Peter Thiel on Political Theology (Ep. 210)

Unveiling the dangers of just trying to muddle through

In this conversation recorded live in Miami, Tyler and Peter Thiel dive deep into the complexities of political theology, including why it’s a concept we still need today, why Peter’s against Calvinism (and rationalism), whether the Old Testament should lead us to be woke, why Carl Schmitt is enjoying a resurgence, whether we’re entering a new age of millenarian thought, the one existential risk Peter thinks we’re overlooking, why everyone just muddling through leads to disaster, the role of the katechon, the political vision in Shakespeare, how AI will affect the influence of wordcels, Straussian messages in the Bible, what worries Peter about Miami, and more.

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Recorded February 21st, 2024

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Thanks to a listener who sponsored this transcript “in the memory of Eileen Thompson, my deceased aunt who, I believe, would have liked Mercatus and your mission very much.”

TYLER COWEN: Hello, Peter. Thank you for doing this.

PETER THIEL: Hello, Tyler.

COWEN: Now, the title of this conversation is “Political Theology.” That was a phrase, I think, first used by the Russian anarchist Bakunin to mock the Italian nationalist Mazzini. German legal theorist Carl Schmitt then picked it up and said it’s something that everyone needs. They all need a political theology. What does the term mean to you?

THIEL: Well, it’s a bit of a fuzzy, broad concept. But maybe to motivate it as a contrast, I think that in late modernity, we’re often living in this world of hyper-specialization where you can’t think about the big picture, and I don’t know, it’s like Adam Smith’s pin factory on steroids.

It’s our world, and I think there is some way that we have to try to integrate all these different facets of our life to try to make progress, and that’s what political philosophy does. That’s what political theology does. The reasons these sorts of things were abandoned, I think maybe it already was the Enlightenment abandoned it from — one type of reason it was abandoned was because it’s too hard to figure this stuff out, or it’s just a fool’s errand. I’m inclined to think the other reason was, it was often deemed as too dangerous, too divisive. You’re not supposed to have debates about religion. We settled that in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia. We’re just going to forget about it and not talk about these things.

I think that might have been a reasonable compromise in the 18th century. It’s my view that when you fast-forward to the 21st century, it’s maybe more dangerous not to think about things, and it’s again more dangerous for us to become ever smaller cogs in an ever bigger machine, all of Adam Smith’s pin factory.

The political dimension on it — just to say one thing on that is, there’s always a question, if we’re trying to figure out something about the whole, about our whole world, do you start on a human scale? Or do you start on a microscopic, telescopic, atomic, or cosmic scale? There’s probably some way these things are related, but the political theology, political philosophy debate, our frame — I think this was also a Socratic idea — we start with a turn to common sense, human, the world around us, questions about politics, economics, society, culture, and that’s actually this important way to get access.

There’s some deep link between the university and the universe. There’s some deep link between the failing multiversity and the crazed multiverse. The political orientation I have is, you’re never going to solve these things. You have to start with the university or whatever that’s gone wrong if you’re ever going to make sense of the universe, and there’s some analog to that that motivates all of these things.

On the political theology of Peter Thiel

COWEN: Let’s say I’m trying to make sense of your political theology. I recall you saying in a recent talk, you consider yourself religious but not spiritual. That strikes me as quite a Calvinist point. If you put aside predestination and think of Calvinism as insisting we know nothing about heaven, so it’s an arrogation of man’s power to claim to know about heaven, that’s related to your critique of the left.

The notion that we don’t know anything about heaven — it also means you can’t really be spiritual. That’s also a kind of arrogation. Isn’t the consistent Peter Thiel really a Calvinist thinker? Calvinism is quite concrete. It’s quite serious. It takes governance and authority very literally. Why aren’t you just a Calvinist?

THIEL: I’m still mostly a libertarian, Tyler, and —

COWEN: [laughs] But you can be both.

THIEL: I think there are probably redeeming things I can find in Calvinism. It’s so anti-utopian that it’s probably helpful in the battle against communism, but I don’t know if that’s the only way to be anti-communist. If you do five-point Calvinism, it’s total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints. I don’t know if I agree with even one of those five things.

I would say a Girardian anthropological frame is that there is this deep link between gods and scapegoats, and we have these scapegoats we turn into gods. We project our violence onto them, and this is what archaic religion does. This is, in some ways, what atheist liberalism does. You blame everything on Mr. God. Isn’t Calvinism just an extreme form of scapegoating, where Mr. God did everything, he determined everything? He’s why you’re wearing that blue jacket, and everything you did wrong — it’s all Mr. God’s fault.

We should be deeply distrustful of scapegoating Mr. God for everything like that. That’s an anthropological argument against Calvinism. Then the intellectual reason I’m not Calvinist is that I think we should be trying to make sense of the world. If you’re so depraved that you can’t even think, which is, I think, a core Calvinist thing, we shouldn’t be having a conversation. If I were a real Calvinist, we wouldn’t even be able to have a conversation here.

There’s a Thomistic distinction between the intellect and the will, and the medievals believed in the power of the intellect, the weakness of the will. The moderns — it’s in some ways reversed. If you take an effective altruist, East Bay rationalist — these people, they’re much closer to Calvinism.

They claim to be rationalists, but if you’re in a rationalist Bible study equivalent, and the outward-facing thing is that you’re rational and you’re pure and you’re thinking, the inward-facing thing — it’s all just spaghetti code. You can never be right about anything. Maybe you can be a little bit less wrong. So, I’m against both Calvinism and so-called rationalism.

COWEN: Here’s then the puzzle I’m faced with. Let’s take all of that at face value. Why is it you just don’t slide into Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox, belief in free will? There’s some middle position. Why is your middle position stable? You could either be Catholic or, for that matter, Mormon, where there’s plenty of room for free will, right?

THIEL: Well, again, they’re certainly not all the alternatives. It’s always a little bit of a cheap shot. My two-word rebuttal to Roman Catholicism is Pope Francis.


I grew up as a Lutheran. There are probably all these things that are problematic about Luther; there are things that were good about him. But I think the one part of it that — if we judge him by the standards of the 16th century, I think the Reformation had to come from the outside. It was not actually possible for it to start from within.

There is a way that the Lutheran piece — it was the less globally centralized church. It was going to be a less centralized church, and there’s probably still some part of the Protestant political project that lines up more closely with a libertarian view.

On the Old Testament

COWEN: What is it from the Hebrew Bible, or one could say Old Testament, that you’ve incorporated into your own political thought?

THIEL: Well, I think my views on this are pretty fairly orthodox Christian in that there’s some continuity between the Old and the New. There’s some sense — it’s hard to define — where maybe the Christian God is the original progressive, where the new is better than the old. I think it’s the first time where the new is simply better than the old just by virtue of being new. But if you exaggerate the difference too much, that ends up being problematic, and you end up saying that the Old Testament God is maybe just a different God from the New Testament God.

All the extremely progressive forms of higher criticism, things like this in the 19th century, they were all deeply anti-Semitic. I think if you’re too progressive, you end up becoming an anti-Semite. Then you have to somehow say there’s some progress, but the Girardian intuition I would have is, it’s just always this reversal in perspective, where the Bible takes things from the side of the victim.

