Atlas Shrugged Meets Mad Max: Billionaires Heading for the Hills

The lone Trump supporter amongst the billionaires of Silicon Valley, venture capitalist and angel investor Peter Thiel (50) – worth an estimated $2.6bn – has all but given up on the future. Convinced that systemic collapse is but a few keystrokes away, Mr Thiel acquired a 477-acre sheep station on New Zealand’s sparsely-populated South Island where he hopes to survive Armageddon.

Already in 2011, the German-born businessman – Mr Thiel is an American by choice – managed to fast-track his application for Kiwi citizenship by securing ministerial sponsorship. Though Mr Thiel had only visited the country briefly and claimed no intention to live there, the New Zealand government of the day swiftly granted his request on the basis of vague promises to support local IT start-ups and promote the country’s business interests overseas.

Mr Thiel is by no means alone in his love of New Zealand. The country has become a promised land for moneyed preppers, a sort of latter-day Galt’s Gulch where Ayn Rand’s Real Men of Genius – the vilified heroes of Atlas Shrugged – find the freedom to pursue their lucre without hindrance or guilt. Far away and separated from evil by vast seas, pristine New Zealand has thus become the Mount Ararat of people with more money than trust in tomorrow.

Snake Oil

Take the trailblazing Peter Thiel who also sports a loony side. Mr Thiel, for example, swears by the rejuvenating power of parabiosis – the snake oil which, amongst a great many other things, claims that blood transfusions sourced from young people can add years to the recipient’s lifespan by reversing the ageing process.

In a 2016 Vanity Fair interview, Mr Thiel took a strong stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and – remarkably – the ideology of the inevitability of the death – “of every individual.” Just as he is currently able to buy citizenships, Mr Thiel shortly expects to buy life as well.

Mr Thiel and many of his fellow doomsters are part of a cult that coalesced around a rather obscure libertarian treatise published in 1999 and written by James Dale Davidson – an advisor to the über-rich on how to extract profit from adversity – and William Rees-Mogg – a former editor of The Times and father of Jacob Rees-Mogg, esteemed dealer in alt-truths and enfant terrible of Brexit Britain.

The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age is, at first glance, an unlikely candidate for cult status – the book’s lame title doesn’t hold much promise. However, inside, the authors present an apocalyptic view of a future derailed by disruptive technologies that shatter democracy and obliterate the nation state – both condemned as protection rackets devised by the mediocre many to steal the thunder of the talented few – aka liberalism.

Flights of Fancy

From this echo chamber in which Atlas Shrugged meets Mad Max arises a brave new world led by a “cognitive elite” – a class of individual sovereigns each of whom commands vast resources and shapes local government to suit his or her needs, subjecting those less gifted (and sovereign).

Though this all sounds rather esoteric, if not far-fetched and exceedingly fanciful, The Sovereign Individual is, alas, not at all a tract that can easily be dismissed for lacking in intellectual rigour or depth: the book is actually well structured, well written, and well argued. However, to those not in possession of the proverbial silver spoon, the book is a dark read indeed.

Then again, the dystopia of some may be the utopia of others. And so it is with Mr Thiel who can already now picture himself on his throne, ruling as a sovereign individual over his fiefdom whilst the world is being consumed by synthetic pestilence, vengeful artificial intelligence, nuclear winter, or some other cataclysmic event.

The book’s authors point to New Zealand as the likeliest stage for the resurgence of human society, albeit in its feudal 2.0 guise. An enterprising journalist found that Messrs Davidson and Rees-Mogg already in the mid-1990s anticipated the end times and bought a large ranch on the southern tip of New Zealand’s North Island. There, they were joined by former finance minister Roger Douglas who in the 1980s almost singlehandedly disassembled New Zealand’s welfare state and reshaped the country’s economy by selling off state assets and deregulating its markets – thus creating the very conditions that now proof irresistible to millionaire preppers.

Dark Thoughts

It is almost as if Mr Thiel and his fellow survivalists – Marc Andreessen (founder of Netscape), Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn), Sam Altman (Silicon Valley grandee) et al – cannot wait for the eschatological script to unfold and hit the global reset button. In that particular sense, the affluent Silicon Valley or New York doomsayer is no different from the Primitive Baptist in Topeka, Kansas, who prays every day for the end-times sequence of Great Tribulations, Rapture, and Second Coming to begin.

What unites the millionaire doomsters and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church is a pitch black view of humanity and the conviction that before – way before – everything used to be so much better. Hope is not something appreciated, let alone cherished, by doomsters, survivalists, and other societal hypochondriacs.

