Hulk Hogan and the Vindictive Billionaire

There’s been a lot of reaction to the news that Peter Thiel secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit (which has led to a $140 million award) against Gawker. Thiel is, of course, not only a Silicon Valley billionaire, but a man of strong, if idiosyncratic, libertarian views. Hence, it’s ironic that he illustrates some of the blind spots of libertarianism – in particular, the tendency of many libertarians to discount the problems of wealth inequality.

A few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen wrote this post on Trump:

It is sad to see so many people, including those on the Left or in the Democratic Party, criticize the idea of a Trump presidency without ever uttering the phrase: “No man or woman should have so much political power over others.” I agree with many of the moral criticisms of Trump as a leader, but don’t let them distract you from this broader truth. It is strange but instructive how many Democratic criticisms of Trump circle back into criticisms of other, earlier, and now often irrelevant Republicans. That is simply a language of attack they are more comfortable with. The good news, if that is what one should call it, is that the best criticisms of Trump involve the concept of individual liberty and freedom from arbitrary legal authority and pure presidential discretion. The bad news is that so few intellectuals have the relevant ideological vocabulary in that regard.

Building on his earlier argument that Trump, if elected, could employ the tools of the state to vindictive ends.

I think that the basic criticism is completely fair – liberals and leftwingers do tend to discount the power of the state, and the ways that it might be employed for vindictive purposes, rather more than they should. But Thiel’s actions potently illustrate how a very similar reproach might be made of libertarians. Many, perhaps most libertarians, and libertarian leaning people like Tyler, tend systematically to discount the politically obnoxious and indeed dangerous consequences of wealth inequality. For example, they don’t pay much attention to the ways in which e.g. billionaires might employ their wealth for vindictive purposes (e.g. apparently setting out in Thiel’s case to destroy a news organization that had outed him as being gay), even when this plausibly has “very, very frightening” consequences for the free press.

Or, more succinctly put, the claim “No man or woman should have so much political power over others” applies just as well to gross inequalities of wealth as well as to concentrations of regulatory power. Billionaires have an awful lot of power, and an awful lot of leeway to use it to pursue personal grudges. This may be highly uncomfortable for libertarians, who often have what might be described as an elective affinity to tolerance for wealth inequality, but that it is uncomfortable does not render it untrue. It doesn’t matter much whether a news organization is destroyed by a billionaire via regulatory action once he becomes President or whether it is destroyed by a billionaire secretly underwriting multiple lawsuits from others. Either which way, the damage is done. Great wealth goes together with great power to do political harm.

Tyler and I debated this on Twitter – I didn’t come away convinced by his answers (you can find them on my feed or his), although perhaps others might be. He has since written three posts on the topic. One inquires into the status reasons why billionaires might complain. One reposts extracts from an interview with Thiel where he says that he was doing this as an act of charity (a claim that Tyler independently made yesterday) and from Jason Willick’s argument that this all doesn’t really matter very much because there is no obvious policy solution (this seems to me to contradict Tyler’s tweet yesterday, suggesting that this is not very relevant, because there are policy solutions, but that’s an aside). The last post is a tu quoque, arguing that environmental organizations too file lawsuits, that Tyler has heard gossip suggesting that they are perhaps sometime getting funded by rich people who want revenge, and that this is perhaps OK, and anyway, the left doesn’t seem particularly bothered when this happens.

None of this is really responsive to the fundamental issue. If Tyler and libertarians are (rightly) uncomfortable with the ways that vindictive people could abuse great political power in pursuit of their personal revenge missions, and feel that the left is willfully blind when it ignores this possibility, why should they be relaxed about billionaires abusing their wealth in pursuit of revenge? Perhaps it is because Tyler agrees (as he seems to suggest on Twitter) with Thiel’s claim that he was not interested in revenge, and undertook this as a charitable act, looking to help others against bullying. However, Thiel’s self-exculpatory account seems improbable on its face, given Thiel’s secrecy, his political support (as a delegate) for notable bully and wannabe Calumniator-in-Chief Donald Trump, and Denton’s near-contemporaneous statement that Thiel had sent “a series of messages relaying the destruction that would rain down on me, and various innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, if a story ever ran.”

But even if this account is true in all its particulars, so that Thiel is a sort of libertarian Bruce Wayne, wounded by trauma into donning a secret identity of cape, mask and lawsuit to protect Gotham’s innocents against perfidious tabloid journalists, it’s completely irrelevant. So too are the putative vengeance-seeking wealthy environmentalists. As Tyler has himself compellingly argued, when complaining about the left, we should not trust any man or woman with such great political power over others. The claim travels. I don’t imagine that Tyler would have been convinced if someone had responded to his post on the ideological blindness of the left to the potential of abuse by a vindictive president, by claiming that president Trump’s hinted retaliation against e.g. Amazon for the sins of the Washington Post might help Amazon’s suppliers and customers, or by listing all the useful things that could be done by presidents who used their vast discretion for good. He would rightly have said that this ducked the question of whether or not this great preponderance of power created risks, when combined with vindictiveness. Just so, he cannot wave away the problem of great power being potentially used for vindictive purposes when it is being wielded by an unelected billionaire rather than an elected one.

If one were to be uncharitable, one might describe these marked inconsistencies as the result of what Tyler himself calls ‘mood affiliation.’ I don’t, however, think that this is an especially helpful term in this situation or in most others. It’s better to think of this as a general manifestation of a general problem that all of us face, whether we are brilliant or whether we are not. As numerous results from cognitive psychology demonstrate, we are all, whether on the left or on the right, better at noting the motes in our sisters’ eyes than the beams in our own.

If you are minded to see intellectual improvement as an individual activity, you might see this as grounds for despair. If you’re more optimistic, you may see this tendency as not a circumstance to be deplored so much as the impulsive force of a social engine of discovery. If we’re relatively poor at spotting our own ideological blind spots, and relatively good at spotting other peoples’, then there is enormous value to argument between people with strongly different understandings of the world, as long as they are committed to a minimal standard of honesty, and of trying, however gradually or grudgingly, to adopt or adapt to the best arguments from those with whom they disagree.

From past experience, this is often an uncomfortable and messy process, involving mutual grumpiness, uncharitable feelings, suspicions that the person disagreeing or being disagreed with is a troll, concern troll, sea lion or what have you, etc &c usw. For indeed, the desire to be right on the internet is natural and present to all. But this kind of debate across ideologies is also, over the long term, very useful indeed in mitigating biases and sometimes in harnessing them. Hence, my belief that Tyler’s initial intervention was useful in pointing out that leftwingers were too blase about the potential for abuse of state power by vindictive people. Hence too my belief that libertarians very often lack the “relevant ideological vocabulary” to think about how the extremely wealthy can also use their power for vindictive purposes, and that they really need to be pushed to acquire it.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.