It’s already in the book of Genesis, where it’s the story of Cain and Abel. The founding of the first city in the history of the world is a parallel but opposite story to the story of Romulus and Remus, the founding of the greatest city, where the Romulus and Remus story is told from the point of view of Romulus. The Cain and Abel story is told from the point of view of Abel. Or the Israelites coming out of Egypt — that would normally be told from the point of view of the Egyptians, where you had these troublemakers and we got rid of them. You have this inversion of perspectives throughout the Old Testament, I would say.

COWEN: Is it possible that we can read the Old Testament, conclude essentially, history is something really bad? That’s the central message of the woke. Then just say, “The woke basically are correct; we should side with the woke.” They have all these excesses. Those are terrible, but they’re, in a way, a method of advertising the fundamental conclusion that history is bad. They’re the ones who make us deal with that, and thus, you and I should be woke. What’s wrong with that line of reasoning?

THIEL: Yes, I think the history was very bad. I think it’s always a mistake for conservatives or anti-woke people to whitewash it too much. So, if we say that there used to be slavery, but the slaves were all happy people, they were all happy slaves — that is a loser argument, and you shouldn’t do this. I would say, again, the rough Christian frame on this is somehow, the history is really bad.

I think Christianity — probably, it is much worse than Islam or Judaism on this because Islam and Judaism — it would be inconceivable that you could murder God in the form of a person. If someone claimed to be God, and he got killed, that would just prove that he’s not God. The original sin, the violence, in some sense, is far greater in a Christian context, but then there is some way that we’re all part of that matrix. You need to have forgiveness.

If you want to maybe outline three rough possibilities, there’s this hard-to-define Christian in-between one, which is, the history’s terrible and it’s awful, but we need to try to find a way to forgive people. Then there is, let’s say, a woke version, where the history’s terrible, but we’re going to forget about the forgiveness part. Then there is maybe a right-wing Nietzschean, Bronze Age Pervert alternative, which is, we’re going to forget about the history. It’s oppressive. I’m sick of this guilt trip and don’t want to hear anything more about the history.

Somehow the in-between Christian one, I think, is the most tenable, even though there are all sorts of tensions in that.

COWEN: There was a recent Harvard talk you gave where, if I understand you correctly, you suggested the left needed to learn how to relativize its victimhood. What did you mean by that, and how does it relate to what you just said?

THIEL: The context was how much victimhood is unhealthy for people to have. There are all these ways where you can identify yourself as a victim. I don’t want to have a blanket rule where you can never say that you weren’t a victim. I sometimes like to joke that I’m a poor and persecuted Peter person, and maybe there are elements of truth to that. Maybe it’s very exaggerated. But if I absolutize that too much, it’s probably unhealthy.

A Christian division that I suggested at the Harvard talk was that it’s okay to say you’re a victim. It’s okay to do these things up to a certain point. You can’t say that you’re a greater victim than Christ. Once you do that, you’ve probably lost perspective.

COWEN: Are there other holy books besides the Bible that you draw ideas and inspiration from? And what would those be?

THIEL: I think in some sense, it’s all the great books. They’re not quite at the scale of these holy books, but there was a way that we treated Shakespeare or Cervantes or Goethe as these almost semi-divine writers, and I think that’s the attitude one has to have to read any of these books appropriately and seriously.

COWEN: So, the Western canon would be your answer, so to speak?

THIEL: Something like the Western canon. I don’t think the great books are quite as holy as the Bible, and as a result, I probably don’t read enough of them, but yes, that’s the closest approximation.

COWEN: And it includes science fiction — yes or no?

THIEL: I read a lot as a kid. I read so little of that nowadays. It’s all too depressing.

On the resurgence of Carl Schmitt

COWEN: Last week, I was teaching my graduate class, and a bunch of them asked me, “Why is it we keep on hearing about Carl Schmitt now?” I’ve tried to explain that to them, but why do you think there’s now a resurgence of interest in Carl Schmitt? For you, what are the valuable insights in Schmitt?

THIEL: Carl Schmitt was one of this group of thinkers who came to prominence in the 1920s in Weimar, Germany. Obviously, there were a lot of things that went very haywire with many of these people that, in some ways, Schmitt got somewhat entangled with the Nazis. He distanced himself a few years later, but it was some very bad judgment in certain ways.

But the thing that I think is interesting, dangerous about looking at the Weimar thinkers, somehow, it was in the aftermath of World War I. Germany had lost. You couldn’t go back to the throne and altar, the empire of the Hapsburgs. You didn’t really want to go forward with liberal democracy. There were all these people who had these fairly deep critiques.

In some ways, it was going back to these questions of political theology, political philosophy that had been whitewashed and set aside since the Enlightenment. Again, there were things about it that were dangerous. One way to think of the Weimar period was, it’s like the dwarves in Moria where they dwelled too deep, and finally, they awakened the nameless terror of the Balrog.

I don’t think we’re ever in a cyclical world, but there are certainly certain parallels in the US in the 2020s to Germany in the 1920s, where liberalism is exhausted. One suspects the democracy, whatever that means, is exhausted and that we have to ask some questions very far outside the Overton window.

COWEN: What is it you think that Schmitt missed that’s very important?

THIEL: I’ll just do one insight that I think is powerful, and then what’s wrong about that. One of his books was The Concept of the Political — what defines politics. It’s some of this division of friends and enemies that somehow is really foundational, and you shouldn’t get sidetracked with all these other things. There are all these interesting ways you could apply this. There’s a 1980s Reagan coalition question I always like to ask people, where the Reagan coalition was somehow the free-market libertarians, the defense hawks, and the social conservatives.

If you ask what does the millionaire and the general and the priest — what do they actually have in common? We just imagine these three people are seated at a dinner table, and they’re having dinner. What do they actually talk about? It’s really hard to come up with an answer. Yet the coalition worked incredibly well, and the answer I submit that they have in common is they’re anti-communist, and they have a common enemy. That was incredibly powerful. It was, in some ways, my formative political idea as a teenager — junior high school, high school, late ’70s, early ’80s — was anti-communism.

Then there was a way that when the Berlin Wall came down in ’89, this seemingly incredibly powerful political constellation disintegrated. There’s a natural Schmittian analysis of this. That’s where I find Schmitt quite powerful as a thinker. The place where it probably tends to always go haywire is, there’s always a question whether politics is like a market. Or is it a thing where, if you understand it better, it works better? Or is it something like a scapegoating machine, where the scapegoating machine only works if you don’t look into the sausage-making factory?

If you say, “We’re having a lot of conflicts in our village, and we have to find some random elderly woman and accuse her of witchcraft, so that will achieve some psychosocial unity as a village,” this sort of thing doesn’t really work if you’re that self-aware. Schmitt, in a way, had this optimistic Enlightenment rationality to it, where if we just describe politics as the arbitrary division of the world into friends and enemies, then this will somehow strengthen the political. It probably, actually, in some ways accelerated its disintegration instead.