The antidote to this soul-numbing affliction is Professor Steven Pinker, a Canadian-American psychologist and writer roundly hated by all who sustain doubts and keep dark thoughts. Prof Pinker isn’t one to confuse pessimism with profundity; in fact, he strenuously objects to being called Panglossian, arguing that in Candide, Voltaire did not at all satirise the optimism of the Enlightenment but instead had Professor Pangloss justify the religious theodicies that dismiss human suffering as irrelevant since creation is by its very definition a work of divine perfection. To Steven Pinker, professional optimist, Prof Pangloss – a literary figure hailed as the greatest philosopher of the Holy Roman Empire – is a pessimist at heart because he does not believe in a better world.

Enter Light

In Enlightenment Now, Prof Pinker presents a striking manifesto for science, reason, humanism, and progress – all the things rejected by the cognoscenti now flocking to the ends of the earth. His new book follows the path beaten by The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) which showed, over 832 pages, how violence has declined across the world to an all-time low thanks to the interplay of four motivators – empathy, reason, self-control, and morality (the four “better angels”) – which nudge humans towards cooperation and altruism.

In The Better Angels, Prof Pinker drove libertarians up the wall with his assertion that social contract theory, such as first described by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, is largely responsible for the steep decline in violence. The nation state that emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries claimed a monopoly in the legitimate use of force, strongly inhibiting individual coercive action. Libertarians and individual sovereign wannabees traditionally consider any neutering of humankind’s more base impulses and instincts a direct assault on their individual freedom to dominate others. Hence, any agent or agency that limits or restrains those “freedoms” is suspect and even inimical.

In his latest book, Prof Pinker adds insult to injury by claiming that we are now also healthier, safer, happier, and better educated than at any time in history. The upbeat professor informs his readers that over the past quarter century, every single day some 137,000 people managed to climb out of poverty. In other news: between 2003 and 2013, Kenya’s population saw ten years added to its life expectancy. And, outside a few African trouble spots, famine has now been banished. Finally, for more than half of humanity there is no time like the present: whilst full equality may not yet have been attained, modern women enjoy historically unprecedented levels of freedom.

Prof Pinker piles on data to prove, sometimes to beyond the point of reason, that life has never been so good. However, he does not claim that progress is unidirectional or irreversible. The professor admits that the world is still far from perfect and that humanity has a long way to go before progress has run its course.

Past Performance No Guarantee

Even in history, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Thus, when Prof Pinker states that improvements in the human condition are likely to continue, he ventures into the realm of judgement. Just as Aristotle warned never to call a life good until it has ended, celebrating humanity’s progress is perhaps a bit premature in a world ruled by Donald, Vlad, Kim, Ali and other assorted wingnuts and gunslingers.

Prof Pinker is, however, ahead of the curve and delivers a passionate appeal for an urgent reappraisal of science and reason in the face of growing scepticism. In fact, wherever and whenever experts are dismissed and reason is replaced by alt-truth, things tend to go horribly wrong. From Brexit Britain to Trump’s spend-now-pay-never America and the schizophrenic Iran of the ayatollahs, the exit of reason heralds without fail the arrival of chaos.

Prof Pinker attributes humanity’s good fortune almost exclusively to achievements originating from the Enlightenment when humanism, science, and reason replaced blind faith, superstition, and myth – and allowed humankind to tackle its problems systematically.

Of late, the Enlightenment is, of course, blamed for nearly all ills of modern society such as the materialism that deprives life of its (imagined) inner meaning and the utilitarian rationalism that dehumanises and even, it is claimed rather preposterously, opens the road to Auschwitz.

Whilst Nietzsche declared God dead, modern man – the pessimist living in near-constant fear of some apocalyptic event and powerless to take charge of his own destiny – seeks meaning where there is none: after all, science tells us that we are but stardust and, as such, apparently of no lasting consequence. For some, this lack of ulterior purpose – i.e. existential flatlining – is severely unsettling and requires a deity, or sacred cause, to be called into existence and provide meaning.

Not so Prof Pinker who cheerfully insists that increased trust in science and reason runs in tandem with human progress across all metrics. Regrettably, Enlightenment Now suffers from a deficiency common to Anglophone thinkers who usually lump European philosophy together under the “postmodernist” catch-all: the writer stubbornly refuses to understand the true meaning of Nietzsche regarding the great German philosopher at best as a crypto-fascist avant-la-lettre. Thus Prof Pinker misses out on a vast body of thought and a rich cultural universe that could have provided him with added ammunition.

What makes Prof Pinker’s work both interesting and a valuable antidote for doomsday fears is its well-argued message to keep calm and carry on – and be happy as science works hard at removing whatever still troubles us – from cancer to climate change. Simplistic, perhaps, but surely a lot better – and much more sensible – than to stock up on canned beans, lock and load the AR-15, and head for the hills – or New Zealand.

The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age by James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg – Touchtone (€24.40) – ISBN 978-0-6848-32722-2.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker – Viking (€17.00) – ISBN 978-0-5255-5902-3.

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