Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal Inc., answers a question during a news conference. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Peter Thiel: Libertarian, Contrarian or Something Else?

(Bloomberg) -- Panopticon as a Service. That’s one inevitable conclusion from my colleagues’ brilliant dive into the secretive startup created and backed by Peter Thiel, Palantir Technologies Inc.

The story opens with a JPMorgan Chase & Co. security executive turned power-consumed rogue. With the help of Palantir’s technology, the executive’s security team inhaled JPMorgan employees’ “emails and browser histories, GPS locations from company-issued smartphones, printer and download activity and transcripts of digitally recorded phone conversations. The team kept a lookout for potential turncoats and leakers.

What could go wrong?

Well, apparently, the bank’s senior executives didn’t like it when their all-seeing eye turned on them. Read the story to get the full tale. The magazine cover image for the article: Peter Thiel’s pixelated eye.

The story implicitly raises one of Silicon Valley’s most persistent questions: Does Peter Thiel have a coherent worldview? He clearly fashions himself the industry’s most independent thinker, but perhaps he is also its most incoherent. Or a thinker who doesn’t seem too preoccupied with trying to advance his professed worldview. In a recent talk at Stanford University, Thiel discussed the importance of steelmanning, or constructing the soundest version of someone’s arguments. Peter, I’m going to try.

One of the clearest articulation’s of Thiel’s thinking comes from a piece he wrote in 2009—five years after the founding of Palantir—titled “The Education of a Libertarian. In the piece, which is probably best remembered for its swipe at women’s suffrage, Thiel wrote that he no longer believed libertarians should focus on achieving their ends through politics. (Ironic in hindsight, given Thiel’s role in electing President Donald Trump.) In the piece, Thiel wrote, “In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms.” He gave up on the notion that the masses will ever really embrace his anti-collectivist viewpoint.

Instead, he outlined areas where libertarians might find refuge, the first of which is cyberspace. He wrote, “The hope of the internet is that these new worlds will impact and force change on the existing social and political order.”

Palantir doesn’t seem to be moving the world in that direction. Quite the opposite. The existing social and political order—governments, banks, the wealthy establishment—often buy the company’s tools to enforce the status quo and squash rebellion in whatever form it might take. With Palantir, Thiel is helping to build a world he says he wants to escape. The man so concerned with privacy that he helped destroy Gawker has supported two of the world’s most anti-privacy companies. (He sits on the board of Facebook Inc.)

Thiel had once said Palantir could be a force for good in a society under threat from terrorism. It’s unlikely that Thiel is surprised by what Palantir has become. The company was named after a set of seeing stones in the Lord of the Rings. Sauron, the bad guy, likes them a lot!

It raises the question of whose liberty Thiel is really worried about. The masses’? Or just his own and those select few with the economic means to afford a private getaway in New Zealand (with citizenship)?

Many commentators have come to the conclusion that rather than truly being a libertarian, Thiel is merely a contrarian. Some of his friends say this, too. I can see why people think that. After all, whatever Thiel does, people in Silicon Valley usually wish he’d done the opposite. Contrarianism is a profitable investing strategy. But saying the world should look like the opposite of whatever everyone else says it should be—regardless of what they’re actually saying—doesn’t make much sense. What happens when the world wants privacy to protect their liberty?

Maybe Thiel’s view is that the world is better with him taking a contrarian position, as that might help move society toward the intellectually cacophonous end-state that he may crave. If that’s the case, Thiel should take stock of the vast influence he has accumulated and realize that his actions have immense consequences.

I once profiled the conservative intellectual Harvey Mansfield, who held a similar contrarian attitude. He told me that in another world in which he wasn’t surrounded by liberals, he might not be a conservative at all. But Mansfield spent his time provoking his students into uncomfortable thought and occasionally holding a conservative conference for the sake of intellectual debate. More destructive, however, is when contrarianism is used for bankrupting media companies, electing presidents and building all-seeing technology companies.

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To contact the author of this story: Eric Newcomer in San Francisco at enewcomer@bloomberg.net.

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