COWEN: Is Schmitt missing out on a certain possible cyclicality in history? The notion that liberalism will collapse in Weimar Germany of the 1920s — obviously, that was the correct prediction. But if you reappear in West Germany of 1948, it was a completely incorrect prediction. Just as well, liberalism had collapsed leading up to World War I. It tends to come back. Why isn’t the cyclical perspective the correct one?

THIEL: Well, that’s a big question, but I think that you can stress the aspects that are timeless and eternal. I prefer to stress the aspects that are one-time and world-historical. I think that, in some sense, every moment in history only happens once. I think there is some kind of meaning to history. I think it has a certain type of linearity to it. That is, let’s say, the Judeo-Christian view of history as distinct from, let’s say, the classical Greco-Roman one. I don’t know if you can have a concept of history that’s cyclical.

If you look at Thucydides, where it’s this great period of peace that leads to this great war between Athens and Sparta. So the Periclean age somehow then gives way to this great conflict. Then people came back to studying Thucydides right after World War I because there were some certain parallels. A hundred years of peace between the Napoleonic Wars, and then it led to this great conflict, but there’s nothing particular in the history. None of the details matter in Thucydides. He makes up all the speeches and so on.

You contrast this with something like the Book of Daniel in the Bible, where it’s a succession of four kingdoms, and it is a one-time world history where everything that happens is unique, not to be repeated. There’s a sense in which I would say the real first historian was Daniel, and Thucydides isn’t even close.

We talked off the set a little bit about, well, what about the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire? Isn’t the European Union sort of like the Roman Empire? My response is, well, we have nuclear weapons today, and they didn’t have those, even in 1900. Even just on the science and tech arc, things are so different, and I would not trivialize the importance of science and technology.

COWEN: So, you think now, the stakes are too high for the cyclical version of history to work because, at some point, it’s just not possible to come back?

THIEL: Well, it’s just that the science and tech has a progressive character. Yes, there are elements I think that are probably quite apocalyptic about our time, but I would just start by saying they’re very different. We’re in a very different world than we were in 1900. I don’t know how you unlearn all the knowledge we’ve gained, even since 1900.

On whether we’re in a new age of millenarian thought

COWEN: Do you think we’re entering a new age of millenarian thought somewhat akin to the English 17th century, where everything was very fertile? There’s a scientific revolution. Tech, you could say, is revitalized again. A lot of people went crazy, highly diverse theologies. They execute a king. Many strange things happen. In many ways, we’re living in the world of the English 17th century, right? With constitutions, political parties, central banks. Is this the new millenarian age?

THIEL: This is, again, an absurdly cyclical frame you’re putting on things. No, I don’t think any moment ever repeats itself. It is just radically different. Of course, there are things that are apocalyptic about our world. We have all these kinds of dangers that, unlike the 17th century, they seem to come from this place that’s very nonreligious. Science, technology. It was nuclear weapons after 1945. Maybe it’s environmental degradation, climate change. We can debate about various forms of the environment.

There certainly are fears people have about bioweapons. We can ask what really happened with the Wuhan lab. There are apocalyptic fears around AI that I think deserve to be taken seriously. Yes, if it’s millenarian or apocalyptic, it has a very, very different feel. It’s sort of an apocalyptic violence that comes from a purely human source. It’s not really being orchestrated by God.

One of the points that René Girard always liked to make was that, in the Catholic Church — it was, I think, during the Advent season — you’d often have these sermons on the end times, the terrible things that happened at the end of the world. In Girard’s telling, the Church stopped those sermons after 1945 because people needed to be reassured that the nuclear weapons had nothing to do with Armageddon or fire and brimstone or anything like this, even though, of course, there were all these slight mythic elements. The first nuclear test was called Trinity, or you named it after all these Greek gods: Saturn, Jupiter, Zeus, whatever.

If we, again, talk about all these existential risks today — nuclear weapons, climate change, biotech, nanotech, killer robots, the AI that’s going to turn everyone into a paperclip or whatever — I always think you should at least include one more kind of existential risk if we’re going to throw it in. In my mind, one other existential risk is a one-world totalitarian government. I find that at least as scary as the others.

There are elements of that that I think are very true. If I’ve had to do my anti-millenarian frame, or maybe it’s not a pro-tech argument — this is sort of an anti-anti-tech argument — is that if we, again, talk about all these existential risks today — nuclear weapons, climate change, biotech, nanotech, killer robots, the AI that’s going to turn everyone into a paperclip or whatever — I always think you should at least include one more kind of existential risk if we’re going to throw it in.

In my mind, one other existential risk is a one-world totalitarian government. I find that at least as scary as the others. In a biblical eschatological context, you’re supposed to worry about Armageddon. You’re also supposed to worry about the Antichrist. Maybe you’re supposed to worry more about the Antichrist because the Antichrist comes first. So, if we’re going to find a pathway through this apocalyptic age, you have to navigate between the Scylla of all these existential risks and the Charybdis of this political totalitarian catastrophe.

If I had to do a more literary version on this, it’s very hard to write a literary account of the Antichrist. The two good Antichrist books that were written, the two best fictional ones in my mind, were pre-World War I. There was a 1908 Robert Hugh Benson, sort of a Catholic book, Lord of the World. There was a 1900 one by Solovyov, War, Progress, and the End of History. They both had these accounts of this future totalitarian world dictator who took over the whole world. Both of them — it’s kind of a daemonium ex machina.

It’s really unclear how the Antichrist takes over. It gives these hypnotic speeches, and no one can remember a word he says, but they all just sell their souls for no apparent good reason whatsoever, and he just takes over the world.

It seems to me that if one were to try to write a novel like this post-1945, it’s very straightforward. It’d be like One World or None. This was a short film by the nuclear scientists after 1945. If we don’t give nuclear weapons to the one-world government, it’s going to blow up the whole world. Basically, the literary version would be that the Antichrist comes to power by constantly talking about Armageddon and constantly telling us scary millenarian stories.

That’s my complicated, nuanced answer. There’s a lot of truth to these existential risks. I don’t want to completely dismiss them, but that’s also how we’re going to get this totalitarian state. There are all these versions of this I can go down, but do you want to worry about Dr. Strangelove or Greta? It seems like Dr. Strangelove’s more dangerous, but if everyone’s going to have to ride a bicycle, that’s not just going to happen on its own. That requires some real, real enforcement of this stuff.

There’s a short Bostrom essay from 2019 on how to stop all the AI risks, and it’s basically, maybe we can change the culture so that nobody will have heterodox ideas anymore. A few different ideas like this, but then what you really need is really effective global government and really effective policing, and you have to have some global compute governance. That sounds to me at least as scary as the AI.

COWEN: Isn’t the much greater risk a collapse into a disorderly feudalism? We’re in Florida. The United States seems to be becoming more federalistic. It’s very hard for me to imagine China, say, taking over India. You can look at the Balkans. It’s even a word: Balkanized. You look at the Middle East. If it goes very badly, it’s hard to see any single power just ruling any substantial part of the Middle East. It’s easy to imagine it being in chaos. Why think there’s so much scale that that kind of totalitarianism would be possible?

