Before last weekend's Reboot 2014 conference even began, it was blasted in PandoDaily as a "cesspool" of "hick fascism" mixed with "Silicon Valley’s emerging brand of optimistic, half-understood libertarianism, part hippie cybernetics, part hot-tub-Hayek."
Wow. With advance notices like that, how could you not want a front row seat?
So I cleared my weekend and headed over to Soma's neon-lit, spaceship-like W hotel to watch it all go down. The "conservatarian" conference was organized by Lincoln Labs, a group of libertarians and conservatives who work in the technology industry, with an eye towards changing the methods—and ideas—of the Republican party. Much of the funding seems to come from the Koch brothers, as near as I can tell. The group of speakers was impressive: Rand Paul, US Senator from Kentucky and dream presidential candidate of the libertarian right, was the headliner. At least two members of the PayPal mafia were in the house. Nick Gillespie, the editor-in-chief of reason.com, drew a crowd. California governor candidate Neel Kashkari addressed the masses. And 200 other attendees, ranging from programmers to party flacks, convened.
Before I make it out of the elevator on Friday night, I am being pitched about the limitless potential for candidates to accept political donations in Bitcoin. Soon, says Christopher David, the CEO of CoinVox, campaigns will even start accepting altcoins.
“Tech is west. Public policy is east. They need to find a center,” says Carl Meacham, the Director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former staffer for Senator Richard Lugar. “When I was growing up, Republicans were a pragmatic party. Millennials bring in an element of reality.”
I grab a plastic bottle of water and circulate among the crowd. Subjects of conversation: Pre-roll ads; how South by Southwest’s higher cost of entry makes it superior to Burning Man; the greatness of Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb. Someone is wearing an ID tag that just says "HACKER." The bar is passing out wine and beer for free, and a debate breaks out between two attendees over whether it would be appropriate to pay for the drinks instead. After all, libertarian principles favor markets—not welfare giveaways. They end up taking the beer gratis.
Topics that I do not hear discussed as I wander around: Climate change, income inequality, race, gender. Most of the crowd is—like me—white and male. There seems to be no vegetarian alternatives offered to the steak dinner. Harmeet Dhillon, the chair of the Republican Party in San Francisco, tells me that if candidates don't understand new technology, at least they will have an intern who does. Her current cause is a ballot measure, much of the funding of which comes from Napster's Sean Parker, which would shift the city's transportation policy to be more friendly to car drivers.
We head inside to listen to the speeches.
Congressmember Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) is the evening’s main speaker. In 2001, as a member of the Washington State legislature, she blocked a bill that would have replaced the use of the word "Oriental" with "Asian" in state law. The chair of the House Republican Caucus, she gave the party's rebuttal to the 2014 State of the Union address. In a short speech, she uses the word disruption seven times, including this sentence: “We need to disrupt the federal government.”
In a flat, Midwest accent, she says she is working to get every Republican member on Twitter, but that there are still two holdouts. Someone from the floor sharply questions her conservative record on gay marriage, to which she offers a tepid defense of a big-tent party.
The easiest way to tell apart the libertarian true-believers from the GOP party operatives all weekend is this: The libertarian true-believers call that Republican position on gay marriage an embarrassment. Most of the time they bring up the topic without me asking about it. The party operatives, on the contrary, don’t mention any social issues at all.
After Rodgers's speech there is the first of what will be the weekend's many panel discussions. In the main, these are substantive, policy-heavy discussions, in which, at various points, people argue for lower taxes, fewer regulations, greater privacy, and more nurturing of small startups. Honestly, it's more C-SPAN than Fox News.
Here, at the first one, Evan Feinberg, who lost a primary challenge to Pennsylvania Congressmember Tim Murphy in 2012, and now works for GenOpp, a group that put together the "creepy Uncle Sam" ads that told young Americans not to sign up for Obamacare, says that he thinks that soon campaign workers could be wearing Google Glass while talking to voters. Dhillon is not enthusiastic: "That’s creepy." The crowd laughs.
The discussion having ended, I find myself at an afterparty in the bar downstairs, where I meet an employee of one of the Koch Brothers’ foundations. He works in digital and has sleeves of tattoos up and down both arms. We talk about how much we both love San Francisco. After a bit, I pull out my smartphone and take an Uber home.
The next day is the Rand Paul keynote address. Paul, the Republican Senator from Kentucky, son of Libertarian icon Ron Paul, and potential GOP nominee for President in 2016, walks a thin rhetorical line between serving red meat to the hard-core activists in the room and appealing to the general public who may be watching online. I am live tweeting his speech instead of typing notes into Word. He focuses on policy areas where a libertarian message seems most likely to resonate, calling for education reform, attacking NSA monitoring of American’s online data, and praising sharing economy companies like Uber and Lyft for "pitting the status quo against innovation." But Paul also gave some steak to the base: "The cool about capitalism," he says, "is that it can’t be stopped."
