Open letter to Paul Graham

It's time to stop being an optimist.

While I never had the honor of being mentored by the great Paul Graham, I’m sure he can deliver some of the world’s finest canned speeches. Mentoring does that to you.

And I’m sure one such recording is the perfect way to tell kids in a tight spot that they need to realize how tight a spot they’re in. Graham doesn’t seem like a pottymouth, so it probably doesn’t contain any F-bombs. But who knows? Ben Horowitz, another startup god, has a great acronym: “WFIO.” “W” is “we’re” and “IO” is “it’s over.”

Surely there’s a speech where the W becomes a Y. This is not that speech, but the speech before it, which says—to paraphrase Rilke—you must change your startup. And when the problem with your startup is your ideas—you must change your ideas.

I write this because of a new Paul Graham essay which, like many startups that fail, is almost perfect. Almost perfect isn’t good enough. Graham writes short, apodictic essays; I like to justify myself exhaustively. Let me use Graham’s style and just tell him where he’s wrong and why he’s wrong.

Having ideas in a world where some ideas are banned is like playing soccer on a pitch that has a minefield in one corner. You don't just play the same game you would have, but on a different shaped pitch. You play a much more subdued game even on the ground that's safe.

Having ideas in our world is like playing soccer on a minefield, period. The only part of the field that isn’t mined is your own penalty box. Don’t go too close to the edges. Thirty years ago you could safely dribble almost to midfield and even take a wild shot. There were still six players on your team—one was actually a forward.

Now it’s you, the goalie, and one defender with half his left foot blown off. The other team, which doesn’t set off the mines, has long since been letting its whole bench play. At this point random fans from the stands are coming down and taking PKs. The ref, who’s taken off his referee shirt and replaced it with the other team’s uniform, just awarded one—apparently you made a mean face or something. You saved it, so the score is still only 47 to 0. In the long term, you’re hopeful…

Graham’s error is that he has no absolute sense of history. He has a good critical sense of the present. His past is a piece of cardboard he downloaded from the New Yorker:

For the last couple centuries at least, when the aggressively conventional-minded were on the rampage for whatever reason, universities were the safest places to be.

That may not work this time though, due to the unfortunate fact that the latest wave of intolerance began in universities. It began in the mid 1980s, and by 2000 seemed to have died down, but it has recently flared up again with the arrival of social media.

In the mid-1980s! It began, in other words, at the first point in time at which Graham had a chance to see it with his own eyes. A remarkable coincidence.

And, because you can take the boy out of Harvard but you can’t take Harvard out of the boy, Graham has turned “conventional versus independent” into “town versus gown.” This has certainly been true in some historical periods, but…

In actual American history, the period of heaviest landmine installation was probably between 1920 and 1940. If you compare the difference between books that could get published in 1920 and books that could get published in 1940, with the equivalent gap between 1940 and 1980, the former is wider.

And more mines went in between 1940 and 1980, than 1980 and 2020. Graham cannot see this because his history of the world before 1980 comes from the minefield itself.

What was happening between 1920 and 1940? The universities were taking power. In 1900, the idea of a professor telling the government what to do was borderline absurd. By 1940, it was normal. By 1960, it was universal—all “public policy” in future would be determined by “science.”

And, because the Ring works like that, power was taking them—with its favorite toy, money. Federal funding of universities before WWII was negligible. In the prewar period, money came from the great foundations—Carnegie and Rockefeller, generally. Institutions and professors that the foundation managers liked prospered gloriously. Those they disliked vanished without a trace. As did their ideas. And after the war, Washington became the greatest foundation of all.

Most of this “science” was complete woo and balderdash—mainly selected for how much it provoked the townies. And it didn’t just provoke them. “Scientific” public policy turned the Bronx in 1960 into the Bronx in 1970. Strolled the Grand Concourse lately? Its name wasn’t always a sick joke. Nice work, Harvard.

So when Graham writes:

Though I've spent a lot of time thinking about this situation, I can't predict how it plays out. Could some universities reverse the current trend and remain places where the independent-minded want to congregate?

No—because our universities are not universities. They are organs of a state church. This is why they all always agree with each other about all political and spiritual questions—a set that now includes everything outside math, hard science and engineering. And we’re starting to see more stray mines even in that penalty box.

And when, not late but early in the 20th century, they accepted the idea that their role was to guide and supervise the government (previously run by townie demagogues and corrupt “robber barons”), they forfeited forever their “independent-minded” purpose. It is not possible to be both important and independent. It makes no sense at all.

But I'm hopeful long term. The independent-minded are good at protecting themselves. If existing institutions are compromised, they'll create new ones.

New institutions have a simple choice. They can exclude every whiff of power, which means they will be only for the heretics. They can try to remain open and free to all sides, which means they will be only for the orthodox. Only the orthodox can plant mines; only the heretics actually detonate them. These are the rules of power. Nothing within power’s scope can ignore them.

Graham created his own new institution: Hacker News. For no doubt excellent and practical business reasons, it took the second path. Hacker News is very much within power’s scope.

Ten years ago you could have a heretical conversation on HN. All the heretics have long since blown up. It remains a relatively permissive space; meta-heresy, like Graham’s essays, remains allowed. You can praise free speech—so long as you do it very politely—and, as the Clash put it, “you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.”

That may require some imagination. But imagination is, after all, their specialty.

It will require some imagination. Imagination, though necessary, is not sufficient. And it is not even clear that we have sufficient imagination.

Ultimately Graham is still operating in the false frame of a free and open society. In fact there has been no free market in ideas since before his parents were born—and quite arguably, his grandparents.

One mark of a successful startup is that it always operates in the real world. It may try to spin others—generally it has to—but it never spins itself. When you succeed within the borders of someone else’s unreality, you hit those borders and then start to fail.

Imagination is the specialty of the independent-minded. Power is not. For the most part, independent-minded people are terrible at seeing power. It’s simply not how their brains work.

At this point, the reality of power is too obvious to dismiss. But as bad as these people are at seeing power, they are far worse at using, building, or taking power. They often have the ability to lead. They are almost universally bereft of the far more important ability to follow, which makes even an army of them into an army of cats.

Putting our institutions of thought in charge of the government was a terrible, terrible mistake. The smart, independent-minded people who made this bad choice thought power could only flow downward—from water to sewer. But the sewage came back up the pipe, and turned all those independent universities into one giant state church. Unlike the Catholic Church, it doesn’t even have cool magic rituals. But it sure does like burning heretics. Check back in fifty years—it’ll be burning them literally.

This mistake cannot be corrected by building new institutions. New institutions will still be playing on the same minefield. Nor can it be corrected by imagination or ideas—only by what Napoleon called “the alliance of Philosophy and the Sword.” Only power can cure power. And I see no trace of any such alliance in the world today.

But I'm hopeful long term.

I’m not. The only thing we have to fear is hope itself—for, of all the impediments to success, false hope is by far the deadliest.

False hope trains you on a low bar. You see that bar and think: that’s not too bad. I can work out more, stop eating carbs—I can clear it. You do the work. You practice. You clear the bar every time. Then, in the real event, you see the real bar—higher than you could ever imagine. And you just walk back to the locker room.