With his many varied interests in technology, politics, and culture, Peter Thiel has often been described as a Renaissance man. So perhaps it was only fitting that we traveled to Florence, Italy—where the Renaissance originated and thrived for hundreds of years—to speak with him. In this wide-ranging interview, we cover several topics, including his support for candidates across the country who are running as outsiders, why technology has not fulfilled many of its early promises, and why California is still America’s incubator for ideas and growth.
To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:
Peter Robinson: Business figure and thinker, author, and agent provocateur. Peter Thiel from Fiesole, Italy. "Uncommon Knowledge" now. Welcome to "Uncommon Knowledge." I'm Peter Robinson. Peter Thiel graduated from Stanford and then from Stanford Law School. A few months after joining one of the most prestigious law firms in New York, he decided not to practice law, returned to California, and soon cofounded a tech startup. After selling that startup, PayPal, he became an investor, making the first outside investment in Facebook. Since then, he has invested in companies such as LinkedIn, Palantir, and SpaceX. Peter Thiel has also become a public intellectual. Peter, welcome.
Peter Thiel: Peter, thanks for having me.
Peter Robinson: Things slow down. In the last quarter century, economic growth in the United States has slowed, real wages have remained, for the most part, stagnant, Moore's Law, that computing power per dollar would effectively double every 18 months hasn't applied for years. Instead, we've got a kind of parody of Moore's Law, Eroom's law, which is Moore spelled backwards, that every new bio, the price of a new biotech drug doubles every seven years, and in field after field, even theoretical progress seems to have slowed. Physics in the last 50 years, nothing like the enormous creativity of the first half of the 20th century. From Einstein's general relativity in 1916 to putting a man on the moon in 1969, just over half a century, the last time we put a man on the moon, half a century ago. Peter Thiel, we were promised flying cars, and all we got was 140 characters. What has happened?
Peter Thiel: Well, I think you just gave a very good summary of what happened, that somehow, we, you know, we had this sort of multifaceted, multidimensional progress in the first half of the 20th century where if you define technology in the late 1960s, it would've meant rockets and aerospace and the green revolution and agriculture and, you know, and computers and new medicines and all sorts of things. Whereas today, maybe the last quarter century, the world technology is synonymous with information technology, which is that we've had some continued progress in this world of bits, Internet, computers, mobile Internet, maybe even that's slowed over the last decade or has at least become much less charismatic, but there has been sort of this generalized sense of stagnation. It's always quite a complicated thing to talk about because you have to sort of evaluate all these different things so, you know, how do you wait? The smoothness of your iPhone versus the lack of a flying car. How do you sort of, how do you sort of measure and quantify all these things? I think the difficulty of quantifying it is one of the reasons that we've not talked about it enough and that this has taken us so long to figure out that we've actually been been stuck, that, you know, we think we've been in an enchanted forest, but we've been wandering the desert for 40 or 50 years or something like that.
Peter Robinson: So since you raised it, how do you handle the counterargument, which is perfectly straightforward: Look, progress takes place in fits and starts. It's not smooth and continuous in every field. It jumps around, and we have had a communications revolution, which, in this period of time, we've gone, well, we didn't get flying cars, but we did get Dick Tracy watches. We did get iPhones. We have got an Internet, which means that we here in Italy are connected. You get the picture. That's the counterargument.
Peter Thiel: Well, again, I think the challenge is to somehow try to quantify over all these things. How big are they? How significant are they? And I would say, on the level of the politics, the culture, the macroeconomics, there is this profound sense of stagnation. There is this profound sense that the younger generation will not do better than their parents. There's some kind of generational compact that's been broken. We still have progressivism in politics. We still have it as a word, but it's sort of that we don't have it in anything else in our society, and then, I think even, you know, I think the computer Internet revolution was the one big exception, and it is striking how uncharismatic that has become over the last six or seven years where, you know, even in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, the felt sense is that most people are somehow being left behind, that it is not, it's not this utopian inclusive future at all.
Peter Robinson: Again, I'm quoting you. This is something you mentioned just the other day. "There's a sense that science and tech are a trap "that humanity is setting for itself."
