San Jose, Calif. — Silicon Valley is a strange place: Everyone is young, everyone is rich, and everyone seems like they’ll always be young and they’ve always been rich. If you’re coming from Manhattan or Atlanta or Houston, you feel like you’ve landed in the future, but only a little bit, maybe six months. What’s new everywhere else is, as a great poet once put it, “so five minutes ago.”
That is the immortal line from Clueless, a 1995 teen-movie adaptation of Emma. If you don’t think that 1995 is ancient history, check out these 2016 teenagers trying to figure out Windows 95. Yes, you are older than you thought. But nobody here is going to call you clueless — not to your face, anyway. Everybody is rich, everybody is youthful, and everybody is nice. Granted, there’s a certain undercurrent suggesting that this is the same kind of Children of the Corn nice and well-scrubbed that you experience in Minneapolis — you do get that vibe, that they might cut you into tiny pieces of man-sashimi, dunk you in gluten-free soy sauce, and eat you with sustainably grown fair-trade bamboo chopsticks in their Snaidero kitchens while listening to an unreleased Devendra Banhart track.
What does happen is that the technology businesses for which this community is famous invent and build cool stuff in a process that throws off millionaires and billionaires by the ton. The interesting thing is that technology’s nouveaux riches out here in California building the 21st century have reached way back to the East Coast in the first half of the 20th century for guidance on building a new rich-guy culture.
I served for many happy years as the editor of the Main Line Times in Lower Merion, Pa., one of the last bastions of the old WASP blue-blood culture. Sure, people played polo and owned steeplechase horses, but there was a surviving strain of that old Puritan modesty that informed the local culture. The ancient Main Liners who would, despite their inherited millions, have been embarrassed to show up at the Cricket Club driving anything flashier than a Ford (“The old guard thought Lincolns were for Jews and Cadillacs for Italians,” as one old lion of the country club explained to me) were at the beginning of the 20th century still rolling their eyes at all the Mercedes and BMWs rolling down Lancaster Avenue. You might have $40 million in the trust fund, but you still were expected to volunteer at the library and the PTA and to buy most of your clothes at Lord & Taylor. (And there’s nothing wrong with Sears, for that matter.) Ask one of those old Main Liners who Gianni Versace is, and they’d have guessed he ran a pizza parlor. (And they’d have said, “pizza parlor,” too.)
It’s not that there isn’t conspicuous consumption here. There is, and it takes the same form as that of the great old capitalists slandered by the envious and the small as “robber barons,” which is to say: good works. You don’t advertise how rich you are out here with a flashy watch or an absurd Italian sports car, but by what you give away.
You don’t advertise how rich you are out here with a flashy watch or an absurd Italian sports car, but by what you give away.
The commitment to philanthropy here is in fact remarkable. It isn’t just billionaires giving away a few millions they won’t miss — although, let’s not sneer at those mere millions, either — but an entire civic culture built around the assumption that successful people will invest both money and time in doing good on a large scale. That philanthropy is shaped by the tech industry’s expectations of high return on investment, and the business of measuring philanthropic effectiveness has taken off as a field of enterprise in itself. Of course there are carping critics, the antediluvian types at the New York Times who insist that these billionaire captains of industry should be fighting for the politically managed redistribution of wealth rather than working to make private philanthropy more effective — and that completely misses the point. There are not in fact very many self-professed libertarians out here, but the reflexive belief that government should be, or is going to be, the primary actor running the show when it comes to building a better world simply isn’t an operating assumption among the famous founders and venture capitalists who shape the culture of Silicon Valley.
But at less rarefied levels, that familiar, unthinking California progressivism remains regnant. People really do believe that if there isn’t a large, expensive, expansive, federally run welfare state providing cradle-to-grave succor and free false teeth, then we will descend, inevitably, into something somewhere between Oliver Twist and Fury Road.
One of the great fictions we’ve perpetrated on ourselves is the belief that we ultimately face a choice between Ayn Rand and Thomas Hobbes: an atomistic, individualistic, capitalistic ethic that rejects the philanthropic impulse categorically vs. Leviathan, an almighty potentate to which we owe allegiance because the alternative is bellum omnium contra omnes, a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth: When you have a thriving free-market economy throwing off great gushing rivers of profit, the most successful people begin to look for satisfaction in something other than 22-bedroom beachfront estates. Donald Trump and his gold-plated bathroom fixtures are a relic of a dead culture — and good riddance to it.
Pope Francis, who as an economist is one hell of a theologian, insists that we can have capitalism if we will care for the people, which gets it exactly backward: We can care for the poor if we have capitalism. The mandate that we feed the poor presupposes that we have something to feed them. Production necessarily precedes consumption, which means that it necessarily precedes redistribution.
It is strange, and more than a little perverse, that this part of California is one of the nation’s great hotbeds of progressive anti-capitalism, and that is remains in thrall to the superstition that a society in which markets are allowed to operate freely and capital is permitted (and encouraged!) to find its best use must also be a society that is cruel, callous, indifferent to the poor and the vulnerable, selfish, and vulgar. The good people of the San Francisco area live smack dab in the middle of what must surely be the world’s greatest living example that the truth is exactly the opposite.
Class war? That is so five decades ago.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.