Paul then joins a panel. Sitting next to him is a bulky man with a green t-shirt, cargo shorts, and long black hair. He is Scott Banister, a member of the PayPal Mafia. Next to him is Joe Lonsdale, another former PayPal-er, whose current company Palantir does data analysis for the US government. He is concerned about the reach of the national security state: “The stuff that goes on that you can’t talk about is very scary,” he says. Listening to a man whose company is named for magical artifacts in Lord of the Rings and who has contracts from the United State intelligence community say that he is worried about the reach of the federal government's security apparatus makes me feel less scared then very, very confused.
Bannister proposes Bitcoin as a model for circumventing that power. “It’s an open cloud,” he says, “that the government can’t control.” Paul holds back. “I’m optimistic,” he offers at one point. He talks in the sunny generalities and hard-to-disagree with policy positions of a man eyeing a larger office.
As the morning continues, another speaker calls for “Clone Army” of libertarians, “like in Star Wars,” but he admits he is confused over which movie the clones are in. He thinks it might be the fourth one. This summons a long digression as he tries to remember. (The Clone Army is, of course, created in the fifth-released movie, Attack of the Clones.) That geeky allusion summed up the other fault line in the convention—with the social issues stuff being the other one—thanks to the popularity of companies like Uber or Airbnb and the widespread concerns over governmental overreach like in the NSA scandal, there may never have been a time in American politics in which citizens could be more receptive to being reached by a conservatarian message. If only the acolytes could stop talking about Star Wars for one minute.
Reason.com's editor Nick Gillespie holds up one end of that divide. He wears a floor-length black trench indoors and has sideburns that appear to extend somehow lower than his jawline. He makes the case that advances in peer-to-peer technology mean that “the old regulatory regime should die. It should be blown up.” He goes on: “People don’t see Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life as the paradigmatic businessman anymore. It’s Mark Zuckerberg.”
On the Zuckerberg side is the boyish tech wunderkind Aaron Ginn, subject of several national profiles, who spends the first part of the Saturday morning sitting in the back corner of the massive ballroom working the PowerPoint slides from a laptop. He's wearing a black crucifix and American flag-patterned kicks and is bouncing his legs up and down. At least in theory, this is his conference. I talk to Ginn, who recently left his job at StumbleUpon, during the lunch break. “Technology is conservatarian,” he argues. “It empowers people with information and allows them to make their own decisions. You don’t need a big regulatory machine.”
Ginn, who worked for the Mitt Romeny Presidential campaign in 2012, blends libertarian praise for technology with a Republican small-government worldview. Like many conservatarians, Uber is his paradigmatic example. It is “taking on an industry that people don’t really like very much,” Ginn says. He’s leery of government regulations, even in controversial recent cases like ParkingMonkey or ReservationHop. “I wouldn’t use that stuff,” he argues, but “it’s better to empower people with information to make that decision than for San Francisco [city government] to say no.”
Ginn isn’t so fond of government, even in cases where it has helped the technology industry, like San Francisco’s mid-Market tax break. “Those favors don’t trickle down to small startups, or the people. It goes to campaign donors. There are a lot of inequality discussions in San Francisco that are completely justified.” His solution: More housing and more tech companies giving back to the community. Sounds like something the Google bus blockers could get behind. Also, the Twitter tax break “should have applied to everyone.” Well, maybe not.
I wander into a sparsely-attended panel discussion on rolling back the regulatory state. There's more red meat here. “The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is Obama’s little Politburo he uses to attack companies,” says Evan Baehr, the cofounder of Outbox, a startup that has squared off against the United States Postal Service with little success. “Congress should bring in Marc Andreeson, Sean Parker, Peter Thiel, and ask them what is working and what isn’t,” agrees Yale Law’s Derek Khanna. “No one in Congress is asking that question.” The panel gets caught up in the arcana of intellectual property rights and high-skilled immigration law.
Late in the day, Kashkari takes his turn in the spotlight. He is in favor of abortion rights and gay marriage, and thinks that "for a lot of Silicon Valley and a the technology community, the social issues are disqualifying." Jeb Bush gives remarks by tape. There's another party later, but I'm getting a little tired.
So was this conference the techie libertarian nightmare that Mark Ames over at Pando thought it would be? I look for him during the weekend, but don't see him to ask. I'm very curious what he thinks.
What do I think? Instead of answering that directly, let me tell you a story.
Later in the night Saturday, I check out a car from GetAround to drive to a completely unrelated party in the North Bay, where as a quadcopter drone flies laps above us, a bunch of Napa County liberals stand around sipping wine and talking about Bitcoin and Uber. Maybe it's the wine or the fatigue, but I forget I'm not at Reboot anymore. It's hard to tell the difference.