Peter Thiel: Well, there's always a question, you know, why the slowdown has happened, and I'm always hesitant to answer the why question because these things are so overdetermined, and it can be things from sclerosis and overregulation in government to, you know, ways education institutions have deranged. It's possible that in certain areas it's just become harder to discover new things where, you know, even if we build new particle colliders in physics, how many new particles are we finding? And so there sort of are a whole range of components to it, but if I had to, you know, if I had to anchor on a single narrative, the one that I've come to believe very strongly is that there's something about science and technology that is very dangerous, that feels somewhat like a trap, where so many of these technologies have sort of a very dark, violent, even apocalyptic dimension. The paradigmatic example are probably nuclear weapons where, you know, it didn't, progress didn't stop immediately after 1945, but it was some kind of a delayed quarter-century reaction where, say, in 1970, people woke up one day and realized, you know, we can blow the whole world up, you know, 20 times over, you know, we're sending people to the moon to build these ICBMs to send the nuclear thermonuclear bombs to the Soviet Union even faster, and at some point, what's the point? And then, I think, what happened with nuclear technology's true of so many other areas. You know, there's a question about AI: Is this a fundamentally dangerous apocalyptic technology? There's a left-wing version of this with climate change, but maybe you can generalize this with various other forms of environmental degradation. There is, you know, polemically, I've often suggested, you know, we should have a ticker tape parade for the scientists who invented the mRNA vaccine, which is, again, you know, impressive breakthrough in biotech, and I think we're uncomfortable giving them a ticker tape parade because immediately adjacent to the mRNA vaccine is we're immediately reminded, as we have that ticker tape parade, or if were to have it, of the sort of gain-of-function research that was being conducted at the Wuhan lab, which is sort of this Orwellian word, maybe, for a bioweapons program, and so all these things are deeply adjacent.
Peter Robinson: So the notion is that every one of these technological and scientific advances that we used to be so thrilled about, every one of them is a double-edged sword.
Peter Thiel: It at least, it at least has a, it's at least double edged. Now, you know, it doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing them. I'm still on the, you know, I'm still on the accelerationist camp. I'm still on the deregulation side. I still think it's a catastrophe that these things have have slowed down, but it's not simply a failure. It's also, you know, it's also what people have done because, you know, the alternatives were quite dangerous and quite frightening. I would like there to be, you know, we've made very little progress in cancer research. I'd like there to be more progress in biotech, but maybe if we'd had a lot of progress, there would've been some dangers with that, and people were very, very scared of those dangers.
Peter Robinson: So the argument-
Peter Thiel: There's a nuclear power plant debate in Germany, you know, why did they shut down the nuclear power plants? It's the dumbest thing ever, but so many of these nuclear power plants, you know, are dual use. You know, you create plutonium, and then you can build bombs, and it's not that easy to separate the civilian from military uses.
Peter Robinson: Right, so the idea here is we've slowed down for all kinds of little reasons that we can see, increasing regulation, this, that, fine, but there's a deep reason, almost at the level of the reptile brain, something so deep that we don't often talk about it and aren't often, perhaps, even conscious of it. Tech and science is frightening, so we're just as happy to have it slow down.
Peter Thiel: If you look at, you know, I used to, as a teenager, I used to love science fiction. I haven't read much science fiction in decades because it's all just dystopian and depressing, and maybe that's some reflection of our culture, but maybe it is also telling us something about the logic of science and technology that so many of the paths to the future are extremely dangerous. You know, if you had a warp drive, like they have in "Star Trek," you know, could you send weapons at warp speed? And then they would hit you faster than the speed of light, and you would, you wouldn't even see them before they hit you, and so there are all these sort of plot holes in the original "Star Trek" universe that, over time, people figured out.
Peter Robinson: We'll come back to that. China. The late foreign policy analyst Henry Rowen, writing in 1996, that year is important, 1996, quote, "When will China become a democracy? "The answer is around the year 2015. "This prediction is based "on China's steady and impressive economic growth, "which in turn fits the pattern "of the way in which freedom has grown in Asia "and elsewhere in the world," close quote. First economic growth, then democracy. Not a crazy suggestion. It worked in South Korea, and then it worked in Taiwan, but, of course, the prediction that China would become a democracy in 2015 today looks preposterous. Why didn't it work in China?
Peter Thiel: You know, it's, again, why questions always hard to answer. It's, you know, the, you know, one cut I always have on China was that they learned from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and they were going to have perestroika without glasnost. They were gonna have a certain liberalization of the economy without becoming a sort of free and open society. It certainly, there certainly were a lot of indications well before 2015 that it wasn't quite trending that way. You know, you had a great firewall around China where the big U.S. Internet companies didn't have any effective presence in China, 2010, 2005, 2000. It was, you know, it was pretty effectively walled off and, you know, if you asked people in Silicon Valley circa 2005 or 2010, there was still some Fukuyama inevitability law that, you know, China would have to open up to the U.S. tech companies. It wasn't obvious why that was true, even in 2005 or 2010, but, yeah, but I think somehow we were... There's always a question how much of these things are personal or structural, so there's a personal version where you can say that there's something, you know, unusually crazy about Xi, that he's the second coming of Stalin or Genghis Khan or something like this, and then there's maybe, but maybe it's not personal to Xi. Maybe it's just structural that China could be moderately free, not completely totalitarian as long as the economy was growing 8% a year, and at the point when that slowed down and all exponential things eventually slow, you had to actually clamp down a lot more, that once China grows at 3 or 4% a year, and the growth is uneven, it's actually gonna become more authoritarian, more totalitarian, something like that.
