In the vein of Ted Kazinsky, Karl Marx, and others before him, Marc Andreessen has proudly penned a manifesto, The Techno-Optimist Manifesto . Or more properly, “a rant.”
I chose the word “rant” with care. He’s ranting against something, but it’s a terrible essay riddled with citations from racist writers (whom he admires), straw men, false dilemmas, and reads like a high school sophomore barely squeaked out a passing grade in a macroeconomics course.
Were it not for the fact that it’s authored by a famous billionaire, it would just be another screed on another blog no one reads (like this one).
The central thesis is the call for “accelerationism”:
We believe in accelerationism – the conscious and deliberate propulsion of technological development – to ensure the fulfillment of the Law of Accelerating Returns. To ensure the techno-capital upward spiral continues forever.
It’s possible that Andreessen isn’t aware that fascists and white supremacists love accelerationism , but given all of the authors he cites, including admiration for “the father of accelerationsim,” Nick Land, I strongly doubt this. Nick Land, in particular, is often accused of advocating for “scientific racism” and eugenics .
Andreessen also calls for free markets and for people to stop hating technology. The following assumes that he’s arguing in good faith and not deliberately using deceptive arguments. Also, libertarians are, demographically, overwhelmingly white males from rich countries and have long harbored white supremacists , but there’s too much to unpack there, so that is (unfortunately) being left out of this response.
Let’s get the easy one out of the way.
Andreessen uses the word “technology” 48 times in his rant. He opens with this:
We are told that technology takes our jobs, reduces our wages, increases inequality, threatens our health, ruins the environment, degrades our society, corrupts our children, impairs our humanity, threatens our future, and is ever on the verge of ruining everything.
This encompasses two central themes in his work: the role of technology in society and Andreessen’s inability to understand what people are complaining about.
Let’s say I visit Andreessen’s house and I see a nail gun lying around. It’s a bit of technology which either makes carpenter’s lives simpler or takes work away from them, depending one’s point of view. I wouldn’t care if Andreessen has a nail gun.
If, however, Andreessen was using that nail gun to kill puppies, I would definitely care and Andreessen would apparently assume I have a problem with nail guns.
Dear Marc: it’s not the thing we object to, it’s the abuse. As we read this on a smart phone or a computer, as we ride our bikes to work, as MRIs diagnose diseases and save our lives, few of us are objecting to those things.
Yes, there are certain forms of technology we object to because they’re inherently harmful—internal combustion engines (ICE), for example—but until we have a suitable replacement, no one’s calling for outlawing ICE tomorrow. Even when Europe banned the sale of new ICE after 2035 , the time frame was an explicit acknowledgement of the benefits of this technology, while also pointing out the obvious dangers of it.
It’s not technology people object to. Andreessen’s argument is a straw man. He extols the virtues of technology with drooling ecstasy, ignoring that virtue stems from humanity, not tools.
Andreessen writes, “We believe free markets are the most effective way to organize a technological economy.” Two paragraphs later he then rails against central planning.
We believe Hayek’s Knowledge Problem overwhelms any centralized economic system. All actual information is on the edges, in the hands of the people closest to the buyer. The center, abstracted away from both the buyer and the seller, knows nothing. Centralized planning is doomed to fail, the system of production and consumption is too complex. Decentralization harnesses complexity for the benefit of everyone; centralization will starve you to death.
Hayek’s “Knowledge Problem” refers to the famous article The Use of Knowledge in Society (pdf), by Friedrich Hayek. In this writing, he skewers the notion that central planning can lead to effective economic outcomes. It’s a good, important work and should be read by anyone who wishes a better understanding of the limits of central planning.
Andreessen sets up the great debate, writing “centralized planning is doomed to fail, the system of production and consumption is too complex.” He attacks communism several times, to make it clear that it’s the communist bogeyman he’s warning us about. He also positively cites libertarian works to let us know that laissez-faire is our Savior and Lord.
There are two little problems with him setting up the epic battle of free markets versus central planning. The most obvious is that no one is arguing for central planning. Marx’s ideas, like Marx himself, are dead. There are few economists who take him seriously. Even the Chinese Communist Party has shifted to a “socialist market economy” , recognizing that central planning doesn’t work. Communism and central planning are safely in the hands of barstool philosophers and pose no threat.
The other problem is that he’s setting up a false dichotomy . In a tremendously complex world with radically different value systems across its face and mounting climate and ecological chaos, reducing one of the core debates to naïve dualism isn’t enlightening anyone.
However, his writing isn’t always bad.
We believe there is no conflict between capitalist profits and a social welfare system that protects the vulnerable. In fact, they are aligned – the production of markets creates the economic wealth that pays for everything else we want as a society.
I’ve met many a libertarian who argues strongly against welfare on the grounds that people should tend their own estates and government handouts take away our incentive to succeed. Tell that to a single mom working at McDonalds to support two children. So Kudos to Andreessen for suggesting that social welfare systems are OK.
Curiously, Andreessen later writes, “We believe a Universal Basic Income would turn people into zoo animals to be farmed by the state.” This was stuck in the middle of the manifesto like a porcupine in a petting zoo. I read the text around that several times and I still have no idea what it means, but like most of the rant, it was a bizarre assertion without justification.
