A while ago, I stumbled across the following study of the political opinions of tech entrepreneurs, which found a distinctive pattern. Tech entrepreneurs tend to have liberal positions on social issues, globalism, and redistribution, while having conservative opinions on regulation.
Specifically, according to the questionnaire, tech entrepreneurs believe the following:
- We should not pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems at home.
- We should not, in trade agreements, prioritize American jobs over improving the standard of living of people overseas.*
- Free trade agreements are a good thing.
- We should let more people immigrate to America.
- We should have universal health care, even if it means raising taxes.
- We should have programs which benefit only the poorest Americans.
- We should support taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year.
- We should support taxes on those making more than $1 million a year.
- We should increase federal spending on the poor.
- We should not regulate Uber like taxis.
- We should not regulate gig workers like regular workers.
- It is too hard to fire workers.
- Government regulation of business does more harm than good.**
- Regulations on self-driving cars should stay the same.
- Regulations on drones should increase.***
- Regulations on how Internet companies store data should increase or stay the same.****
- Same-sex marriage should be legal.
- Abortion should be a matter of personal choice.
- The death penalty should not be legal.
- Gun control is a good idea.
*Actually, tech entrepreneurs still favor American jobs (boo! hiss!) but much less so than everyone else, so I’m counting it.
**Tech entrepreneurs are between “somewhat disagree” and “somewhat agree” on this one, which means they’re less pro-regulation than the average college-educated Democrat and Democratic donor, but more pro-regulation than any Republican and, weirdly, the average Democrat.
***Tech entrepreneurs are less pro-drone-regulation than college-educated Democrats and Democratic donors, about tied with Republican donors, and more pro-regulation than the average Democrat or Republican. No, I have no idea why average Democrats are so ambivalent about regulation.
****This is more anti-regulation than anybody except Republican donors.
As I read through this questionnaire, I was like “oh crap, I agree with tech entrepreneurs about everything”. So I thought I would sketch the outlines of the Silicon Valley liberal perspective from my own point of view.
If you have to sum up Silicon Valley liberalism in one quip, it’s “the government shouldn’t do anything except redistribution.”
That’s a little facile. The Silicon Valley liberal does see a role for regulation. A carbon tax can help prevent global warming. Congestion pricing could prevent traffic jams. It makes sense to regulate drugs so that people know they’re getting what it says they’re getting on the bottle.
But from the perspective of the Silicon Valley liberal, the burden of proof is on the people saying the regulation is a good idea. The Silicon Valley liberal takes seriously the idea of regulatory capture: they worry that special interests have an incentive to pervert even the most high-minded regulation into regulations that advance their own interests at the expense of everybody else. They worry about regulations making it easier to engage in rent-seeking, collecting money from people without actually benefiting anyone. They believe the invisible hand of the market usually improves outcomes for everyone, and before they accept a regulation they want to be sure that in this case the market has failed.
Most of all, the Silicon Valley liberal fears regulation because of their concern that regulation will hurt poor people. Zoning regulation and rent control are well-intentioned, but they mean that poor people in the Bay Area can’t afford a job within driving distance of their house. Minimum-wage laws might cause people to lose their jobs. Hairdresser licenses prevent poor women from getting good jobs braiding hair. A dyslexic I once knew who was an excellent carpenter illegally remodeled people’s homes for money because he could not read well enough to get the appropriate licenses.
When the Silicon Valley liberal supports regulations, they tend to support regulations that are minimal and freedom-maximizing. For example, Silicon Valley liberals tend to favor a universal basic income or negative income tax over more complicated welfare programs, because it gives people the maximum freedom to make their own decisions with what they should do with their money. Similarly, Silicon Valley liberals tend to prefer taxing harmful things to banning them, all things considered, because that allows people to decide to spew carbon or drive in crowded cities as long as it’s worth it to them.
You might notice that the ‘regulation’ section of the questionnaire is the one festooned with the most asterisks. I think that is because Silicon Valley liberals cannot fairly be described as anti-regulation. Rather, they are suspicious of regulation, but very very enthusiastic about regulation that passes the sniff test.
(One flaw with the questionnaire, unfortunately, is that since most of the questions are about tech it is unclear whether Silicon Valley liberals are suspicious about regulation in general or regulation of tech specifically. However, I live here, and the former is clearly the case.)