Peter Robinson: Let me try two quotations on you here. The historian Stephen Kotkin, whom you know, when asked to name his main finding after a lifetime of studying in the Soviet archives, quote, "They were communists," close quote. President Xi Jinping of China, this is, he's speaking to the Central Committee in 2013. This is a speech the Chinese republished in 2019 and that, as far as I can tell from looking at the Internet, American analysts discovered in 2020. Xi Jinping in 2013 to the Central Committee: "There are people who believe "that communism is an unattainable hope, "but facts have repeatedly told us "that Marx and Engels' analysis is not outdated. "Capitalism is bound to die out," close quote, so in the conflict with China, to what extent are we facing just another great power struggle? But this was always the question with the Soviet Union, right? Well, it's just another great... No, it isn't. They're different because they're communists. Same question for China.
Peter Thiel: Yeah, I would agree with that that we need to take it more seriously, at face value, where they say they're communists; we should just take that-
Peter Robinson: Why argue with them?
Peter Thiel: We should we should take that at least at face value. There probably are a lot of subquestions one can ask, so maybe they're not strictly Marxist, but they are strictly Leninist, and so it is sort of this totalitarian one-party structure. Maybe there are elements of it that are also fascist where, you know, the Prague Spring was communism with a human face, and maybe China is fascism with a communist face or something like that, and then, of course, there are some some ways in which it's also different from fascism and communism in the early 20th century forms where both fascism and communism were fundamentally youth movements, and then, China is kind of a gerontocracy, and so it is a, it's sort of a-
Peter Robinson: It is distinctive. It is its own thing.
Peter Thiel: So it's a, I don't know, it's sort of a half fascist, half communist gerontocracy. It is, you know, it is strange. It's strangely much less idealistic or ideological, I think, than the Soviet Union. It strikes me that people probably don't really believe in any of these ideas. They have to sort of be forced down in a very strange way, so there's certainly a lot of things that are unique and different, but yet taking it as a communist country at face value, we could do much worse than that.
Peter Robinson: All right. Grand strategy. Since at least the Civil War, the United States has relied on superior materiel. Grant just ground down Lee. During the Second World War, we produced thousands of planes and tanks and ships. The Kaiser Shipyard in Oakland was producing a ship a day. That won't work against China. We can't outproduce them. We can't outspend them. Our only hope, goes the argument, is to out-innovate them. I've even heard the historian Andrew Roberts say that the future of civilization will be decided in Silicon Valley, so, on the one hand, in the coming conflict with China, we need innovation, goes at least one argument that I find compelling, but we ourselves, to some extent, as you just were suggesting, have locked down innovation. This is a serious pickle.
Peter Thiel: Yeah, I mean, I think there sort of are a lot of different ways one can describe it. I worry that if you frame it simply as a conflict between the United States and China. That is almost self-defeating where probably, you know, China has four times the population, so we have to really out-innovate them, and they would, we have to really block them from stealing any of our innovations to win a conflict where it's that lopsided, four to one on population. Probably, you know, probably a big part of the question of the next few decades is sort of how does the strategic map of the world shape up? And, you know, do, you know, maybe China can beat the U.S., but it probably can't beat the whole world, and there is sort of a question whether there's something about, you know, the communism in China, which is, you know, it's very, it's nationalistic. It's a socialism-
Peter Robinson: Doesn't win allies.
Peter Thiel: It's a socialism of a nationalistic sort, and it's extremely racist. It's extremely xenophobic, and there's something about that where I don't think they'll be able to beat the whole world.
Peter Robinson: Okay, so in the shape of the conflict, it is correct to identify China is the adversary. China is the enemy, but it's not just the United States. We have to, we really have no choice. We have to think in terms of the West or in terms of as many allies as we can stitch together. How do you describe?
Peter Thiel: I think they're both, you know, they're both unilateral and multilateral moves. I think the Trump administration was correct that you had to try to do things unilaterally because the multilateral approaches were too slow. I think the Biden administration is correct that at some point, you know, you also have to try to do things more multilaterally, but I think there is some kind of a, there is some kind of a logic to this, and, you know, if you look at the Ukraine conflict with Russia, there's obviously was this incredible mistake that Western Europe made to entangle itself so tightly with Russia, you know, with the pipelines, with the denuclearization in Germany, and then the question you have to ask is aren't we just too entangled with China in the entire Western world? I believe in free trade. I'm not in favor of tariffs, but I would make an exception for, you know, our one massive geopolitical and ideological rival.
Peter Robinson: All right, our home state, California. Your home. Your native state. My home state now. The resource curse. I'm just gonna quote from Wikipedia. Here's the resource curse: "The resource curse is the phenomenon "of countries with an abundance of natural resources, "such as fossil fuels, "having less economic growth, less democracy, "or worse development outcomes "than countries with fewer resources," close quote. You spoke recently at the National Conservatism Conference in Miami, I think, about the resource curse in California. Explain that.
