“I’m sad about the victims, right?” Pando goes to FreedomFest, Pt II
“[The] ‘on demand’ or so-called ‘gig economy’ is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation, but it’s also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future” - Hillary Clinton
“Hillary Clinton’s Uber Speech Belongs in 1930s America” - National Review
Had Hillary Clinton issued her warning about the “gig economy” just one week earlier, this would be a very different article.
There’s a lot to hate about Uber, but by focussing just on the gig economy aspect of the company, Clinton has presented herself as the enemy of the entire sharing economy.
That doesn’t fly amongst young voters and, more importantly, it isn’t fair: For every company like Uber that uses the “just contractors” argument to screw workers and abdicate responsibility for driver behavior, there is another which allows millions of underpaid, underemployed workers to start earning a living wage. It’s a nuanced debate, and one that Clinton has entirely fluffed.
If this were a week ago, I’d probably write — as other commentators have — that this is an easy win for Jeb! Bush.
But that was before I went to FreedomFest, and encountered a group of young voters for whom Uber doesn’t represent the bleeding edge of the cult of disruption, but rather a coddling, lily-livered first step. If those voters get their way -- and, thanks to an influx of Silicon Valley money, they just might -- there will be no place in the world for Hillary Clinton or Jeb! Bush or… well… very likely you or me either.
* * * *
Planet Hollywood Hotel, Las Vegas.
It was only on day two, after I inadvertently left my badge in my pocket, that I realized there was no security at FreedomFest. Perhaps this is some kind of libertarian honor system, I thought at first. Perhaps demanding to see credentials would send the wrong signal to attendees of “the world’s largest gathering of free minds”? Ihre Papiere bitte!
But as I wandered the exhibitor hall, and ducked in and out of the event’s dizzying number of keynotes and panels, I slowly realized why the organizers didn’t care if anyone snuck in without paying the $500 entry price.
FreedomFest wasn’t so much a marketplace of ideas as it was a Costco of get-rich schemes and real estate scams. In between panels with names like “How to invest in the era of bigger and bigger government” and “ESCAPE FROM AMERICA: The American Dream is Alive and Well -- Abroad!", attendees could visit a stand promoting “investment opportunities” in the “emerging democracy” of Burma or one of the ten or twenty million folding tables offering gold, or silver, or any one of a dozen other apocalypse-proof metals, many of which I’m convinced had been invented purely for the conference.
Sometimes the scams announced themselves from miles away — "Uruguay! The Unique Safe Haven: Easy Residency, Real Estate and the World’s Best Farmland!" — Other times, they caught me quite by surprise.
I spent a few minutes at the stand of “Grom Social” — a social network for teens, founded by Zach Marks (“Could Zach Marks be the new Mark Zuckerberg?”). Good for a Pando story, I thought. But before I’d asked my first question about the site or its founder, I was presented with a flyer suggesting I go to a presentation, by Mark’s father, on how by investing in Grom Social “pre-IPO” I could “get in on the ground floor” of an “investment opportunity of a lifetime.”
Everyone was in on the racket. The only difference between the big name speakers and the agenda-fillers was how much effort they made to disguise their call to action. Convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza was ostensibly at FreedomFest to talk about “What it’s like to be a political prisoner in America,” but in reality was selling his critically-panned documentary on “America.” On D’Souza’s stand, a staffer explained that the film tells the truth about American, including that “a lot of native americans died from disease not genocide. And the abolition of slavery is a uniquely American thing, even though slaves were ‘all over’.” (In case you were wondering, no, D’Souza has never been a “political prisoner” in America — rather in 2014 he admitted to using fake donors to make illegal campaign donations, for which he was sentenced to five months in a halfway house. Take that, Nelson Mandela.)
Whole Foods founder John Mackey’s main keynote was entitled "Private Solutions to Healthcare Crisis & Poverty" but then he scuttled off to a smaller conference room to help his friend T. Colin Campbell sell books about his “whole food diet.” As Mackey sat nodding, Campbell assured a rapt crowd that simply by altering your intake of cow’s milk you can “turn cancer on and off.”
“I’m supposed to be a scientist. But I’m no longer objective,” Campbell boasted, to sustained applause, before putting up a slide promoting his online health course.
Now. Don’t misunderstand me: The shilling at FreedomFest was very different from the shilling you see at any other conference — where every speaker is implicitly “selling” a product, be that Facebook, General Motors, Conservatism, or their own “personal brand.”
At FreedomFest, the whole event was just one brazen pitch, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by at least some attendees. As I browsed a pile of pamphlets at the Cato Institute stand, a man came up to express his frustration. “I’ve been coming to this event for seven years,” he said, “and every year it gets worse. It’s like you can’t be a speaker here unless you’re selling something.”
“We’re not selling anything,” said the woman manning the stand.
She seemed to be telling the truth: Unlike at most other stands, there seemed to be nothing explicitly on sale at Cato.
