Inside the minds of Microsoft's libertarians

The appeal of Ron Paul sheds some light on why techies are attracted to minimal government. It's like smart software.
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A Ron Paul sign at the off-ramp of Interstate 5 at Northeast 65th Street in Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

The appeal of Ron Paul sheds some light on why techies are attracted to minimal government. It's like smart software.

Barack Obama isn't the only candidate appealing to tech-savvy youth. Republican outsider Ron Paul has generated considerable buzz, especially with his online fundraising and organizing – even his meet-ups in virtual environments like the multiuser computer game World of Warcraft.

The appeal of Paul is baffling to some political observers. After I wrote a piece on the "Ron Paul Conundrum," I got in touch with a number of Paul supporters, including some who work at Microsoft, and asked them why they liked him. Others have noted, including Slate founder Michael Kinsley, that libertarian thought is widespread at the company and that Ayn Rand a popular read there. Paul is a Republican who previously ran for the presidency on the Libertarian ticket, and those principles drive many of his views.

Based on what his supporters say in e-mails, part of Paul's appeal is the way he shakes up the right-left division in our politics, the notion that there are only two ways to look at a problem. This view is emphasized again and again in the media. Political views that turn operating assumptions on their head are rarely tolerated for long in the national debate.

A Microsoft program manager, Eric Blomquist, took me to task for doing this in how I framed my interest in the topic:

The false left/right paradigm is keeping the general public polarized and focused not on the real issues at hand but of the superficial straw men that the media darlings wish us to focus on. When you pose a question and frame it with "why he is getting so much support locally from liberals, conservatives and libertarians," you've already polarized the conversation and attempted to stuff me into a single "bucket". We've come so far as a nation since 1776, but we've also fallen far short from where our founding fathers would have hoped. I don't classify myself as liberal, conservative, or libertarian. How could I possibly lock myself into any one of those labels? Why can't I just be an American?

The passion not to be pigeonholed is typical of many techies. I think it's also undeniable that the presidential debates that include Paul are much more entertaining and informative because he's a wild card. John McCain has called him a "joker in a poker game." He refuses to accept some of the basic premises of the conversation.

For example, take the notion of America's unqualified goodness. When Paul raises the idea that the U.S. might be responsible for bad actions abroad by engaging in a kind of soft imperialism, he gets the elephants in the room trumpeting and stomping loudly, but it serves as a reminder of how hollow are the slogans and jingoism you hear. Rudy Giuliani's shallow 9/11 politics can't stand on its own. Paul keeps dragging the debate back to a larger philosophical context about America's place in the world. That makes the discussion more complicated. That's the virtue of having debates that aren't unipolar, or even bipolar. Paul's libertarianism promises a multi-polar world that most of us have been brainwashed to reject out of hand. In also confounds the simplistic classifications that drive traditional point-counterpoint TV punditry and debate.

Paul's appeal is often described as his principles, his consistency, his honesty, his lack of fear of being different. But by having him on stage, he makes everyone else uncomfortable and opens the door a crack onto a complexity we all know is there, but which few want to address.

One of the most insightful e-mails I received was from Microsoftie Matt Evans. He transferred from Redmond to the company office in Fargo, N.D., and says there's a lot of Paul buzz up there. He favors libertarians in general. He voted for Michael Badnarik, the Libertarian Party presidential candidate, in 2004. This time, he's supporting Paul (as is Badnarik). Evans went into a detailed description of how the libertarian and techie mindsets meld at a place like Microsoft. I'm going to quote him at length because it's the best explanation of this I've heard:

As you've no doubt noticed, there seems to be a high overlap with technologists and libertarians. I think this happens for a few reasons: 1) At Microsoft especially, there are a LOT of alpha-males who believe themselves, however rightly or wrongly, to be self-sufficient, high performing individuals because of their own merit. Microsoft attempts to describe itself as a meritocracy, and tries to court this type of employee. If there's any philosophy that espouses meritocracy free of meddling, safety nets, and interference, it's libertarianism and the nearly pure capitalism described by the Austrian school of economists (Hayek, Friedman, etc). 2) Creating software is conceptually the same problem as dictating what the desired behavior of the computer is by creating a set of rules. In the case of computers and software, there is only one way to interpret the software, and it is by definition correct. The hardware never makes a mistake when executing the software. To the extent that computer systems fail, or are buggy, or don't do what we want them to, represents a human failure to dictate the correct instructions. The instructions ("rules") were written down incorrectly. Because the language (programming language) in a computer must translate unambiguously into instructions for the hardware to execute, the languages are provably unambiguous. There is only one way to interpret them. Software people know that we have perfect computer languages and perfect machines to execute our desires, and yet we all know (I'm a software tester, btw) that computers are always doing what we didn't mean and are always failing to do what we did mean. The disconnect is our inability to correctly use language to fully express our intentions. Sometimes we just plain wrote the wrong thing. It seemed correct when we did it. Other people looked at it and they thought it was correct also. Even so, later we discover that we got it wrong. Often, the disconnect is that we never thought through all of the possible ramifications of the instructions we gave, or the instructions didn't cover every possible case that might arise. As software people, we know that even given a perfect machine and a perfect language, humans are the weak link and that we'll write software that produces the wrong result, an unexpected result, and does things we never would have wanted if we had predicted them successfully. When we go to the voting booth it's not like we forget what we know from our careers. When we're talking about legislators creating laws, everything is much worse. Legal language is nowhere near as precise as a programming language. The "machine" that executes the law is nowhere near as precise as a physical computer. There will be errors in the law. There will be unintended consequences. There will be horrible fallout from any piece of legislation that nobody could have predicted. And I don't mean to be too conceited, but I've heard of a lot of dumb lawyers and politicians, but not a lot of dumb Microsoft employees. If we can't get it right with perfect language and perfect machines, how are legislators going to get their job right? In software, we try to write as few instructions as possible, because that means fewer to test, and fewer that could contain errors. The analagous concept for governanace is to keep our law as light and as simple as possible. That's libertarianism, more than any other competing ideology.

So minimal government means less-buggy government.

Where Paul goes from here is interesting. He vows to press on. Iowa and New Hampshire didn't ignite a Paul rocket, but he does have the satisfaction of being the only Republican other than Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney to have carried a county in Iowa. McCain, Fred Thompson, and Rudy Giuliani can't claim that. And in New Hampshire he got more votes than Thompson, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson.

It's virtually certain that he won't get the GOP nomination, but some Republicans hold hope that he can help redefine the party for future years.

But Paul could continue to have value if he undertook a third-party run. My sense is that many of his supporters would like to see that: They seem to disdain Republicans as well as Democrats. He might not win the election, but he could throw it one way or another. It'll be interesting to see where his high-energy, Web-based supporters throw their support if he drops out of the race.

In the meantime, Paul continues to attract fans, and hostility, on both the right and left. Neocon Bill Kristol recently called him an anti-American crackpot, and The New Republic has a piece detailing racist and homophobic writings that ran over the years in Ron Paul's newsletters. Paul has denied he wrote the passages and has denounced them. Will his denials pass the smell test with supporters?

Part of Paul's future effectiveness hinges on whether his credibility holds up, or whether his value lies simply in stirring a pot that needs to be stirred – until we're tired of it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.