Silicon Valley's quirky politics recall the railroad boom of pre-Civil War America: Study

Key Points
  • Founders of Silicon Valley companies are optimists who believe that change breeds improvement, according to a new Stanford study.
  • They're neither Democrats nor Republicans and aren't liberals or conservatives.
  • A similar philosophy arose in the mid-19th Century during the railroad boom.

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan wrote a letter to their newborn daughter last month, they called themselves "optimists."

It's a popular concept in Silicon Valley, where founders view themselves as improving the world through innovative disruption. And, according to a study from Stanford University, it's a philosophy rooted in 19th-century America, when an enterprising group of American businessmen revolutionized the economy via the railroad.

"They believe that the more things change, the better things get," said Gregory Ferenstein, a freelance journalist who co-authored the study, in an interview. Ferenstein wrote the paper with David Broockman and Neil Malhotra, who both teach political economy at Stanford.

The study surveyed the political attitudes and policy preferences among wealthy technology entrepreneurs. It found that the elites of Silicon Valley are difficult to categorize using today's political labels. They're neither particularly left or right and can't neatly be described as liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. Nor are they all libertarians in the mold of PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel.

Ferenstein, a former online political editor who's spent the past five years tracking politics in the tech industry, said there's a general view that government's influence should be small and limited to areas like improving housing, education and job training.

Mark Zuckerberg: Alaska's cash handout program "provides some good lessons for the rest of the country"
Mark Zuckerberg: Alaska's cash handout program "provides some good lessons for the rest of the country"

"They're not a fan of government running things," Ferenstein said. "They believe passionately in the principles of capitalism" and in a "competitive meritocracy," he added.

They oppose regulation but do believe the government should help redistribute wealth through tax policy. In general, if the government gets out of the way and lets technology proliferate, the world will be a better and more connected place.

In June, Zuckerberg changed Facebook's corporate mission statement, saying then that building "meaningful communities" will "strengthen the social fabric, bring the world closer together."

Similarly, 160 years ago U.S. businessmen like Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford set about linking the cities of the American continent by railroad.

A pre-Civil War school of thought called the Young America movement was born, celebrating America's spirit of innovation. Just as the leaders of Facebook and Google want to use technologies like drones and satellites to spread the internet, the Young Americans believed in building out this new infrastructure as widely as they could.

The world's wealthiest

But that economy produced businessmen so wealthy they were eventually resented and viewed as industrialists and robber barons. And the railroad helped facilitate the destruction of Native American societies, the near extinction of the bison and the prosecution of a war with Mexico that garnered vast amounts of new land but created deep divides.

Today's tech leaders -- Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin -- are among the wealthiest people in the world. They also attract plenty of disdain for putting scores of companies out of business, creating greater wealth disparities and threatening to uproot humans with machines.

But they're optimists. The way they see it, the expansion of internet technologies will make the world a better place despite the disruption along the way.

The findings of the working paper were recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. The New York Times reported on the study earlier in the week.