“Well, that’s good to hear,” said the man. “I actually have some questions about Cato’s policies…”
“Well...” The woman cut him off. “I don’t actually work at Cato. They just hired me to be here for the event. I can add you to our mailing list and have someone contact you.”
The man walked off, visibly crestfallen.
I know how he felt. It would take wholesale quantities of idealism — or possibly a lobotomy — not to leave FreedomFest a cynic. It’s not just that everything was for sale, but also the way it was being sold. Every single keynote, panel, and exhibitor stand used the exact same formula: We all know America has become a police state [murmurings of approval] and that any sensible patriot is packing his bags and heading for the airport [applause]. But, before you go, you’d have to be an idiot not to purchase this miracle product or service which will prevent your children from being raped at the border by jackbooted Obamabots [cheers, flurries of cash].
As I wrote last week, I’d come to FreedomFest to meet the stars of the libertarian movement, in the hope of better understanding the fastest-rising, and increasingly most powerful political ideology of our time. You might think I’d be angry — or at least disappointed — to realize it was all a giant infomercial. That even those stars — Charles Murray, Robert Poole and the staffs of Reason Magazine and the Cato institute — had apparently long abandoned any real principles in favor of trying to rake in as much of the government-controlled fiat currency that their unused panic rooms and prepper bunkers can hold.
What I really felt was closer to relief: Like a shorn Aslan, the political ideology that during the seventies stood for racial segregation, antisemitism, denying women a political voice, and countless other evils had in the intervening years devolved into a mildly annoying pop-up ad.
If this is modern libertarianism — scared patriots duping each other out of their money — there’s really nothing for the rest of us to fear, any more than we fear that the makers, or buyers, of Ginsu knives are going to use them to slit our throats.
That giddy sense of security — mission accomplished, libertarians! — lasted well into Thursday afternoon, until curiosity carried me into a side room where a panel on technology and liberty was already underway.
The description in the program — "Techno-Liberation Now: 3D-Printed Guns, Crypto-Currency, and Other State Hacks" — seemed innocuous: A small panel of young activists, and a libertarian book publisher, addressing a standing-room crowd on how technology can help make us all more free. The opening waffle about bitcoin gave little warning of the darkness that was about to fall.
“Estonia has the lowest credit card fraud in Europe due to blockchain!”
God, do libertarians fucking love bitcoin.
Naomi Brockwell, formerly an opera singer, now calls herself “Bitcoin Girl” and produces videos for clients like Reason magazine, evangelizing bitcoin and the blockchain which are, of course, the real way to protect yourself from those Obamabots and their shiny leather boots.
Brockwell explained how an American company had created a digital smuggling operation which would receive payments due Greek companies and then sneak the money into the country, past government restrictions, using bitcoin.
“Thanks to bitcoin, businesses can continue to operate in Greece, and that’s fantastic!”
The audience applauded the fact that bitcoin had been so keenly embraced by the Greek people as a way to poke their leaders in the eye.
“Government has monopoly over money supply. Now we have a money that exists outside the state.”
The crowd didn’t even allow its enthusiasm to dampen when a few moments later the panel discussed the results of a recent study which revealed that bitcoin use had changed not a jot in Greece during the crisis. Rather it was those in more stable countries — France, Germany, the UK — who had bought more bitcoin, not out of necessity but as a precaution in case Greece’s woes spread across the rest of Europe. Fear.
(On that Estonia claim, by the way: While it’s true Estonia has the lowest incidence of credit card fraud per capita, if you look at a much more meaningful number — credit card fraud per transaction — you’ll see that several countries, including Poland, Hungary and Lithuania are safer. Also, none of that has anything to do with bitcoin.)
The session began its turn darkwards when panelist Stephen Macaskill — the head of a metals brokerage who recently began paying his employees in bitcoin — began to rhapsodize about Uber. Without mentioning any of the rapes, assaults, surveillance, threats towards journalists, aggressive lobbying tactics or exploited workers, Macaskill and his fellow panelists agreed that Travis Kalanick and his cab company represent a giant leap forward in building the libertarian economy of the future.
“We are moving towards a decentralized model,” said Macaskill.
It was at this point that Jeffrey Tucker took control of the panel. It’s hard to describe Tucker— the “chief liberty officer” of Liberty.me and publisher of Laissez Faire Books. Certainly, with his bowtie and laconic drawl, there’s more than a touch of the John Waters about him, if Waters weren’t just seedy but a fully-fledged sociopath.
And then came his vision for the future, which Tucker laid out much like a sadistic killer might lay out his vision for how he intends to dismember your pet dog.
“I like to compare Uber to Red Box,” he purred. It was a good idea — “a step in the right direction” that moved us closer to Netflix.
To many, Uber represents the worst excesses of the cult of disruption. To Tucker, it quickly became clear, Travis Kalanick has barely moved an inch away from the nanny state. In a perfect future, there will be no Kalanicks reining in Uber drivers — rather the entire network will operate completely peer-to-peer with no one insisting on background checks or preventing drivers from carrying guns or — well — anything else that restricts driver behavior.