While ranting about communism, telling us that only free market capitalism can save us, he blithely ignores the central problem with capitalism today. Yes, he is correct about the power of markets. Prior to capitalism, the world was largely guided by mercantilism . Capitalism supplanted mercantilism by proving that economics wasn’t a zero-sum game. Eventually, we should hope for a post-capitalist society that addresses the fatal flaw of capitalism: it has no mechanism for handling externalities .
I don’t know what a successful post-capitalist economic system would look like any more than a mercantilist would have predicted capitalism. Two of the most significant externalities we face today are climate change and ecosystem collapse, but we clearly see that laissez-faire capitalism can’t deal with it effectively. This isn’t just some lefty idea. The US Department of Defense considers climate change a national security priority The US military isn’t traditionally associated with radicals or lefties.
So Andreessen, by pulling the typical libertarian trick of ignoring the central problem with capitalism, successfully guts his own screed.
This part is just bizarre. Andreessen writes:
We believe in market discipline. The market naturally disciplines – the seller either learns and changes when the buyer fails to show, or exits the market. When market discipline is absent, there is no limit to how crazy things can get. The motto of every monopoly and cartel, every centralized institution not subject to market discipline: “We don’t care, because we don’t have to.” Markets prevent monopolies and cartels.
I confess that I laughed myself silly at that last sentence.
OK, before we unpack this, we need to understand what “market discipline” is. Per Investopedia :
Market discipline is the onus on banks, financial institutions, sovereigns, and other major players in the financial industry to conduct business while considering the risks to their stakeholders. Market discipline is a market-based promotion of the transparency and disclosure of the risks associated with a business or entity. It works in concert with regulatory systems to increase the safety and soundness of the market.
There are a couple of interesting things to note about this. First, it talks about risks to stakeholders, nobody else. Risks to customers can become risks to stakeholders, but only if the customers realize that risk. Risks to non-customers, such as from pollution? Who cares? Not their problem. And while Andreessen approvingly quotes Adam Smith about the nature of “self-interest,” there’s another quote of Smith’s which Andreessen didn’t bother to include (pdf):
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.
That, by the way, is from a law review paper entitled “Adam Smith on the Inevitability of Price Fixing.” The quote further reads:
It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.
There is no market mechanism to protect against this. The only recourse is in the second interesting thing in Investopedia’s definition of market discipline: regulatory systems. The market’s internal mechanisms for protecting the public have a core problem: businesses are comprised of people and sometimes people think they can get away with stuff and, sometimes, they can. If you decide that Coke, Pepsi, and other products are bad, you can easily switch to water. But what if there is no substitute? Think “insulin.”
And if the market is so great at preventing cartels, why is the US Department of Justice on a tear, prosecuting so many of them ?
This naïvete about “market discpline” is a symptom of libertarian groupthink.
It’s also worth reading The Market for Lemons (pdf), an economic paper that won the author a Nobel Prize. It describes how markets degrade when the seller has more information about their product than the buyer. This is called “information asymmetry” and there is, again, nothing in the market mechanism which can guard against this. Even in our “information age,” the buyer often has little way of knowing if the product they’re buying has defects.
Or you can read about the four-square , an unethical, but perfectly legal technique into pressuring people to pay too much money for a car. Again, the market can’t prevent this. In fact, it incentivizes this unethical behavior to the detriment of the consumer.
In addition to railing against the non-existent communist threat, he implies that those who object to our current situation are Luddites:
This upward [techno-capital economic] spiral has been running for hundreds of years, despite continuous howling from Communists and Luddites.
Luddites? In the early 19th century, the Luddites were :
British weavers and textile workers who objected to the introduction of mechanised looms and knitting frames. As highly trained artisans, the new machinery posed a threat to their livelihood and after receiving no support from government, they took matters into their own hands.
They were being replaced by low-skilled workers and many of the skilled workers found themselves out of work and starving.
At first blush, this does seem to resemble people like me, worried that my skilled labor is going to be replaced by AI, but this is a faulty comparison.
Eventually, the financial boom created by the Industrial Revolution translated into new jobs and an increased standard of living . The interim was rough for workers because the government was only acting in the interest of the wealthy and it took decades before those workers found skilled work that the machines could not do.
With how powerful the new AI is in its infancy, where will be the skilled work the AI can’t do? People are already using ChatGPT to help them build entire apps and plenty of people are losing their jobs to ChatGPT . As this new technology improves, more jobs will be lost. Unlike the Luddites of old, today’s Luddites are facing a future where there will be few jobs this technology cannot do. When we fully combine it with robotics to replace manual labor, the future looks grim.
What are we to do when we’re losing our homes and can’t afford to eat? Presumably, Andreessen’s answer will be something along the lines of “let them eat cake.”
More likely, since he’s a billionaire, he adheres to the unofficial libertarian motto: “screw you; I got mine.”
Note: because there’s simply too much to cover here, I’ve included an annotated copy of his manifesto here . Comments are open, so feel free to leave them there or here.