Silicon Valley liberals have a strong technocratic bias. They are unusually likely to identify themselves and their preferred policies as “economically literate.” If something could reasonably be described as “data-driven” or “evidence-based,” Silicon Valley liberals are inclined to like it. Silicon Valley liberals tend to support wonky policies: you can see several mentioned so far in this post, including YIMBYism, congestion pricing, carbon taxes, universal basic income/negative income tax, and opposition to licensing. (Here we can see the common DNA between Silicon Valley liberalism and effective altruism.)
I believe the technocratic impulse is behind the otherwise puzzling tendency for Silicon Valley liberals to support single-payer health care, which seems to go against all their heuristics about regulation. I have had many conversations with Silicon Valley liberals where they’re like “yeah, it’s weird that single-payer health care works, but it obviously does, so let’s do it.”
Silicon Valley liberals also tend to be globalist. It’s important not to overexaggerate here: while Silicon Valley liberals typically support free trade and freer immigration, they still believe trade agreements should favor American jobs over the welfare of people overseas. There is a natural tendency to prioritize people in one’s own country, which Silicon Valley liberals still have. One important detail, I think, is that Silicon Valley liberals tend to believe free trade and freer immigration benefits everyone, including poorer people in one’s own country; they point to the economic theory and empirical research that appears to show this is the case.
One thing I’m uncertain of is how best to describe the Silicon Valley liberal attitude towards social issues. Part of the problem is that, while there are certainly many programmers with very Tumblr attitudes on social issues, many of them are, for example, Communists. Unfortunately, people rarely identify their economic views before saying how extremely Tumblr they are, so it is difficult to estimate how many Silicon Valley liberals are extremely Tumblr. I am also trying to account for the fact that many of my friends are rationalists, who tend to be anti-social-justice because of a founder effect from Slate Star Codex.
Certainly, the Silicon Valley liberal has a libertarian bias in their thoughts on social issues. All things equal, the Silicon Valley liberal is likely to care more about drug policy, criminal justice reform, and civil liberties than an establishment Democrat does. “We should just leave the freaking cake guy alone and let him bake his homophobe cakes” is not necessarily a mainstream opinion among Silicon Valley liberals, but it definitely is more common than among liberals elsewhere.
There is certainly an anti-feminist tendency among many Silicon Valley liberals, as we see in famous cases such as James Damore. But there is also certainly a feminist tendency, as we see in famous cases such as all the programmers at Google calling for the firing of James Damore.
I hope that the “Silicon Valley liberal” terminology becomes more commonly used, because I think it makes discussion of Silicon Valley’s politics clearer. There are several other terms used to describe Silicon Valley liberals, but to my mind they are generally inadequate. Some Silicon Valley liberals identify as “neoliberal,” but the term is used for so many contradictory sets of beliefs that it appears to be utterly meaningless; certainly, Silicon Valley liberals are unlikely to follow the Austrian School and are often quite Keynesian.
Silicon Valley liberals also sometimes identify as “centrist” and “moderate.” While it’s true that Silicon Valley liberals are centrist and moderate in that they tend to agree more with Republicans on some issues and more with Democrats on other issues, they are not centrist and moderate in that their views on many issues are fairly extreme or outside the Overton Window. The research on tech entrepreneurs found that they were substantially more globalist than the average Democrat, and many Silicon Valley liberals support ideas that are ludicrously outside the mainstream (drug decriminalization) or don’t come up in conventional political discourse at all (UBI).
“Libertarian” is commonly used to describe Silicon Valley liberals, both by their supporters and their detractors (the former in such constructions as “left-libertarian” and “liberaltarian”, the latter in such constructions as “libertarian techbro”). While Silicon Valley liberalism has a definite libertarian tendency, I don’t actually think Silicon Valley liberals are fairly described as libertarians. Favorite Silicon Valley liberal policies such as a UBI would require in a massive expansion of the state’s power to tax. Many Silicon Valley liberals support regulations, such as a congestion tax or alcohol taxes, that orthodox libertarians would frown upon.
Over the next few years, I expect Silicon Valley liberalism to grow in prominence on the national stage, as the Democratic party adjusts to the increasing share of its big donors who are tech entrepreneurs. Perhaps we can even have senators and representatives from California who cater to Silicon Valley liberal interests. If this happens, it’ll be important that people understand what Silicon Valley liberalism actually is, and I hope this blog post helps spark a discussion.