Liberaltarianism: Silicon Valley's emerging ideology of "disruption with economic airbags"

Boing Boing favorite Steven Johnson (previously) has written at length about the emerging politics of "liberaltarianism" in Silicon Valley, which favors extensive government regulation (of all industries save tech), progressive taxation, universal basic income, universal free health care, free university, debt amnesty for students — but no unions and worker acceptance of "volatility, job loss, and replacement by technology."

Johnson calls it "disruption with economic airbags."

It's an interesting evolution beyond the kind of cartoonish Ayn Rand Libertarianism that once ruled Silicon Valley, but which has seen steep declines in recent years.

Johnson points out that tech workers have discovered that they have political power. Their industry is the nexus of more wealth and information control than any in modern history, and it has a massive labor shortage. That means that tech workers who flex their muscle can force their employers to leave billions of dollars on the table by objecting to immoral products and courses of action.

However, this seems to have produced a blind spot where labor relations are concerned. I am always at pains to point out to tech workers that they aren't more important than the janitors who clean the toilets at their offices — their company could no more survive a terminal cholera outbreak than it could a mass exodus of engineers. But because of the shortage of skilled tech workers, they have more power. This has led tech workers into a kind of exceptionalism that denies the agency of other kinds of workers who are more easily replaced, but whose work is every bit as important (and whose innate worth is ever bit as high) as tech workers'.

Johnson frames his piece around the political career of Ro Khanna, a progressive, Sanders-adjacent Democrat whose congressional district encompasses Apple HQ, Intel HQ, and Tesla's main plant. Khanna is a good proxy for the shifting politics of Silicon Valley: leftward, with odd-shaped exceptions.

Khanna and his tech constituents may be aligned on the idea of addressing income inequality through government intervention, but in other ways, he is strikingly at odds with the prevailing views in his district, particularly when it comes to labor and regulation. With regard to labor, the big tech companies tend toward the paternalism of offering free goods and services on lavish campuses, as well as good pay. But their generosity has come with some caveats. In 2015, Adobe, Apple, Google, and Intel agreed to pay $415 million to settle a suit claiming they had violated antitrust laws by agreeing not to hire one another's engineers, which would have the effect of keeping salaries down. Nor do most tech companies directly employ the low-wage workers who would most benefit from unionization. Cleaning and delivery tend to be outsourced. In the Tesla manufacturing facility in Khanna's district, the company has reputedly blocked efforts by its employees to join the United Auto Workers union. CEO Elon Musk, via Twitter, has denied these accounts: "Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tomorrow if they wanted. But why pay union dues and give up stock options for nothing?" But the National Labor Relations Board has filed a complaint with multiple charges against the company.

Asked about those NLRB complaints, Khanna is quick to side with labor: "I believe that Tesla needs to do a better job in allowing for union organizing at its plant and also working with union workers." But he's more philosophical about the tech sector's general resistance to unions. Tech culture celebrates iconoclasm, individualism, he says. "But a union is very much about solidarity. About the community. About a social movement that you're part of."

The thornier issue for the tech sector is regulation. With growing calls for antitrust investigations of companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, the tech sector's general contempt for the regulatory state looks less like a principled stance and more like an attempt to avoid responsibility for the social and economic harm it can foster. Tech is known for pushing back against regulatory oversight, from Uber's aggressive battles against taxi regulations to disputes with European Union officials that culminated earlier this year when the new GDPR regulations took effect.

The Political Education of Silicon Valley [Steven Johnson/Wired]