Peter Thiel: Well, if we say that tech is the oil of the 21st century, there is this strange juxtaposition where California has been, you know, it has these gusher-like companies that just generate, you know, enormous wealth, enormous profits, you know, a decent number of quite well-paying jobs, and then, they're combined with this, you know, rather bad form of social political governance where you'd never do anything like this, and it's that juxtaposition I was trying to make sense of. There's like a San Francisco version of it where it's, you know, on a per capita GDP it has to be one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and then, it's completely-
Peter Robinson: It's filthy.
Peter Thiel: misgoverned, and somehow these things are, it's not a paradox, but these things are actually deeply, deeply connected.
Peter Robinson: So you made the point-
Peter Thiel: But I would-
Peter Robinson: Go ahead.
Peter Thiel: Yeah, the one thing I would quibble with on the definition is California is not poor. It's still-
Peter Robinson: Fantastically rich.
Peter Thiel: You know, it's 40 million people in California. It's 82 million in Germany, 125 million in Japan. Today, the California GDP is roughly the same as Germany or Japan. The average person in California makes twice as much money as the average person in Germany, three times as much as the average person in Japan, so there is something about it that's worked quite well from a macroeconomic point of view, and then, it's worked catastrophically from a governance point of view where you have public schools that don't work, you know, you know, all these sort of government worker rackets-
Peter Robinson: You mentioned two-
Peter Thiel: Of one sort or another.
Peter Robinson: You mentioned a couple. I mean, worked quite well. It's worked historically well. There's never been any massive creation of wealth over for, so much wealth in so short a time, as far as I-
Peter Thiel: Well, if we evaluate it by GDP, it's still working quite well. If we evaluate it by the quality of government, you know, it's quite screwed up. The resource curse analogy I used is, you know, if we compare it to oil countries, it's not the worst. It's not the best. It's not as good as Norway. It's not as bad as Equatorial Guinea. I think you should think of it as roughly on par with Saudi Arabia. You know, Saudi Arabia has a crazy, crazy Wahhabi ideology. California has a woke ideology. Wahhabism, to Saudi Arabia, is roughly like wokeism to California.
Peter Robinson: You mentioned that one aspect of the misgovernance is inflated real estate values. Explain how that works.
Peter Thiel: You have to think of it as, you have to think of the curse of an oil state or a tech state as you have this enormous gusher of wealth, and then it gets redistributed very inefficiently, and one inefficient vehicle is towards overpaid government workers. The average California government worker gets paid twice as much as the average private sector worker in California. It's by far the highest ratio in the U.S. I mean, Texas, Florida, the average government worker gets paid 10, 15% more than the average private sector worker. In California, it's twice as much, including, you know, including the very generous retirement benefits they get, and then, the second way that the tech wealth gets very inefficiently redistributed is through all these sort of crazy zoning laws where, you know, if you're living in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, you're not in the tech industry, but, you know, your landlord bought some apartment, and you make sure the zoning laws never get changed, nothing new ever gets built, and, you know, enormous amount gets shifted into the sort of, you know, very quasi-governmental real estate sector.
Peter Robinson: Overall, the cost of living in California is some 40% higher than in the rest of the nation, and the cost of real estate is 100% higher. What does that mean? Once again, I'm quoting you. "Basically, you have to replace the middle class," meaning they just move out.
Peter Thiel: Sure, sure. There was, I believe it was Carroll Quigley, the Georgetown historian who, circa 1960, said that the, you know, the Republicans are the party the middle class; the Democrats are the party of everybody else, and probably the most middle-class constituency left in California are government workers, and if you think of teachers or people like that, it's not natural Republican voters. If that's the, you know, the microeconomic, the political economy of California is something like that, it's no wonder that it's a D-plus 30 state. It's not, I mean, it shouldn't be surprising at all.
Peter Robinson: Right, so this brings us to politics. You argue that the Golden State poses a problem for each of the two parties, Democrats and Republicans. Democrats first. Quoting you. "On the Democratic side, my read is that they have," they, the Democrats, "have no alternative "but to somehow pretend they can make the California model "work for the country as a whole, but it won't."
Peter Thiel: It's just like, you know, if you were to say, I don't know, I'll go back to the Saudi Arabia analogy. If you were to say-
Peter Robinson: I mean, as a Californian-
Peter Thiel: the Wahhabism-
Peter Robinson: that one hurts me.
Peter Thiel: in Saudi Arabia-
Peter Robinson: Go ahead.
