Internet-savvy Tea Party activists have shoved the once small-government fringes of the Republican party into the spotlight, with Libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul a leading figure.
At the State of the Net Conference, I spoke with this new leader in the Republican party, asking about what life would be like for innovators if he and his small-government brethren continue their rise to power.
I kept it deliberately philosophical to understand how Paul will view issues in the future. Here are a few take-aways.
Science Funding, If You Can Find It
“The real explosion of the Internet was the lack of control,” argues Paul, in response to my question about if the Internet’s origins in military labs proves that government is essential to American innovation.
Paul maintains that we shouldn’t overestimate the need for government to support Silicon Valley. But, he’s a fan of federal-funded science and technology, just so long as it doesn’t add to the country’s trillion-dollar-sized debt. “I’d rather spend the money on R&D if there’s not a marketplace for that,” he says.
Paul is admirably consistent here; scientists freaked out over one of his early budget proposals to slash R&D funding, but calmed down after he brokered a deal with Democrats that would slightly increase funds for higher education and research (by finding other programs to cut, of course).
Civil Liberties Galore And No Killing Of Hackers
Paul infamously said that whistleblower Edward Snowden and intelligence director James Clapper should share the same jail cell (Clapper for lying to Congress). I pressed Paul on how he would treat information activists.
“There do have to be some rules and there are some problems with disclosing secrets and people could die,” he warns. But, security hawks “are calling for the death penalty” for Edward Snowden, “and I think that’s inappropriate.”
Paul wouldn’t commit to what punishment people like Snowden should receive. He is, however, suing the federal government to stop the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Internet and phone data. It’s no shocker that under Libertarian leadership, national defense would be dramatically cut back and civil liberties would take center stage.
Allowing Companies To Do Good, Stockholders Be Damned
Paul thinks that Silicon Valley should have more leeway to invest in socially beneficial products. “There is a sense, particularly in young people, they still want to make money, they want to do things that are successful, but they’re socially conscious.”
Paul says he’s supportive of legislation to give legal immunity to B-corps, (Benefit Corporations), which would allow for-profit companies to invest in sustainable products, even if it wasn’t the best way to optimize shareholder value. Stockholders “can always leave your company if they don’t like what you’re doing, but [business owners] should be able to do things, even if they’re not the least expensive thing, because you think this is good for the environment.”
Federalism For Everyone!
It’s a caricature of libertarianism to believe that it’s only about slashing the government into the smallest possible slice of its former self. “Federalism is that you devolve power, and the power is not all in Washington, it’s in different places,” Paul tells me, when asked about the future of small-government conservatism.
Under a federalist government, San Francisco could allow a drone to airdrop you a piping-hot taco, while New York City could choose to outlaw Amazon’s new army of delivery drones. Silicon Valley has always had a separatist itch; a libertarian might give them more room to experiment.
Though, in practice, Paul (and other libertarians) have valued no government over decentralized rule. Paul opposed the law that would allow states to collect Internet sales tax, which would have effectively hiked up everyone’s pajama-clad Christmas shopping splurge about 7%.
Federalism is a nice theory for now, but it’s unclear how it could impact the Valley.
Patents…Pretty Much The Same
Does Paul see patents as a legalized monopoly? In a word, no. “There are libertarians that have written that you shouldn’t have any patents — the market will just sort it out,” he said. “I think there ought to be protection for intellectual property.”
Recent attempts in Congress have tried to change intellectual property law, especially around patent “trolls” and for software, but there are no bills with serious traction. Either way, this doesn’t appear to be of serious interest to leading Paul and his ilk.
Unions A No-No
We’ve often noted that tech companies rank as the “best” companies to work for, despite having no labor union. Unions have a rough-and-tumble relationship with innovation, largely because technology destroys jobs. Would Paul give beleaguered unions a helping hand, or does he think they’re past their prime?
“I’m not opposed to the small guy organizing to have leverage against the big guy,” he explains. But, unions have gone overboard, he says. “Labor unions had their heyday; it was in trying to get rid of really horrific working conditions,” he continues. “I don’t think they really have a place in the high-tech industry.”
Yes, Libertarians Are Getting More Powerful
The right-wing traditionalists of the Republican party are getting thumped by tech-savvy libertarians. Tea Party founder Mark Meckler once explained to me how individualistic principles make libertarians so powerful on the net, “Because folks who participate tend to be so individualistic, what started to happen is, without anybody telling them, they immediately started to spawn hundreds and then ultimately thousands and then millions of web pages dedicated to tea party activity.”
Paul, whose father is an Internet political celebrity and former long-serving member of the House of Representatives, sees the same thing happening with his own base of support. “I think there’s a huge bunch of people who are a part of a leave-me-alone coalition,” he explains.
Though Silicon Valley leaders overwhelmingly support President Obama, Paul argues the political tides could change in his favor. His argument is worth quoting in full:
“When I’ve been out and visited Google or Facebook, when you go in, there’s an atmosphere of not of structure, there’s an atmosphere of, you know, not being able to go five steps without having food, or a nap, or play ping pong. It’s less rigidity and more openness. I think people are attracted to that; it’s sort of a libertarian sense, ‘as long as I’m not hurting someone else, let me do what I want to do.”
My 2 Bitcoins
Before I praise Paul, let me first note that I am not a fan of libertarianism. I find it an unrealistic social philosophy. Our personal success is inextricably linked to the lives of our neighbors and the rest of the world. If they suffer, we suffer. If they do well, we do well.
That said, this modern strain of libertarianism is growing on me. Our government is terribly inept. The refusal of the White House to partner with the tech sector on the failed launch of the health insurance website, healthcare.gov, shows that we need a radical rethinking of government.
So, as long as Paul and his ilk don’t recreate some Hunger Games-style version of ruthless capitalism that leaves the downtrodden without a safety net, and provides ample funding for education and research, perhaps our country could use a government diet.
There is still much more we need to know, but the direction is promising. Watch the full interview below.