Elon Musk will not save us: Why libertarians waiting for a superman are wasting everyone's time

Conservatives arguing that Silicon Valley will save us from climate change are playing ideological make believe

Published May 28, 2015 3:45PM (EDT)

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors        (AP/Mark Lennihan)
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors (AP/Mark Lennihan)

Even though his statement is almost identical to the hyperbole frequently spouted by the rest of his party, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s recent claim that “the world has never been more dangerous than it is today” still deserves to be mocked by anyone whose historical memory stretches beyond Sept. 10, 2001. Indeed, President Obama was much closer to the truth when he called our era “the best time in human history to be born.” Nothing like World War I or World War II is in the offing; Ebola is not the new Black Death; history is over; and the chances of nuclear warfare seem remote.

Notwithstanding one single caveat, 2015 is about as good as it gets. But here’s the thing about that caveat: It’s climate change, and it’s enormous. If it’s not addressed soon, in fact, it could very well destroy all of human civilization’s recent gains. A level of suffering most would consider unacceptable looks inevitable already. To paraphrase Rubio — who seemingly prefers to use this phrase about anything but climate change — “nothing matters if we aren’t safe.” And we can’t be safe so long as the scientific models continue to predict an apocalyptic medium- and long-term future.

This is quite likely the foremost challenge humanity faces in the modern era. And because weaning civilization off of fossil fuels without reducing living standards necessitates so much coordination between private, public and global institutions, it quite likely represents the gravest political challenge humanity has ever faced, too. It’s a problem that folks from across the world and all over the political spectrum have tried to answer. But according to a recent column in the Week by the conservative writer James Poulos, all that public-spirited organizing is a mistake. What the world should do instead, he says, is give tech billionaires like Elon Musk anything they ask — and then get the hell out of their way.

As you might suspect, Poulos’ argument is unpersuasive. He says that along with his fellow übermensch in Silicon Valley, Musk, a PayPal cofounder and current Tesla Motors chairman and CEO, they will “save the planet,” if only we let them. They’ll do it with “their entrepreneurial brilliance” and with “an enormous infusion of cash” — presumably not their own. But according to Poulos, they’ll need something else. He calls it “cultural permission to lead us to a green future,” and we refuse to give it to them. Why? Because “[w]e’re afraid.”

If you’re familiar with the kind of pop-Nietzscheanism that suffuses elite libertarian circles (Mike Huckabee-style religious conservatism is more the province of the rabble), you can basically guess where Poulos’ argument goes from there. An out of control egalitarianism, born from insecurity and fear, causes us to keep geniuses like Musk from reaching their full potential. Due to a meek, docile and hidebound fealty to the supremacy of government — usually not something associated with Americans, but whatever — we are “setting our sights too low,” because “our government is incapable of doing the big things that actually need to be done.” Rather than squabble over a carbon tax or international treaties, Poulos writes, we should “turn Washington into the biggest venture capitalist in the world, and hand Silicon Valley a blank check.”

Yet as obvious as the solution looks, we still won’t do it. Our “fear” and our “resentful queasiness about the new ruling techno-class” — our worry that granting them this “cultural permission” will allow them to create “a civilization apart: plainly higher and better than us” — won’t allow it. We’re too wedded to an “egalitarian envy and pride.” Even when unleashing them would allow us to travel to a better tomorrow by riding on their wings, still we keep the chosen among us tethered to the earth. If this weren’t the case, Poulos argues, then Musk would be neck-deep in subsidies. He’d probably have saved us already.

On the one hand, this is all pretty run of the mill stuff for the tiny but influential group of conservatives that support “libertarian populism,” of which Poulos is a part. Finding increasingly cryptic and esoteric ways to argue that some people are simply better than others, and should be allowed to dominate society accordingly, is central to what the whole libertarian populist thing is about. (Poulos even deserves some credit for being much more straightforward about his elitism than, say, National Review’s Reihan Salam or the Federalist’s Ben Domenech.) On the other hand, however, Poulos’ argument is refreshing.

Poulos’ concentration on Musk is especially useful, because it helps reveal the dangers of a world run by the libertarians’ supermen. It’s true that Musk has been able to use government subsidies — which he now says others shouldn’t receive, of course — to construct some promising green technologies. And it’s true that he’s said in the past that his efforts are motivated in part by a desire to “do things … that are useful to other people.” At the same time, though, it’d be silly to conclude that Musk just wants to make the world a better place, and that the unfathomable wealth and prestige awaiting the eventual creator of a post-oil future isn’t an equal or greater motivation. Contrary to what Musk sounds like in interviews and recollections, he is, after all, only human.

The other, bigger problem with letting the Elon Musks of the world solve all of our big problems is that Silicon Valley and the rest of us may not always agree about what needs solving. It’s fair to guess that even the most alienated and detached venture capitalist will support investments that promise to forestall the end of the world. But what if your goal extends further than preventing mass extinction? What if you not only want to save people’s lives, but also help them experience lives worth living? What if you disagree with Musk’s contention that poverty may not be “such a problem”? What if you, unlike Musk, don’t consider the life of a poor child in a South African township preferable to that of a wealthy housewife in Beverly Hills?

It seems to me that the fate of the planet and the future of the billions of poor people in the world are both too important to be left to the whims of Elon Musk and others of his ilk. And it seems to me that hoping the natural superiority of the hyper-wealthy will deliver us from evil is not a serious plan for fighting climate change. But then again, I’m not a libertarian. I’m too overcome, I suppose, with Poulos’ hated “egalitarian envy and pride.” If that’s the case, I just hope Elon Musk and the rest of Silicon Valley has been too busy coding, innovating and disrupting to listen.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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