Peter Thiel: is the key to solving all the problems throughout the Islamic world. They just need to be like Saudi Arabia. That's preposterous because it's not the Wahhabi ideology; it's the oil money, and in a similar way, if, you know, if California, if it's somebody like, I don't know, Newsom or Kamala Harris saying that it's some, you know, hyper-woke identity politics, political correctness to the nth degree, that's not what makes California successful. It's the big tech companies. They're at the scale that they're at, you know, you can't scale them by a factor of eight to the country as a whole, so it doesn't scale.
Peter Robinson: The leading democratic presidential candidates, I'm predicted as we speak, you've got Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Gavin Newsom, quoting Peter Thiel: "California is strong enough "to crush everybody else in the Democratic Party." You're assuming that Joe Biden won't run.
Peter Thiel: Mm-hmm.
Peter Robinson: Right. "California's strong enough "to crush everybody else in the Democratic Party," which means you've got two Californians on top, Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom, "but it's probably not strong enough "to be a very compelling agenda for the country as a whole."
Peter Thiel: Yeah, you've just articulated my whole argument. I don't have much, don't have much to add to that-
Peter Robinson: I'm sorry.
Peter Thiel: but I, I think-
Peter Robinson: Hold on-
Peter Thiel: Yes, I think-
Peter Robinson: but let's stop that because-
Peter Thiel: I think, yes, I think- I think the alternatives to California, if were to enumerate them, it is something like, okay, it is Elizabeth Warren, you know, the university, the crazed university professor who is like, you know, is like a bad Puritan minister from the 17th century. That's not gonna work. It is, you know, it's Tim Ryan, the fake blue-collar guy from Ohio where no one cares about blue-collar workers, so there's a Midwestern thing that's not gonna work. There's probably, you know, some kind of crazed socialist thing ala Bernie Sanders or AOC. That's dead on arrival, and so, yes, there's somehow, there's some sense in which California is working the best, and so it will beat everything within the Democratic Party, and then my speculative prediction is, when you get to the country as a whole, it will be found shockingly wanting.
Peter Robinson: I'm quoting you once again, "Probably the temptation on the Republican side "is that they'll think it's good enough "to say simply that they're not California. "This nihilistic negation is probably not enough."
Peter Thiel: Well, let's qualify that again, and this is speculating on 2024 politics, which is quite far in the future-
Peter Robinson: It's fun.
Peter Thiel: but it's so-
Peter Robinson: It's far in the future-
Peter Thiel: It's so far in the future-
Peter Robinson: but it's fun-
Peter Thiel: It's so far in the future-
Peter Robinson: Well, okay.
Peter Thiel: But I think it is probably, if it's not enough for the Democrats, it is probably enough for the Republicans to win the presidential election in 2024. I would like them to do more. I would like them to win on substantive grounds where you don't just have a, you know, a tactical win. You don't just have another one-term president, but I can understand the temptation is not even to try that, to just go with, you know, we're not gonna allow this Californication of the rest of the country to happen, and maybe that's enough, but I would like more, but I'm not even completely questioning the tactical judgment.
Peter Robinson: So let's talk for a second, if we could, about what that more should be. When I was in college, let me take you, let me take you on a little travelogue here. When I was in college, we were worried about getting jobs, and there were bull sessions in the dorm rooms about the Soviet Union, about how Vietnam went wrong, and so forth. Ronald Reagan gets along and gets elected in 1980, and both problems get solved, and economic expansion begins, and it takes, continues with a few setbacks, but it fundamentally continues for 25 years, and we win the Cold War, and so, from my generation, there's a, I think, a perfectly understandable impulse to say, "Wait a minute. "Why don't we try that again?" But in the younger generation, Ross Douthat has this phrase that he keeps using, zombie Reaganism, so I hear that, and I say, "Of course, "principles would have to be adapted "to the issues of the day, "but is there an extent to which the rising generation "on the right and center right "is just sick of hearing about Ronald Reagan "the way Democrats in the '60s "got sick of hearing about FDR." Is it purely generational? Or is there some sense in which tax cuts, lower regulation, stronger defenses somehow are ill-fitted to the circumstances of the day?
Peter Thiel: Well, I think I would like to get back to growth, and I would like to get back to growth that is, you know, not inflationary, that's not cancerous, and that's not, you know, apocalyptic in the sort of bad tech version, and this is much easier said than done, but that's what I think, you know, we should figure out. How to do this in a detailed way, and there certainly is, probably are some tax cuts that are part of it. There's a lot of deregulation that's part of it, and it is a, it's a fairly hard thing to do. There's, you know, there certainly are ways that I would like us to take the challenge of China more seriously, but it's not like this super-simple thing. You know, there was a way that the Soviet Union was motivational in a way that China was not because the Soviet Union, even in the darkest hours of the Cold War, '79, the Carter malaise, most of us thought we were eventually gonna beat the Soviet Union, and the China piece, it's harder to see how to do that. It's not entirely up to us. Part of it, you know, depends on other countries working with us. Part of it will be helped by, you know, China just going completely berserk internally, and so I'm not sure that the exact same formula will work.