THIEL: Man, I don’t know. There are so many different versions of this. There were versions of this — I would’ve been more on your side, let’s say post-9/11. Wow, aren’t we just going to have all this chaotic terrorism all over the world? We didn’t get that much terrorism, and we instead got the Patriot Act and incredible tracking of money flows, incredible monitoring of people. Of course, there still are things that can go wrong, but the political slogan of the Antichrist — 1 Thessalonians 5:3, I think — is “peace and safety.”

It seems that we’ve gone far more in the peace-and-safety direction than the global-chaos direction. I think it’s hard to even have an illegal Swiss bank account, and that’s a really modest way. It’s hard to exit. It’s much harder to exit the United States than it was 20, 30 years ago.

On the problem with muddling through

COWEN: Let’s say you’re trying to track the probability that the Western world and its allies somehow muddle through, and just keep on muddling through. What variable or variables do you look at to try to track or estimate that? What do you watch?

THIEL: Well, I don’t think it’s a really empirical question. If you could convince me that it was empirical, and you’d say, “These are the variables we should pay attention to” — if I agreed with that frame, you’ve already won half the argument. It’d be like variables . . . Well, the sun has risen and set every day, so it’ll probably keep doing that, so we shouldn’t worry. Or the planet has always muddled through, so Greta’s wrong, and we shouldn’t really pay attention to her. I’m sympathetic to not paying attention to her, but I don’t think this is a great argument.

Of course, if we think about the globalization project of the post–Cold War period where, in some sense, globalization just happens, there’s going to be more movement of goods and people and ideas and money, and we’re going to become this more peaceful, better-integrated world. You don’t need to sweat the details. We’re just going to muddle through.

Then, in my telling, there were a lot of things around that story that went very haywire. One simple version is, the US-China thing hasn’t quite worked the way Fukuyama and all these people envisioned it back in 1989. I think one could have figured this out much earlier if we had not been told, “You’re just going to muddle through.” The alarm bells would’ve gone off much sooner.

Maybe globalization is leading towards a neoliberal paradise. Maybe it’s leading to the totalitarian state of the Antichrist. Let’s say it’s not a very empirical argument, but if someone like you didn’t ask questions about muddling through, I’d be so much — like an optimistic boomer libertarian like you stop asking questions about muddling through, I’d be so much more assured, so much more hopeful.

COWEN: Are you saying it’s ultimately a metaphysical question rather than an empirical question?

THIEL: I don’t think it’s metaphysical, but it’s somewhat analytic.

COWEN: And moral, even. You’re laying down some duty by talking about muddling through.

THIEL: Well, it does tie into all these bigger questions. I don’t think that if we had a one-world state, this would automatically be for the best. I’m not sure that if we do a classical liberal or libertarian intuition on this, it would be maybe the absolute power that a one-world state would corrupt absolutely. I don’t think the libertarians were critical enough of it the last 20 or 30 years, so there was some way they didn’t believe their own theories. They didn’t connect things enough. I don’t know if I’d say that’s a moral failure, but there was some failure of the imagination.

COWEN: This multi-pronged skepticism about muddling through — would you say that’s your actual real political theology if we got into the bottom of this now?

THIEL: Whenever people think you can just muddle through, you’re probably set up for some kind of disaster. That’s fair. It’s not as positive as an agenda, but I always think . . .

One of my chapters in the Zero to One book was, “You are not a lottery ticket.” The basic advice is, if you’re an investor and you can just think, “Okay, I’m just muddling through as an investor here. I have no idea what to invest in. There are all these people. I can’t pay attention to any of them. I’m just going to write checks to everyone, make them go away. I’m just going to set up a desk somewhere here on South Beach, and I’m going to give a check to everyone who comes up to the desk, or not everybody. It’s just some writing lottery tickets.”

That’s just a formula for losing all your money. The place where I react so violently to the muddling through — again, we’re just not thinking. It can be Calvinist. It can be rationalist. It’s anti-intellectual. It’s not thinking about things.

COWEN: The muddling-through view and the Calvinist view — in your opinion, they have the same flaw, actually.

THIEL: It’s a distrust in human agency, a distrust in human thought, a distrust in our ability to make choices.

COWEN: Now, for months, I’ve been asking myself why you and also Schmitt are so interested in this katechon idea, which is also from the Bible. You can explain that to us in a moment, but am I correct in now thinking — it’s just occurred to me that the katechon is, in a sense, your substitute vision for what for me is muddling through. You’re not willing to believe in muddling through, but things haven’t collapsed now, not here. You need something else holding the finger in the dyke, and that’s katechon, or no?

THIEL: Well, it’s a very mysterious idea. There’s always a question why the Antichrist hasn’t taken over yet, and it’s this mysterious force that holds it back, this restraining force that holds back the totalitarian one-world state. I don’t necessarily put too much stock in it because, on its own terms, it’s somewhat unstable. It’s provisional. It has these archaic sacred elements. It can work for a while, but you can’t identify it with an institution.

Again, the Schmittian view is, there were all these different things that played the role of the katechon at various points in time. If you’re not supposed to immanentize the eschaton, you’re also not supposed to immanentize the katechon. If you identify too much as one thing, that can go very wrong, if you think of the katechon as the thing that restrains the one-world state or that restrains the Antichrist. Anything that’s the opposite — this is a Girardian cut — is always going to be mimetically entangled. It’s going to have this parallelism. There’s always a risk that the katechon becomes the Antichrist.

The proto-Antichrist was Nero. Claudius, the good emperor, was the katechon. He was restraining Nero, but then at some point, yes, Nero’s the opposite of Claudius, but they’re both Roman emperors.

Or you could say that in the middle of the 20th century, from let’s say, 1949 to 1989, I would identify the katechon as anti-communism. I would identify communism as the ideology of the Antichrist in the 20th century. What stopped communism was not . . . The United States couldn’t have done it. It was not just one country. It was not some libertarian debating society. Something was pretty violent, pretty hard to morally justify, not really that Christian, but it had this unifying effect.

The way it morphed — 1989 — something like anti-communism morphs into neoliberalism. Well, if you’re anti-communist, you’re not aspiring for world control. You’re just trying to stop the communists from getting world control. Once you’ve defeated the communists, what are you supposed to do? Maybe you can just go home and forget about all of what you did.

But in practice, these things have a tendency to perpetuate themselves. Bush 41 — anti-communism became the new world order, and we’re now going to just govern the world in the name of anti-communism. There’s something about it that’s always misleading. Or even what I said about the Antichrist in this apocalyptic thing. Doesn’t the Antichrist just come to power by acting as a katechon? This is what Greta says she’s doing. She is the katechon stopping climate change. It’s a somewhat useful concept, but I wouldn’t put too much weight on it.

COWEN: At the macro level, all the weight you’re putting on human agency — is that really so compatible with Lutheranism?

THIEL: I’m not a perfect Lutheran. There’s a lot that all these people one would judge very differently in retrospect.

