Should Marc Stay or
Should He Go?

Steve Cobb • Mar 25, 2024

AI generated illustation of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine playing chess in a pub
“Where liberty is, there is my country.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
“Where liberty is not, there is my country.” ~ Thomas Paine

Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen provoked two open letters with two enthusiastic essays: one calling for more “builders” in 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a second calling for techno-optimism in 2023 amid the artificial intelligence (AI) hype. The respondents had much in common–expat entrepreneurs with a similar philosophical grounding–but very different recommendations.

The Essay and the First Open Letter

Andreessen published the essay It’s Time to Build in April 2020, coincidentally the same month when the World Economic Forum began publishing “Build Back Better” papers citing COVID-19 but focusing on climate change and “reinventing capitalism”. Much of the WEF agenda was soon adopted by presidential candidate Joe Biden in his own “Build Back Better Plan”, but this was not what Andreessen had in mind. He was blaming our failure to achieve our economic potential on poor government policy–from both major parties.

Portrait of Thomas Paine with his quote: We still find the greedy hand of government thrusting itself into every corner and crevice of industry and grasping at the spoil of the multitude. Invention is continually exercised to furnish new pretenses for revenue and taxation. It watches prosperity as its prey and permits none to escape without a tribute.

The 2020 essay listed examples of scarcity and stagnation in various industries. This might seem naive, as scarcity is eternal, but Andreessen had a point: some things are strangely scarce, and in this “market failure” one suspects meddling. Marc attributed our failure to build to four problems: desire, will, inertia, and regulatory capture. The first three seem rather fluffy and intractable, though a large portion of society might indeed be lying on the couch in a stupor from drugs, Netflix, and video games. The problem of regulatory capture is more concrete, but it is just one aspect of regulatory burden, and just one form of the parasitism that drains companies and industries of their lifeblood.

Andreessen’s essay resulted in an open letter from Tal Tsfany, president of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) in Santa Ana, California. Tsfany said that exhortations to build are useless without addressing the underlying problem, which he claimed is philosophical:

Screenshot of New Ideal website featuring article An Open Letter to Marc Andreessen

“So what you’re seeing now is a slow deterioration of the original American philosophical-political principles. That’s what explains the failures that you’ve identified in the different verticals in your article. And if you stick to an approach of ‘let’s just roll up our sleeves and build’ but ignore the crucial philosophic foundation needed to underpin science, progress, freedom — you are running the risk of finding yourself in a worse spot a decade from now, with Silicon Valley completely handcuffed, failing and unable to build anymore — just like other heavily regulated industries like education, housing, transportation, and energy.”

But progress has rocketed in various places and times in human history without much obvious in the way of philosophy. The proximate reason is respect for rights, especially property rights and other economic rights. Andreessen’s essay did not even mention rights, and neither did Tsfany, though he did praise the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Around the time the American founding documents were written, an Englishman named Arthur Young best expressed the importance of rights to builders:

“Give a man the secure possession of bleak rock, and he will turn it into a garden; give him nine years lease of a garden, and he will convert it into a desert. The magic of property turns sand to gold.”

Does the free market require a philosophy other than utilitarianism? Societies with free markets will out-compete societies without them–but for that motivation they need to face society-level competition.

The Manifesto and the Second Open Letter

In late 2023 Andreessen made a bigger splash with a second essay: The Techno-Optimist Manifesto. The exploding AI industry was beset by all manner of dire predictions and calls for regulation, and Andreessen met them head-on, laying out a historical case for how technology and the free market have benefited humanity. While it might seem obvious to many that technology and the free market should by now not need defending, the Manifesto was derided in some quarters, including some previously known for technology futurism.

Screenshot of tweet by Arto Bendiken featuring his Open Letter to Marc Andreessen

The Manifesto got another response from the ARI, again complaining about the lack of a philosophical basis, and again not mentioning respect for rights. However, at the end of the Manifesto, Andreessen advised, “Read the work of these people, and you too will become a Techno-Optimist,” and listed more than 50 figures, some of them philosophers. The ARI guys noticed a curious thing: while Ayn Rand was not on the list, her fictional character John Galt was.