Peter Robinson: Okay, so we do first what we know how to do.
Peter Thiel: But look, I'm quite open. I don't know exactly what you're supposed to do in terms of having a more more concrete agenda
Peter Robinson: There goes a whole segment. I thought you were gonna, I th, I-
Peter Thiel: No, I think-
Peter Robinson: I have a blank page here-
Peter Thiel: I think-
Peter Robinson: where you were going to fill it in-
Peter Thiel: I, I think, I think, you know, I think we have to, look, I think, you know, I always, I always think the, you know, the right, broadly, is, it's a very ragtag Rebel Alliance. It's like we have diversity on our side. It is like, it's like "Star Wars." It's Chewbacca and Princess Leia, and we have, you know, some Asperger-like C3PO people-
Peter Robinson: The Rebel Alliance.
Peter Thiel: and Han Solo. It's the whole, it's the Rebel Alliance, and, you know, the other side is in lockstep. They're the imperial stormtroopers, and there are a lot of disadvantages to the Rebel Alliance, but one advantage is we, yeah, we don't have, we don't have to have all the answers right now. We can admit we haven't figured it out, and we're gonna have a vigorous debate in the next few years to figure it out.
Peter Robinson: We're talking a couple of weeks before the election. This will air a day or two after the election. May I ask? You supported your friends, Blake Masters, now running for the Senate in Arizona. By the time this airs, we'll know the outcome, and J.D. Vance, now running for the Senate from Ohio. By the time this airs, we'll know. Why those two? Is there... You know them. They're friends. That's one element, I assume, but was there something distinctive about... Do they look, to you, like the future, in some specific way, of that the Republican Party ought to pursue?
Peter Thiel: Sure. There's a generational component. They would be the first, they would be the first millennial Republican senators. There's a way in which they've thought very deeply about these issues. There's a way in which I think they're not excessively dogmatic. You know, I often think that we have, you know, often like to say we have two parties in this country: There's the evil party, the Democrats, and the stupid party, the Republicans, and I like both J.D. Vance and Blake Masters because they don't squarely fit into either of those two parties.
Peter Robinson: All right. Couple of quotations here just to pursue that. What is to be done? And take it up to one, maybe a higher notch or two, one or two conceptual notches up. Two quotations. Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen. Quote, "Liberalism has failed." He's speaking here of classical liberalism, the liberalism of individual liberty. "Liberalism has failed not because it fell short, "but because it was true to itself. "It has failed because it has succeeded. "The founders failed to foresee "that their atomistic philosophy "would act as a solvent on our civic institutions." That's quotation one. Here's quotation two. Author George Will. "The proper question for conservatives: "What do you seek to conserve? "The proper answer: "We seek to conserve the American founding." George Will. Let's get back to the founding principles. Patrick Deneen. Let's refound the country. Let's overturn the original founding.
Peter Thiel: They both strike me as too, a little bit too abstract. You know, there's things about them that sound correct as observations or critiques, but how to concretize it, I don't know how we go back to the founding. If there's gonna be a new founding, that's even more, you know, ambitious and you-
Peter Robinson: You like this, the majority of six conservatives on, or originalists on the Supreme Court?
Peter Thiel: Sure, but mostly, they're just, they're mostly just keeping things, the status quo the way it is, so it's, yeah, it's better than the alternative. Look, Deneen is right that in some sense classical liberalism has failed. I always like to say that a classical liberal in 2022 is like a Marxist prof in 1982, where you had these profs who, 40 years ago, were saying, you know, true communism has never been tried, and it's equally wrong when the classical liberals in 2022 say that true liberalism has never been tried, and there's some kind of a golden age we can go back to, and even if we did, wouldn't we just cycle and repeat, and it would just, you know, if went back to the '50s, we'd get '68 again, and so there was something wrong in the '50s, or there was something wrong with the founding if it went this wrong, so that's where I'm more on Deneen side than the George Will side. I do think, you know, the place I always come back to is I think we have to think very hard about these questions of technology and science because they are such big drivers of modernity. I don't think we can turn our back on them. We have to figure out some way to keep going on this trajectory, and not to go crazy, not to atomize the whole society, not to self-destruct it, but I don't think you can go back on science and technology, but that's the, those are the sets of questions I would ask a lot more about and where I suspect both Deneen and Will are weak on the details.
Peter Robinson: Okay. February 1946. Diplomat George Kennan, then stationed in Moscow, sends a telegram of some 5,000 words to the State Department known in history ever since as the "Long Telegram." There we are just after the end of the Second World War, just at the very inception of the Cold War, and Kennan gets everything in those 5,000 words: the nature of the Soviet Union, where it's strong, where it's weak, and then he lays out the policy of containment that remains the fundamental American policy. Some presidents are truer to it. Others attempt to depart from it, but it remains the fundamental policy for all 4 1/2 decades of the Cold War. Why hasn't there been a "Long Telegram" about China?
