• Osa Iluobe

Rich Thoughts: Money talks. It Also Philosophizes

Updated: 2 days ago

Business and politics have always had close ties. But the rise of the businessperson/political theorist is a modern phenomenon.

According to Noam Chomsky, the responsibility of the intellectual is to ‘tell the truth and expose lies’. Despite his anti-capitalist tendencies, Mr Chomsky may as well have added ‘and to make a profit’. Because the era of the high-flying businessperson by day, low-lying intellectual by night (or investor by day, invested intellectual by night) is upon us. Arianna Huffington, George Soros, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk are among an increasing number of successful entrepreneurs who have developed a knack for weighing in on popular discourse from the intellectual high-chair.

Take Mr Musk, whose decision to buy Twitter this year was supposedly driven by a desire to ‘save humanity’ amid the chaos initiated by cancel culture advocates and illiberal left-wingers. The businessman refers to himself as a ‘free speech absolutist’ and his acquisition of Twitter was, at least in theory, meant to demonstrate the extent to which his self-identification as the slayer of censorship was genuine. However, since the acquisition of the company, Mr Musk has sacked thousands of staff, hinted at filing Twitter for bankruptcy and has explicitly sought to reassure advertisers that Twitter won’t become a free-speech-free-for-all. That is despite the fact he constantly banged on about the philosophy of free-speech and its importance in enabling civilisational improvement.

Peter Thiel, a former colleague of Mr Musk at PayPal, is also known for causing a splash, not so much for his views per se, but rather because of their intellectual foregrounding. Mr Thiel, who once stated that ‘I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible’, is a hero amongst libertarian circles for his trashing of big state ideas, unyielding pro-market radicalism and immense business success and personal wealth. But, to assume that Mr Thiel’s views are merely the product, or natural consequence of his personal wealth would be to ignore the significant extent to which philosophical engagement shapes his political thought.

A friend and former student of Rene Girard, Thiel is greatly influenced by Girard’s Mimetic Theory which fundamentally claims that human behaviour is influenced by imitation. It’s for this reason that Thiel claims Silicon Valley is now structurally incapable of aiming for the stars when it comes to innovation (quite literally). That is because somewhere along the road, Silicon Valley and society more generally, has fallen foul to the innate human desire to imitate one-another rather than create something new. And, this desire to imitate is only made stronger when the state fails to get out of the way by imposing stringent regulations in industries which are otherwise ripe for discovery and innovation. Hence, it’s clear to see that Thiel’s wealth is more than an explanation for his politics, irrespective of how theoretically reinforcing the two may be in his case.

It would also be a mistake to assume that the super-rich are endowed with an intellectual groupthink that binds their politics together, intellectual diversity amongst its members is a testament to this. George Soros, a savvy investor and legendary philanthropist, is akin to a philosophy academic in the way he approaches questions surrounding capitalism, financial markets, open societies and freedom. For Soros, a belief in the modern liberal tradition, his views on the impossibility of perfect information, as well as an adherence to Karl Popper’s theory of falsification (which essentially claims that a theory must be testable for it to be scientific), all inform his politics, views on investing, and economic philosophy. You’ll be hard pressed to find a member of the super-rich as philosophically grounded as Soros, who himself studied philosophy as an undergraduate and postgraduate student.

As younger members of the super rich emerge, expect more action by the super-rich that is underpinned by intellectual engagement. As social problems worsen, whilst the simultaneous growth of intellectual movements via social media, such as Effective Altruism occurs, we can be sure to see more members of the super-rich speak from the intellectual high chair when justifying their politics, philanthropy and pricier purchases.