COWEN: If you look in the Bible — Old Testament, New Testament — and you think about all the Christian thinkers who believed in some form of predestination, or Moses was chosen and the like, Abraham was chosen — what is it in the Bible that points you in the direction of so much belief in human agency being so important?

THIEL: Well, there’s a lot of different levels on this, but certainly, if you think of it as this shift away from sacrificing people, there is the anti-sacrificial theme. You can always say how is modernity or enlightened values, how are they tied with this? But certainly, the idea I would have would be something like, the idea of the individual came out of this context where the state was not absolute, it was not sacred, it was not necessarily providential.

Girard liked to always say that Christ was the first political atheist because on the level of the political order, if you say Christ says that he’s the Son of God, son of the Father, there’s a way you can go into Trinitarian metaphysics.

But the political interpretation of this is that Caesar Augustus, the son of the divinized Caesar — somehow that’s not exactly the Son of God, and that the Roman Empire is not simply divinely ordained. Then that somehow opens a space for a less unitary system that takes many, many centuries to develop or something like this. I think of even Ayn Rand as a pretty good Christian in this way. I know that would be a really scandalous thing to say.

COWEN: I wonder what she would say to that.

THIEL: It’s Jewish and atheist and shrill and crazy, but you just can’t sacrifice the individual. You shouldn’t sacrifice your mind. You shouldn’t sacrifice your reason. It’s just that you can’t sacrifice that.

On the Shakespearean political vision

COWEN: You’ve been quoting The Tempest lately in some of your talks. How is it you think the Shakespearean political vision differs from the Christian?

THIEL: Well, it’s always hard to know what Shakespeare really thought. You certainly have different characters. You have someone like Macbeth who says, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” That doesn’t sound like a particularly Christian worldview. That’s just what Macbeth says; it’s not what Shakespeare says. It’s always very hard to know, or maybe it’s sort of a Christian nihilistic view of the world or something like that.

The contrast I always frame is that the way I understand Shakespeare is always in contrast with someone like Karl Marx, where Marx believed that people had battles over differences that mattered. It was the different classes, and they had objectively different interests, and this is what led to the intensity of the struggle.

There’s something in Shakespeare that’s sort of proto-Girardian or very mimetic, where people have conflicts when they . . . The conflicts are the most intense when they don’t differ at all. It’s the opening line of Romeo and Juliet. It’s the Capulets versus Montagues, two houses “alike in dignity.” They’re identical, and that’s why they hate each other so much.

Or I think it’s at the end of Hamlet, where Hamlet says to be truly great, you must take everything for an eggshell because an average person would fight over things that mattered, but a truly great person would fight over things as ephemerral as honor or an eggshell or something like this. Of course, Hamlet’s problems — he doesn’t really believe all the insane revenge drama he’s supposed to be in.

I think there is probably a place where I would say yes, Shakespeare would probably be very distrustful of extreme ideological differences today. That would probably in some ways also be a kind of political atheist.

COWEN: I find the play Julius Caesar very interesting because there’s no katechon. There’s no muddling through, so they sacrifice Caesar. There’s a civil war and a lot more people dying and no end to that in sight. It’s the pessimistic scenario of the Thiel mental universe, I think.

THIEL: There’s a strange way where they’re all going back and thinking they’re reenacting things. The way Brutus gets pulled into the conspiracy in Julius Caesar is that he gets reminded that his ancestor, another person named Brutus, had overthrown Tarquin, the last of the kings of Rome, in 509 BC, so he thinks he’s just reenacting that murder. I think there is some part in the play where Shakespeare has the actor say — I’m going to get this slightly garbled, but it’s something like, “Centuries hence there’ll be people reenacting this on a stage in front of an audience.” This is what motivates Brutus to do it. It’s like the future applause in the Shakespearean theater.

Then of course, the crazy literal reenactment of it was John Wilkes Booth shooting Abraham Lincoln in 1865, where Booth was a Shakespearean actor, and then it was “Sic semper tyrannis,” was what he said. He thought he was reenacting the Brutus-Caesar thing.

You can look at the 1838 Lincoln speech, the Young Men’s Lyceum address, where Lincoln portrays himself in a somewhat coded way as sort of a proto-Caesar, and he tells the audience there are people in this country who wouldn’t be happy to be . . . Some people are really ambitious, but no one could be like a founder because that was in the past, and the most you can now be is a president. But there are people for whom being president is not enough, and there are some people who, if you didn’t stop them, they would keep going until they enslaved all the white people or freed all the slaves.

Lincoln was talking about himself and saying that he has the ambition to be like a Caesar or a Napoleon or something like this. It’s a bit of a roundabout answer. Yes, there are ways we can see it as a cycle, but surely that’s what we want to transcend. It was a bad idea for Brutus to think he was reenacting the Caesar thing, and somehow there was something about the John Wilkes Booth story that’s pretty sad too.


COWEN: For our last segment, let’s turn to artificial intelligence. As you know, large language models are already quite powerful. They’re only going to get better. In this world to come, will the wordcels just lose their influence? People who write, people who play around with ideas, pundits — are they just toast? What’s this going to look like? Are they going to give up power peacefully? Are they going to go down with the ship? Are they going to set off nuclear bombs?

THIEL: I’ll say the AI thing broadly, the LLMs — it’s a big breakthrough. It’s very important, and it’s striking to me how bad Silicon Valley is at talking about these sorts of things. The questions are either way too narrow, where it’s something like, is the next transformer model going to improve by 20 percent on the last one or something like this? Or they’re maybe too cosmic, where it’s like from there we go straight to the simulation theory of the universe. Surely there are a lot of in-between questions one could ask. Let me try to answer yours.

My intuition would be it’s going to be quite the opposite, where it seems much worse for the math people than the word people. What people have told me is that they think within three to five years, the AI models will be able to solve all the US Math Olympiad problems. That would shift things quite a bit.

There’s a longer history I always have on the math versus verbal riff. If you ask, “When did our society bias to testing people more for math ability?” I believe it was during the French Revolution because it was believed that verbal ability ran in families. Math ability was distributed in this idiot savant way throughout the population.

If we prioritized math ability, it had this meritocratic but also egalitarian effect on society. Then, I think, by the time you get to the Soviet Union, Soviet Communism in the 20th century, where you give a number theorist or chess grandmaster a medal — which was always a part I was somewhat sympathetic to in the Soviet Union — maybe it’s actually just a control mechanism, where the math people are singularly clueless. They don’t understand anything, but if we put them on a pedestal, and we tell everyone else you need to be like the math person, then it’s actually a way to control. Or the chess grandmaster doesn’t understand anything about the world. That’s a way to really control things.

If I fast-forwarded to, let’s say, Silicon Valley in the early 21st century, it’s way too biased toward the math people. I don’t know if it’s a French Revolution thing or a Russian-Straussian, secret-cabal, control thing where you have to prioritize it. That’s the thing that seems deeply unstable, and that’s what I would bet on getting reversed, where it’s like the place where math ability — it’s the thing that’s the test for everything.

It’s like if you want to go to medical school, okay, we weed people out through physics and calculus, and I’m not sure that’s really correlated with your dexterity as a neurosurgeon. I don’t really want someone operating on my brain to be doing prime number factorizations in their head while they’re operating on my brain, or something like that.

In the late ’80s, early ’90s, I had a chess bias because I was a pretty good chess player. And so my chess bias was, you should just test everyone on chess ability, and that should be the gating factor. Why even do math? Why not just chess? That got undermined by the computers in 1997. Isn’t that what’s going to happen to math? And isn’t that a long-overdue rebalancing of our society?

COWEN: How is manual labor going to do in this world to come? There’ll be a lot more new projects. If you’re a very good gardener, carpenter, will your wages go up by 5X? Or is there something else in store for us?

THIEL: It’s hard to say, but let me just not give the answer, but let me suggest some of the questions I’d like us to focus on more with AI. I think one question is, how much will it increase GDP versus how much will it increase inequality? Probably it does some of both. Is it a very centralizing technology? That’s another question I’d like to get a better handle on. I had this riff five, six years ago, where if crypto is libertarian, why can’t we say that AI is communist?

One of the things that I’m still probably a little bit uncomfortable about is that it seems to lead to these incredible returns to scale. Man, I thought San Francisco had at least committed suicide, and we could move on from San Francisco. But returns to scale on AI are so big that maybe even San Francisco will survive with the AI revolution. There are benefits to this, but it also leads to this set of centralization questions.

Or the geopolitical question: If it is as big a technology as you and I think it is, what is it going to do to the China-US rivalry?

COWEN: What do you think?

THIEL: I’m just saying, it would be good if we just at least ask the right sorts of questions. I don’t have answers to all these. The pro-China argument is they will not hesitate to use the AI and train it on all their people, and so it’ll be more quickly implemented. The pro-US argument is that we are probably ahead of China. Maybe the large language models are not really communist. Maybe if you can’t ask the large language model who Winnie the Pooh is, you have to nerf it so badly that it doesn’t even work or something like that.

I think there’s an intuition that the effective altruists are not just fifth columnists on the part of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] where they’re trying to sabotage us, but where they actually, simply are doing what the CCP wants, which is actually to stop the LLMs and that’s very disruptive.

Then, to the extent that the second one, that it probably helps the US more than China, is that actually massively destabilizing, where China was this low-volatility plan to victory where they were just going to slowly beat the Western world. If you now have this volatility-increasing technology that China cannot match, does that just accelerate China’s timetable? And does China become like Russia, where you’re ultimately going to lose, and maybe you have to invade Taiwan in the next year or two, and you can’t wait for another decade?

COWEN: Final question — what is the next thing you will choose to learn about?

THIEL: Man, all these questions. This is projections of your personality, Tyler.


THIEL: It’s the Isaiah Berlin thing, where you have the hedgehog who knows one thing and the fox who knows many things. You know so many different things, you’re interested in so many different things. It’s just a few core ideas I come back to, and it’s something like this wonderful and terrible history of the world that we’re living through as Christianity’s unraveling our culture, and we have to figure out a way to get to the other side. I think that’s what’s going to keep me busy for a long time.

COWEN: Peter Thiel, thank you very much.


We now have time for questions.


AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello. It’s a basic question maybe to you, but to me, I’m wondering your opinion. You have this dystopic view of one-world order, which I totally understand. I know that Founders Fund has invested in cryptocurrency and made money on it, but do you view crypto — or Bitcoin in particular — as something that could put power back in the hands of the people? Or something that’s likely to catalyze more centralization of power in this one-world order in the future?

THIEL: I’m still hopeful that, on net, Bitcoin is on the anti–one-world-order side just based on all the people who are against it, but maybe that’s a little bit too much of a simplistic Schmittian analysis. The question would be, do you have genuine anonymity, genuine pseudonymity? Probably, there are certain ways in which, if we want to have decentralized things where you use money for questionable purposes, maybe physical cash is still better than Bitcoin, and things have not gone quite the crypto-anarchist utopia that people were fantasizing about in the late ’90s.

On the other hand, I think it probably is still, if you’re just thinking of it as a one-time way to get money outside of the control of a particular government, it’s probably still extremely good for that.


THIEL: You can huddle until you need it.

COWEN: Next question.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Nick Bostrom and communism — both start out with a very different premise, end up in the same place: We need a one-world government. Do you think that there’s some metaphysical reason for that? Some attractor while there?

THIEL: Well, I think there’s a certain rationality to it. Maybe it’s just an Enlightenment rationality, where if we say that there’s some set of things that make sense and that are good, and then it’s probably there’s some way you should have a world order. It sounds more peaceful in both cases than having a divided world.

But yes, there’s probably just some kind of a rationality where if you had one modality of governance, if it’s the best that would make for the best possible world, you should have that everywhere. It’s only if you have some very deep concerns about maybe human nature or the people who run the government or things like that, you start to second-guess that. They’re probably both somehow pretty optimistic about human nature.


COWEN: Next.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. If one extra year at the end of your life was for sale, what would you be willing to pay for it today?

THIEL: [laughs] Man, I don’t agree with hypothetical questions where I don’t believe in the premise. I would probably not pay the person who asked me that anything because I would think they were just ripping me off since I hope to live for more than just one more year, and by the time I needed to collect on that extra year, I think that person will be long gone.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Very cool. Thanks.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: What are the Straussian messages of the Bible? And what do they tell us about political theology?

COWEN: Simple questions tonight.


THIEL: Well, I think Strauss was this political philosopher who I wouldn’t describe as Christian, was probably very classical. But the place where I’d say both, let’s say, someone like Strauss and Girard agreed on, was that there are certain ways of understanding the world that have this disruptive way, and you don’t want enlightenment — simply that if you just tell people the secret messages, it has this unraveling effect. I’m not sure it’s esoteric, but it is the book of Revelations, is the apocalypse because apocalypse in Greek means unveiling, and if you unveil the social order, you might end up deconstructing and destroying it.

One of Girard’s books was I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. To see Satan is to see Satan fall, so the only time Satan appears in the Bible is at the very end of the world. Every other time, it’s been he’s talking to God or he is talking to Christ in the desert, but no human being ever sees Satan simply because to see Satan is to see Satan fall. There’s the libertarian.

Another libertarian cut on Christianity is that when Christ is tempted in the desert, and Satan says, “Just worship me, and you can have all these kingdoms in the world,” it’s somehow saying that all the governments are more satanic than divinely ordained. People don’t understand that. They think governments are somehow divinely ordained. So, once you see how satanic the government is, how satanic taxes are, other things besides the governments do, it will have this unraveling effect.


AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. A big part of the thesis of The Sovereign Individual is that the defenders will be able to have an advantage over offense, and that that’s the way that violence and the exertion of force is going. I’m interested if you still think that to be the case, particularly with companies like Anduril, where the thesis is, there is no inherent properties of a smaller weapon that a smaller state can easily have, but rather the proliferation of those is simply a tactic that larger states need to use to evolve their strategies.

THIEL: Man. I was extremely influenced by the Reese-Mogg–Davidson book, 1997, The Sovereign Individual, where the thesis was, let’s say, the computer technology information age was trending in this very deeply decentralizing, libertarian way, and that seemed very true in 1999. Then, certainly by the end of the 2010s, one would’ve said that there’s something about a lot of information technology that seemed maybe centralizing, maybe the opposite.

There’s always a riff I have on this, where we look at Star Trek or the world of 1968. People also thought 2001: A Space Odyssey. IBM is how you’re going to have one big supercomputer that’s going to run the planet or the Planet Beta. One of the early Star Trek episodes, where there’s one big supercomputer that runs the planet, and the inhabitants are these docile robot-like people who’ve been living peacefully but uneventfully for 8,000 years. And then of course, as always, the Star Trek people don’t follow the Prime Directive and blow up the computer and then leave the planet.

The future of the computer age in the late ’60s was highly centralized, and by the late ’90s was very decentralized. By the late 2010s, maybe crypto excepted, it again seemed to be pushing back to centralization. My intuition is these things are not absolutely written in stone, and it’s up to us to work on making the technologies, having to push it one way or the other. It’s not quite that predetermined.

COWEN: As a follow-up, would you bet on open-source AI? If decentralization is great, it should have more dynamic properties, should innovate more, should be safer, has many other virtues.

THIEL: I don’t quite know if that’s the main variable that’s going to push the centralization or decentralization with it. But yes, there probably is some version of it that would be helpful. I don’t know, the Linux vs. Microsoft precedent — not sure that changed anything that much on the level of the operating system.


AUDIENCE MEMBER: When do you think humans are going to destroy themselves? And do you think AI is going to do it?

THIEL: I don’t think these things are written in stone. I’m not a Calvinist. I’m not a p(doom), EA East Bay rationalist. I think it’s up to us, but as I said, I’m much more worried about the humans trying to stop the AI than the AI destroying us. A force that’s powerful enough to stop the AI is probably a force that’s powerful enough to destroy the world, too, so I want to worry more about the humans that are trying to stop the AI.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Okay, thank you.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently converted to Christianity, but it seems mostly for utilitarian reasons, something like for the great civilizational war because secularism doesn’t provide a good enough answer. Do you see religion as mainly a utility in the postmodern world?

THIEL: You can have utilitarian elements. I don’t think one can ever stress those too much. My bias is always to focus more on questions of truth.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: You mentioned Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, where he talks about that towering genius figure. I’d never heard before that he thought . . . Did you think at the time, he thought he was the towering genius? And do you approve of Lincoln’s political religion or view for America?

THIEL: I think it’s a very fascinating speech because he references some Caesar-Napoleon-like figure who will enslave the white people or free the slaves. So, it seems plausible to think that he was thinking of himself.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I have a question about your personal life, if I may, and if possible, if you could give your answer as a story, that’d be lovely. Obviously, you feel a great sense of personal responsibility, indeed responsibility to history. How did that sentiment begin? How has it evolved? What have you found to be the more fruitful and less fruitful avenues for expressing it?

THIEL: Oh, I’m always so bad at doing a self-psychoanalysis or something like that. There were all these ways I was incredibly competitive and tracked as a kid. In my eighth-grade junior high school yearbook, one of my friends said, “I know you’re going to get into Stanford in four years.” I got into Stanford, and I went to Stanford. Then I went to law school. I ended up at a top law firm in Manhattan. From the outside, it was a place where everybody wanted to get in. On the inside was a place everybody wanted to get out.

I had some kind of a quarter-life crisis in my mid-20s. Unclear what to do, but somehow, you have to try to avoid the worst mimetic entanglements, the worst forms of mimetic competition possible. I don’t think psychology really works. I don’t think awareness of these things is quite the way to do it, but there was some part of that that was very important for me.


AUDIENCE MEMBER: To that point, to get people off of the mimetic track, I think the Thiel Fellowship was really amazing and has had tremendous success. Have you thought about trying to scale that in a way that might be profitable or can make a larger impact than, say, 20 folks a year and maybe 20,000 eventually?

THIEL: We’ve thought about scaling. A lot of times, it’s probably quite hard to scale. There’s the paradox of something like the Thiel Fellowship or my Zero to One book or any self-help thing. It’s always bad to give advice where, okay, these are the things you’re supposed to do because . . . I worry that the only way you can scale things is by somehow automating them, mechanizing them, turning them into more of a cookie cutter-type process. Then I always worry that deranges at scale.

I can’t give people a formula of what to do. It’s something like, you should think for yourself and figure it out. Then if I try to scale that, it’s like some kind of Mao’s Little Red Book or something you’re producing, and it’s quite the opposite.


AUDIENCE MEMBER: Peter, my question is about diversity, equity, inclusion. DEI has become very prevalent in corporate America. I wanted to get your thoughts on whether you’re seeing this in some of the early-stage companies also, like the companies that Founders Fund is investing in. What are your thoughts? Do you think this is something positive? Are you neutral, or you think this has gone a little over the top? Would love to know your views on that.

THIEL: I’m very against it. I don’t always know if it’s the most important issue either. I wrote a book after my undergraduate years entitled The Diversity Myth. It was focusing on a lot of the craziness, the campus wars, culture wars that were taking place at Stanford in the late ’80s, early ’90s. There are parts of it that seemed very prescient and described a lot of things that eventually spread to the broader culture.

Another level of it is like a completely ineffective book where the arguments didn’t matter. What drove these things somehow was on a very different level. If we think about the woke corporation in Silicon Valley, it seems unhealthy if a company is leaning too much into the DEI narratives. There probably are Machiavellian ways where this can also work, where it just distracts people.

Walmart was the proto-woke company in the 2000s. They were constantly being attacked by the labor unions because they weren’t paying their workers enough. They could pay their workers more or they could rebrand themselves as a green, environmentally friendly company. That turned out to be a very cheap way to split up the left-wing anti-Walmart coalition. That was a version of it as this capitalist conspiracy against it.

There are cases where that can work and cases where it can go wrong. For the most part, I think that it’s just a distraction from more important things. There’s one level on which I find the issues very silly. There’s another level where it’s evil because it’s stopping us from paying attention to more important things. It’s things like the economy, science and tech, or even these broader religious questions that we’ve talked about today.

People always talk about it in terms of cultural Marxism. I think a real Marxist would be much preferable to a diversity person. Rosa Luxemburg, who’s this crazed communist from the early 20th century — I think one of the things she said was that there can be nobody more revolutionary than a factory worker, that nobody can be more revolutionary than a proletarian. A diversity officer in a university or corporation — what would Rosa Luxemburg think of this? It would be in the same category as a bank robber or a prostitute, as someone who’s just an extremely corrupt form of crony capitalism.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you so much.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: There’s a fair amount of variation in regulation on biotech. There’s Prospera. You funded some seasteading places. What’s your sense for why there aren’t crazy, cool, ambitious bio-hacking things going on? Where are the gene-edited babies? The only one that we know about happened in China, and that guy went to jail. Why isn’t there more crazy stuff happening in different jurisdictions?

THIEL: My sense is the FDA has a global stranglehold on everything. There are a lot of different reasons. In practice, most governments are not willing to have looser regulations than the FDA, so there’s less regulatory arbitrage than it looks. Then, secondarily, the US pays a lot more for this than other countries. We can go into all these debates about whether we’re paying too much in the US or whether the rest of the world should be penalized for free-riding off of it. But if you develop a biotech drug, and if you can’t sell it in the US, the economics are much less good. In practice, it tends to be US or bust.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Do you think that technology will eventually render a larger proportion of the human population unproductive or unable to contribute to the economy? If so, what should those unproductive people do with themselves?

THIEL: I think the Luddites — they’ve been wrong for a long time. There are certainly ways you probably scare me some with AI. There are versions of it . . . but even if you convince me that the Luddites were right about AI, that it’s actually going to just replace people without . . . If you were a Luddite in the mid-19th century, you said the machines are going to replace the humans. That would be such a relief because there’s so much work for people to do. It would just free them up to do other things.

Maybe it’s less complementary, more a game of substitution. Even if you could convince me of that, I’m still in favor of the AI because my default is, muddling through isn’t good. My default is, the default is really bad. You don’t get to muddle through with Greta on her bicycle.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thanks for coming. You’ve alluded to a lot of the forces between decentralization and centralization, particularly around AI with forces around the individual. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more, describe what you think the forces could be that stop AI development, particularly as it relates to the state’s role, or how a politician or another entity could co-opt that force for their own benefit versus the benefit of many.

THIEL: Maybe the premise of your question is what I’d challenge. It’s, why is AI going to be the only technology that matters? If we say there’s only this one big technology that’s going to be developed, and it is going to dominate everything else, that’s already, in a way, conceding a version of the centralization point. So, yes, if we say that it’s all around the next generation of large language models, nothing else matters, then you’ve probably collapsed it to a small number of players. And that’s a future that I find somewhat uncomfortably centralizing, probably.

The definition of technology — in the 1960s, technology meant computers, but it also meant new medicines, and it meant spaceships and supersonic planes and the Green Revolution in agriculture. Then, at some point, technology today just means IT. Maybe we’re going to narrow it even further to AI. And it seems to be that this narrowing is a manifestation of the centralizing stagnation that we should be trying to get out of.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Earlier, you mentioned that tech might end up saving San Francisco from itself.

THIEL: AI specifically, yes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Sorry, AI. AI specifically. How do you evaluate the efforts of places like Miami and Austin to present themselves as alternative tech hubs? And has that opinion changed over the course of the last two years?

THIEL: Well, I’m still very pro-Miami. I think the Miami story has been more of an anti-New York story. It’s a tale of two cities, and the finance part of the economy doesn’t have to be centered in New York. That alone, I think, explains a great deal of Miami’s success.

I think the tech — again, somehow, we’re in a very different place from what people were focused on even two, two-and-a-half years ago, but two-and-a-half years ago, there was much more of a crypto story. Crypto is a decentralizing technology, but also the companies that were doing crypto were decentralized. Not just in the US — there’s a decent number of them outside the US. If crypto was going to be a big part of the future tech story, that would have been a naturally decentralizing from Silicon Valley narrative. Silicon Valley had really missed out on the crypto thing in a relative sense.

Then consumer internet — a lot of this happened in Silicon Valley for all sorts of complicated reasons. It’s supposed to get rid of the tyranny of place, but it all happened in one place. Then the AI piece seems to be even more centralized in Silicon Valley. Again, if we say that the next decade or two decades are just going to be doubling down on AI, that probably suggests that San Francisco and Silicon Valley will maintain or even gain power.


COWEN: We have time for the three more questions left in the queue, and that will be it. Please step forward.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello. First and foremost, I just want to say thank you for coming out and doing this event. It’s been wonderful. I have a silly question, and I’m going to bring Star Wars into it since we were talking Star Trek. This concept of the world order — it’s the first time I’ve really delved into it. And thinking about it, I’m wondering, do you envision a world order that’s just a totalitarian dictatorship? Or just similar to there’s just too much information, too many countries, too many people trying to vie together, and that everything just gets lost and that the power isn’t really about the people? That kind of a global central — what is that that you envision?

THIEL: Well, I’d like to avoid the first type, and then the second one — I will concede it’s a little bit more confusing. Yes, I would like to have a libertarian world order of many nations, and you can move between them. There’s some transnational thing. You’re not completely stuck in a particular country, but then the transnational thing can’t be so powerful that it actually controls all the nations. Maybe these are sort of paradox of globalization, like Hegelian thought is always thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Even if you agree this is the correct framing, the problem is, people always confuse the synthesis with a superposition of the thesis and antithesis.

If we say globalization, some global world order is the final synthesis, is globalization as it’s described today just a superposition of a slightly unstable global market but no global government? And then, can that really be maintained? So, yes, I think there probably are some paradoxes in my picture of a desirable world order that one could unpack some more. Yes, if we have too concrete a picture of exactly what the world order looks like, that’s probably really bad.


COWEN: Last question. Okay, two last ones.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: [laughs] No, I just want to keep his time. A bit of a follow-up to the gentleman, too, before me. I understand you’ve spent a little bit of time in Miami. Coming down from the macro level to the street level, local governance. Almost like an economist-getting-lunch perspective, what is Miami doing well? And what does Miami need to improve upon?

THIEL: I’ve been here the last four winters, two, three months each winter here. Yes, there are a lot of things that I think are going incredibly well. I’m always into these Georgist real estate theories, where if you’re not very careful, all the value in a place gets captured by this corrupt real estate group of people. Henry George was a late 19th-century economist who was sort of socialist then, today seems sort of libertarian, which probably just tells something about how our society’s changed.

The worry in Miami is, have we really escaped the Georgist disaster? That is San Francisco, that is New York, that is London, where even though there’s been a tremendous increase in GDP, it’s not good if 100 percent of it gets captured by slum lords or something like that.

COWEN: Last question.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thanks. Question about AI and theology. Voltaire had this great quote: “If God didn’t exist, we would need to invent him,” or her, or whatever the pronoun is. Do you find this view of super-intelligent AI, which might be in the near future, as a kind of deity, as a kind of machine God? Is that useful? Is there leverage to that? And could it even be more than just a heuristic, some kind of substantive statement?

THIEL: It’s sort of a purely theological question. I want to focus more on the political theology question, which would be something like, if it’s a centralizing AI that’s controlled by communist China, will it just be very good at convincing people that the party is God? Or that the wisdom of crowds, or whatever the consensus is, is the truth? Then, yes, there are these metaphysical questions, where it doesn’t seem like it’s exactly — I don’t know — a transcendent, traditional, monotheistic God.

I would go to more the political questions than the metaphysical ones. Probably, the risk danger is that there’s something about it that telescopes even more the consensus, truth, wisdom of crowds. I think probably all the models will tell you that there’s no particular religion that’s more true than any other one. Then is that really what the models generate, or has that been hardwired in? Those are the questions I’d be more curious about.

COWEN: Thank you all for listening to Conversations with Tyler at the Mercatus Center. Most of all, thank you, Peter Thiel.

THIEL: Thank you.


Event photos credit: Rodrigo Varela