Peter Thiel: Man, why questions always so hard to answer? But I-
Peter Robinson: When will there be-
Peter Thiel: I will, I will-
Peter Robinson: a "Long Telegram"?
Peter Thiel: I will, I will speculate that if it hasn't, if we haven't gotten the memo, it's been lost, or it's not gonna be coming anytime soon, and my theory on why there hasn't been one and there won't be one is that people don't have a good, great long-term strategy for the U.S. of how do you, you know, how do you accelerate things? How do you overtake China? They don't know how to fill out the details. You know, maybe setting China aside, maybe, you know, a correct broad strategy for the U.S. is to have a gradual, you know, withdrawal from the world, and you could never articulate that if that's the correct strategy because the retreat becomes a route, and so if the correct strategy is for the U.S. not to be overextended, overcommitted to the sort of world empire that we're committed to, articulating, you can't actually articulate that, ever.
Peter Robinson: Hard to pursue a policy when you can't talk about it to each other.
Peter Thiel: And then, if you can't talk about that, that's maybe even worse, but I think there's, I think my placeholder is that there's something about the best policy, that if it's articulated, the articulation itself will stop us from executing it properly and maybe there's some way to contain China and probably, you know, we're best just figuring out a way to do it without articulating it.
Peter Robinson: All right. I heard you. The other day you said that we now find ourselves between Scylla and Charybdis, narrow, Greek mythology, narrow strait. Scylla is a six-headed monster over here, and Charybdis is a whirlpool over here, and the Greek, in Greek myth, you had to navigate between these two, each of which was deadly. You described our Scylla, and actually, and you... Here's what you said in a recent paper that you wrote. "The stable deterrent structures of the Cold War "look much shakier "as more countries acquire nuclear weapons. "It seems far easier now than at any time since World War II "to sleepwalk into an all-out conflict," so the prospect of Armageddon, let's call that Scylla, and here's Charybdis, "An endless stagnation." I'm quoting from the same paper. "We have grown attached to our soft, comfortable ways, "but we do not want to name "what they are protecting against." How bad, of course, what I have in mind is the war in Ukraine. How bad is the Scylla, the prospect of Armageddon?
Peter Thiel: Well, the thing I wanna say that's always nuanced and complicated is that it's quite bad, but we have to also weight it against the alternative, and the extreme alternative is the sort of soft totalitarianism, a society that simply is locked down, where nothing happens. You know, if you were to use the, you know, the, you know, the biblical terminology, it's the antichrist, the one-world totalitarian state, and there's always a sense where I think we should be at least as scared of the antichrist as of Armageddon, and-
Peter Robinson: Elaborate the anti-
Peter Thiel: And then, certainly, my contrarian intuition is that people are far more worried about Armageddon than they're worried about the one-world state, and I would at least like us to worry about them equally, to worry both about Scylla and Charybdis.
Peter Robinson: Okay, so elaborate a little bit.
Peter Thiel: Well, there are all these different versions of it. There's, you know, there's a recent paper by-
Peter Robinson: The, the, I don't, the, uh, just, the Armageddon, we sort of talked about it the opening. The Armageddon is we pursue science, and we pursue technology, and it could all blow up in a nuclear war.
Peter Thiel: And the, and then, let's, yeah, let's elaborate it, so if you don't, if we're gonna stop that, you can't just stop it locally. You have to stop it globally. You have to make sure that all scientists stop it. You have to make sure that they're being policed all over the world, and if there's some small piece of computer code that can lead to runaway AGI, we need to have surveillance technology installed on every single laptop to make sure that people aren't typing in keystrokes to code up the AGI that's going to destroy the world, or if you can, you know, you know, the nuclear weapons issue already from the '50s and '60s, what came with, you know, this multinational atomic energy agency that was gonna, International Atomic Energy Agency that was gonna sort of monitor all these countries, and you needed a supranational structure with real teeth, and, you know, in practice, we ended up with something in between. We ended up with, you know, some kind of global super-state. It wasn't never quite that much. It was not, maybe not quite enough to fully stop Armageddon. It was never quite enough to be totalitarian, but those have been, those have been the bad alternatives for 77 years, and we need to find some way in between.
Peter Robinson: Okay, and the lockdown, we fear Armageddon too much.
Peter Thiel: We only talk about, yeah, it strikes me we almost only talk about the Armageddon stuff, and we never talk about the sort of regulatory political lockdown that's the practical alternative where everyone's, yeah, everyone's just scared of their own shadow.
Peter Robinson: So if we put it... I'm trying to bring growth back into this. Growth, to pursue growth means, in one way or another, to have the courage to risk a certain degree of new innovation. We unleash technology and science, again, to produce growth, correct?
