Ron Paul’s Billionaire
Peter Thiel made a fortune investing in the right ventures at the right time. So why is he investing millions in a doomed presidential campaign?
It’s a downer of a speech, but when it’s over, students sprint to a microphone to lob questions. Thiel takes them while holding an arm over his face to block out the blinding stage lights. A bunch of the questions are about the possibility of starting competing currencies. Thiel likes one of the concepts he hears—an alternative, gold-backed money produced by a company like Google.
“If you really wanted to create an alternate currency, it would have to be gold-based,” he says. “There are enough people who already believe in gold that you could probably get it to the tipping point. Starting completely from scratch is a lot harder to do. I have a lot more thoughts, but I’d say—you probably want to go with gold.
Another student wants Thiel to answer for something. When he created PayPal, one of the goals was to take financial transactions out of the government’s greedy paws. What happened to that?
“What I think is true of the way we negotiate with terrorists is also true of the way companies negotiate with governments,” says Thiel.
“Yeah: You never compromise, except in every specific instance. So, when you look at PayPal or Amazon, or Vis, or all these people, the question you have is: Were they doing this because it was a deeply felt ideological thing, that they had to do this? Or was it because the government had its screws on them? There’s sort of this liberal/libertarian argument: Companies are bad, and not to be trusted. I tend to think we need to put it against the background of insane regulation.” How insane? “The average American commits three felonies a day.”
Some Ron Paul supporters talk about the election as a choice: salvation or doom. Paul wins, and we survive. Paul loses, and Chinese Communists sell us off for parts. Thiel, who is ostensibly doing more than anyone else to help Paul win, is already looking past the election. It is teaching moment, maybe, that can convince more people to drop out and innovate. He is serious about that. If you want to drop out of college to innovate, he has a scholarship for you. If you want to try to fix the current American system, well, best of luck.
“I’m sort of skeptical of how much voting actually works in the first place,” says Thiel. “I used to think that it was really important to directly change the political system, to convince people of things. I still think it’s intellectually very important. Occasionally, you get some converts that way. But it’s really an inefficient way of doing things. One of the things I like about technology is that when technology’s un-regulated you can change the world without getting approval from other people. At its best, it’s not subject to democratic control, and not subject to the majority, which I think is often hostile to change.”
Thiel has invested in a presidential campaign; he’s also invested in a plan to build floating sovereign island nations. This is a donor who likes to plan for the future.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.