With the audience warmed up to his theme — no one in that room was going to argue that less regulation might possibly be a bad thing — Tucker segued into his real message: That libertarians should use technology to disrupt any form of regulation and laws out of existence. A world where pretty much any kind of bad behavior, particularly corporate bad behavior, is both legal and desirable. Where the market is the only thing that gets to decide what behavior is right and wrong, what is safe and unsafe. And fortunately, Tucker crowed, that world is almost here.
“Government regulation is something that is dead or almost dead,” Tucker said. “Governments rule by geography and physical property” but technology is erasing those boundaries and thus obliterating the ability for governments to rule.
“So often, Libertarians are a little confused about how experimental the state is… 100 years ago there were no passports, no qualifications required for doctors or lawyers. No taxes. And then we gave these people the ability to rule us.”
The audience burst into applause, with even a smattering of cheers. So what if Tucker was flat wrong about passports — the first of which were issued in the US in the 1700s — or about medical qualifications — the 1700s again — or about the requirements that lawyers be professionally qualified — yep! 1700s — the point is, that technology will soon return us to an “age of laissez faire.”
“You paint a rose-tinted view of The Future, and one I happen to agree with,” interrupted Macaskill, “But does anyone on the panel worry about technology being used to do bad?”
Good, yes, well done Stephen. Let’s acknowledge that Tucker wants to transform the world into a 365 day version of The Purge.
“I’m sad about the victims, right?” began Tucker. I allowed myself to relax for just a moment. So there was a tiny heart beating in there somewhere. “I cry a little bit about the prisoners.”
Quite right too. It’s hard to read the prison statistics — one out of nine African American men will be incarcerated between the ages of 20 and 34, often for relatively minor drug offenses — and not feel some sympathy for the “legalize it all” policies of the libertarians.
But Tucker continued…
“I cry about… my friend Ross Ulbricht…. There is so much injustice in the world… If any of you want to minister to prisoners, now is a good time.”
And that’s it. The only victims of technology that Tucker could imagine shedding any tears for are those incarcerated for using technology to sell drugs or to otherwise break the law. Let the others rot.
“Of course [the age of laissez faire] puts the burden of responsibility on individuals. Yes it sucks that people can use new [technology] for bad but that just puts more responsibility on the individual personally.”
Listening to Tucker was the first time at FreedomFest that I started to feel real fear, as opposed to the fake plastic terror that everyone else was selling. Tucker had nothing to sell, except his plan of a world where Uber drivers aren’t hemmed in from their raping by meddling do-gooders like Travis Kalanick and his oppressive background checks and where, after you’re beaten with a hammer by your Uber driver, you are free to go to an unlicensed doctor to tend your wounds, or to engage an unregulated lawyer to sue the bastard. Who, presumably, is equally free to 3D-print a gun to blow your head off before you reach court.
More terrifying still, the audience of young libertarians was eating it up.
Old libertarianism — the libertarianism of the 70s — may have withered on the vine -- but today, online and tucked away in the side rooms of events like FreedomFest, a new libertarianism is seeing its first green shoots. One that takes the excitement generated by the cult of disruption and the genuinely exciting possibilities offered by bitcoin and the sharing economy — and mixes it with misleading, or just plain imagined, historical “facts” and noble sounding ideals like “freedom” and “liberty” to argue for a world in which any corporate evil can be explained away as progress. A world in which the only injustice is that meted out by overbearing (and anachronistic) governments against those whose only crime is trying remove friction from the marketplace.
And a world, by the way, where the word “intellectual” has been reduced to… well, here's Tucker again…
“Edward Snowden has been on a speaking tour of the world. He is an international superstar… one of the most beloved, popular, influential public intellectuals.”
Yesterday, Fusion’s Kevin Roose warned Hillary Clinton that making Uber a proxy for economic policy might end up harming her: Uber is incredibly effective at presenting its opponents as neo-luddites who simply don’t understand the future.
To oppose Uber in 2016 is to enter a rhetorical playing field that has been booby-trapped. There are legitimate reasons to be wary of Uber’s rise, but few if any national figures have been able to oppose the company without being made to sound like regressive fogies.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before her Republican rival, Jeb! Bush, was pictured hailing an Uber at a campaign stop.
In fact, as my experience at FreedomFest made clear, both candidates should be wary of using Uber either an example of progress or of exploitation.
To a small but growing number of young, politically active Americans — raised to worship the cult of disruption — Uber represents neither of those things. Instead it’s a good “first step” to demonstrate that a world without criminal, moral or ethical limits is not just achievable, but inevitable.
In that new world, there’s no place for Clinton, or Bush. And if you’re the kind of neo-luddite who believes the government should have some role in keeping us safe at home, on the road, or even in a doctor’s office, there’s no place for you either.