Peter Thiel: Yes.
Peter Robinson: All right, so, and why do we? You and I, because we have known each other a long time and think alike in some pretty basic ways, we both say growth and assume that that's a good. Let's make that explicit. Why do we need growth? What does that do for American society? And why is the American? What happens? Or the other way around: What happens to us in the absence of growth?
Peter Thiel: Well, we had, you know, the Club of Rome wrote this book called "The Limits to Growth," 1972.
Peter Robinson: Okay. '72.
Peter Thiel: Almost exactly 50 years ago, and it basically said that, you know, the growth couldn't continue, and so we had to get used to a zero growth world, first a world of zero population growth, then a world of zero economic growth, and there are all these ways that their agenda, broadly, has been implemented over the last 50 years, and, you know, it has, in some ways, perhaps, it's stabilized the world, but it's also been profoundly destabilizing to, you know, it's led to a world that's extremely nihilistic. It's led to the sort of cultural disintegration of the middle class where you think of the middle class as the people who think their children will do better than themselves, and there's sort of all these ways the zero growth world hasn't worked out that well, and so, yeah, so my, and my intuition is that it's not simply stable. This is where I disagree with Adele that it's not simply decadent or simply stable. It's not simply entropic. It's ultimately, you know, there's ultimately a catastrophe on both sides.
Peter Robinson: So...
Peter Thiel: And there's a-
Peter Robinson: We don't-
Peter Thiel: Yeah, there's an Armageddon catastrophe if you have unconstrained tech and science that, where no one's paying attention and people just pushing buttons and seeing what happens, but there's also always a risk of a centralizing totalitarian catastrophe on the other side, which is the natural solution on how do you, you know, how do you stop all science and tech is you need a one-world state with real teeth.
Peter Robinson: Which is within our grasp, the humanities' grasp, as AI emerges.
Peter Thiel: Well, it's already, it's an answer to the nuclear problem. It's an answer to the environmental challenges. It's an answer to the AI challenge, which is, and I would just submit it's not a good answer.
Peter Robinson: All right, so sticking with growth just for one more moment, if we were to close our, if I were to close my eyes and just listen to the dulcet tones of Peter Thiel, a Republican pro-growth president gets elected in 2024. What's different? What's different about a growing? And what's different about the temper or mood of the country? Could we hope that economic growth would soothe the bitterness of our politics? Is that what happens?
Peter Thiel: Sure. I think if you had growth that was noninflationary, noncancerous, nonapocalyptic, it would solve all our problems, and it would, now, you know, I don't know how realistic it is or how easy it is to get there, but certainly, you know, the extreme sort of Malthusian zero-sum-ness of the stagnation, extreme polarization-
Peter Robinson: Evaporates.
Peter Thiel: I'm not sure it would fully evaporate, but, you know, it would be less than significantly, and without growth, I'm certainly very convinced the negative version of this, where, without growth, you are not gonna solve the polarization. You're not gonna solve the nihilism, the anger, any of those things at all.
Peter Robinson: Okay, last question, although it'll take me a moment to set it up. Franklin Roosevelt: "We have a rendezvous with destiny." John Kennedy: "We will bear any burden, oppose any foe." Again and again and again in American history, we have found ourselves required to display courage as citizens and as a nation because it really has, the choice has been be courageous or lose. All right. George Kennan. This is 1953 at the outset of the Cold War. I mentioned Kennan a moment ago as the author of the "Long Telegram." This is from a book he wrote early, early in the Cold War, 1953. "The thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations "will find no cause for complaint "in the Kremlin's challenge. "He will rather experience "a certain gratitude to providence "which has made our entire security as a nation "dependent on our pulling ourselves together "and accepting the responsibilities "of moral and political leadership "that history plainly intended us to bear." Well, what do you think? Can there be, in this, if this is the moment in which we find ourselves, there's Armageddon, and there's stagnation and creeping world government, and we have... They're there. We have no choice but to be courageous. Can there be something ennobling about this? Can we pull ourselves together again?
Peter Thiel: Well, it's-
Peter Robinson: feel adventurous?
Peter Thiel: Well, it is certainly something like this frame is correct. It matters what we do. It's a world in which, yeah, we need courage. We need some kind of agency. The choices we make really matter, you know, it's, you know, I don't think, you know, yes, Armageddon and the world government are exclusionary possibilities. They're not exhaustive. I do think there's some, you know, some narrow or, you know, not terribly broad way in between, but it's-
Peter Robinson: But there's a way.
Peter Thiel: But there is a way, and there's a lot for us to do there.
Peter Robinson: It matters what we do.
Peter Thiel: Yeah. Obviously, it matters a lot.
Peter Robinson: Peter Thiel, thank you. For "Uncommon Knowledge," the Hoover Institution, and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson.