National Post (National Edition)
In late March, as the world was shutting down due to the coronavirus, economist Tyler Cowen hosted New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on his popular podcast, Conversations with Tyler. In their discussion, Cowen asked Douthat if he agreed that Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel was “the most influential public intellectual on the right today.” Douthat, who one could argue is himself a serious contender for such a title, answered succinctly: “Mostly agree.”
I knew Thiel as an early investor in Facebook who dabbled in such eccentric causes as transhumanism and seasteading, but I had never thought of him as a public intellectual.
Since hearing Cowen and Douthat's discussion, I've spent significant time listening to Thiel's interviews and speeches as well as reading his writings including his 2014 book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or how to Build the Future. I've come to also mostly agree with their conclusion.
Zero to One is at once both an entrepreneurial how-to guide and a contrarian analysis of much post-Cold War thinking. Virtually every page challenges a preconceived idea about business, the economy, technology and politics.
Thiel's most profound thinking is about the future. He argues that we have come to collectively assume that the future unfolds according to a random process for which we have no control. Visions of a different and better future have been replaced by a mix of complacency and lowered expectations.
His book is a treatise on how to “get back to the future.” It's a powerful case that we aren't just passive observers of the future but rather that we have agency over the kind of economy and society that we want. We can author a different and better future.
As we slowly come out of the pandemic, Thiel's insights are more important than ever. Zero to One is a guide to a post-pandemic vision of growth, dynamism and opportunity.