by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The latest Fortune magazine cover story focuses on the interesting ideas of billionaire Peter Thiel. The following excerpt offers just a few examples of why the cover headline proclaims “Peter Thiel Disagrees With You.”
Thiel’s support for anti-aging research is perhaps the most extreme manifestation of his being a “definite optimist”—a person who, as Thiel defines the term in Zero to One, believes “the future will be better than the present if he plans and works to make it better.” Thiel contrasts such a person to an indefinite optimist, someone who thinks “the future will be better, but … doesn’t know how exactly, so he won’t make any specific plans.” Thiel abhors the latter outlook, which he feels predominates in America.
A second notorious Thiel charity is the Seasteading Institute, which he co-founded in 2008 with the aim of launching floating cities outside the reach of existing governments. In our conversations, however, Thiel spoke of this project almost in the past tense, noting that “it’s quite hard to do, both technologically and culturally.”
Thiel’s most infamous charitable project has probably been his 20 Under 20 program, which provides gifted students between the ages of 18 and 20 with $100,000 to launch their own startups. The program empowers “definite optimists,” but also highlights Thiel’s view that we are in an “education bubble,” in which colleges saddle undergraduates with needless debt by tricking them into thinking their degrees will be worth more than they really will be.
There has been pushback. Former Harvard president Larry Summers called the program “the single most misdirected philanthropy in this decade,” according to TechCrunch, while Slate Group chairman Jacob Weisberg wrote in Newsweek, “Thiel fellows will have the opportunity to emulate their sponsor by halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood, maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible and thereby avoid the siren lure of helping others or pursuing knowledge for its own sake.”
For all the controversy, it’s a narrow program. “It’s classic Peter,” says [venture capitalist Marc] Andreessen. “You’ve got people in the academy freaking out like it’s the death knell for organized education,” he says. “It’s 20 kids a year. Wake me up when it’s 20,000 kids.”