. Until now, the anti-TESCREAL crowd have been the main ones to provide a comprehensive story of what is happening. This essay provides a sympathetic perspective of the same movement, and hopes to inspire those who’ve clearly seen the flaws of the left-wing establishment to appreciate the virtues of progress and seize the opportunities that are becoming available to replace them with something better.
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