The Manifesto received yet another response from a new player: an open letter from Arto Bendiken. Bendiken has been the CTO of several tech startups, most recently an AI venture in Dubai.

Tsfany and Bendiken both moved to places that offered greater respect for entrepreneurial rights: Tsfany from Israel to the United States, Bendiken from Finland to Dubai. Both the US and Dubai have the can-do, let’s-build attitudes that entrepreneurs value. Dubai’s leadership has a multi-industry ambition comparable to that of Elon Musk. Bendiken described Dubai’s environment and accomplishments in his open letter, which was mostly an updated summary of Jim Krane’s 2009 book City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism. But it concluded with a message.

Bendiken suggested that it is better to move to a place that shares your principles and appreciates you than it is to fight the shifting ideological tide in your own country. His open letter’s conclusion, “Who is John Galt, anyway?” alluded to the Ayn Rand character’s strategy of gulching: move to escape predators and parasites, and associate with like-minded cooperators who will not only respect you and your rights but have your back.

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

Anyone dissatisfied with a relationship has two fundamental options: leave it or change it. This is true for all relationships, e.g. friendships, marriages, business partnerships, jurisdiction of incorporation, citizenship, or residence. Depending on options, the dissatisfied party can leave immediately without a new destination, or jump right to a new partner. Depending on loyalty, abilities, and negotiating power (including the availability of other options), one can accept the problem or try to change it with varying degrees of effort, e.g., dirty looks, squawks of discontent, plaintive bleats, feedback, persuasion, threats of violence, or actual violence. Knowing which to choose requires the wisdom that we pray for in the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Change-vs-Move graph

The British rock group The Clash wrote a memorable song about the stay-or-go dilemma, and there’s a whole book about the theory: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, by Albert O. Hirschman. One insight from the book is that dissatisfied but loyal workers and customers are sources of valuable feedback that can enable improvement. Their departure is a useful but blunt signal, and it marks the end of feedback and influence.

You can imagine the possible strategies located on a two-dimensional Change-vs-Move graph. This double spectrum is reflected throughout human history, e.g. in the American Revolutionary War. Benjamin Franklin and his protégé Thomas Paine had a famous exchange:

Franklin: “Where liberty is, there is my country.”

Paine: “Where liberty is not, there is my country.”

Franklin was born in Boston but fled his oppressive apprenticeship for Philadelphia. Paine was born in England, but as a malcontent, he found the American colonies more appealing, and Benjamin Franklin helped him move there. After the Revolution, Franklin enjoyed life in Europe and spent many years there, but his loyalties remained in America. Paine, the eternal revolutionary, owned a house in New Jersey but spent many more years in Europe, agitating in England and participating in the French Revolution. Paine was the son of a Quaker–they were pacifists, and sometimes actively hindered violence.

Likewise, Andreessen’s respondents represent two different strategies. Like Paine, the ARI has a mission to spread an ideology, agitating for change even if it is unlikely to happen. Tsfany seems ready to move when necessary, but, unlike Paine, not merely for the sake of the revolution. Bendiken advocates for giving one’s loyalties only to those who deserve them, and being quicker to recognize betrayal.

A Confluence of Visions

Instead of accepting the accident of one’s birth, one can first choose one’s loyalties, moving to a homeland before trying to improve it, like Tsfany did. Sometimes one doesn’t have to choose a single place: in some situations, one can choose several options, even allocating weights to each, or one can make a series of choices. For example, if you’re a loyal customer of a restaurant that stops offering your favorite dish, you can reduce the frequency of your visits without abandoning the place entirely.

In the case of jurisdictions, plenty of snowbirds have their primary residence in the low-tax “Live free or die” state of New Hampshire, but spend the winter in Florida. Since his famous 2020 “How can I help?” tweet, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has been trying to lure Silicon Valley businesses, with some success. Individuals and enterprises can hedge their bets. And that is probably the lesson: allocate your loyalties optimally, and then fight hard for your principles and interests.

BTW, Benjamin Franklin was a fan of chess, and he lost a match to the Mechanical Turk in Paris in 1783. Thomas Paine played chess as well.