What Should We Call Silicon Valley's Unique Politics?

A new survey of tech-company founders shows they’re socially liberal and favor taxing the rich, but as anti-regulation as hardcore Republicans.

Part of Apple's contingent at the 2016 San Francisco Pride parade
Part of Apple's contingent at the 2014 San Francisco Pride parade (Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

In an effort to understand the politics of tech’s wealthy elites, Stanford researchers surveyed 600 technology-company founders, asking them about different policies.

The caricature of Silicon Valley people, which we’ve pilloried before, are that they are simple libertarians. The new survey continues to deconstruct this silly portrait. Fewer tech founders (24 percent) than Republicans (63 percent) or Democrats (44 percent) generally agree with a simple statement of libertarian philosophy: “I would like to live in a society where government does nothing except provide national defense and police protection, so that people could be left alone to earn whatever they could.”

But tech founder politics are different from either political party in unusual ways. Tech founders are developing a new, strange kind of politics that’s opposed to regulation, but for redistribution through taxation.

The New York Times has a really excellent visualization of the core ideological findings:

How The New York Times visualized the Stanford data (Karl Russell)

Look at the big bubble in the yellow tech founder column: Don’t regulate and do redistribute. None of the other large groups they surveyed showed a comparable interest in this political philosophy.

The “do not regulate” category was formed from responses to questions about regulating Uber, how the gig economy should be structured, whether it is too hard to fire workers, and the general proposition of whether “government regulation of business does more harm than good,” as well as specific questions about regulating drones, self-driving cars, and internet companies.

For example, 80 percent of tech founders think economic inequality is fine if it means the economy grows faster and 75 percent of tech founders think labor unions should lose influence. “They look like Republican donors when we ask them these questions,” said David Broockman, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor who coauthored the study with fellow academic Neil Malhotra and journalist Greg Ferenstein.

And yet, when the researchers asked the tech founders about taxation and redistribution policies, they expressed major support for things like “universal healthcare, even if it means raising taxes,” increases in spending on the poor, and taxes on high-income individuals.

If tech founders had their way, government regulation might not stop you from financially falling through market action, but it’d bounce you back up. This is government not as a shaper of markets, but as a market-failure compensator. It’s not quite a “social safety net,” but maybe it’s a social trampoline.

This in part explains the interest of Silicon Valley in a universal basic income, which would distribute a cash stipend that’s enough to cover the basic necessities of life. While the nominal recent interest in UBI stems from fears over job displacement by robots, the UBI solution squares perfectly with the underlying ideology of tech founders. This is a group of people who don’t want government or organized labor to check their power over workers or restrict the disruptions their products may have in existing industries. But their liberal social politics lead them to wanting some kind of societal cushion for capitalism.

Which is one reason my colleague Ian Bogost suggested this name for the tech-founder political philosophy: “Trust me.”