To Save America, Restore Our Frontier
Restoring accountability in America is the fight of our times
I’m a cowboy On a steel horse I ride I'm wanted dead or alive Wanted dead or alive Jon Bon Jovi, 1987
America is a Frontier nation, and for centuries our national greatness has been inextricably linked to the Frontier.
The Frontier isn’t just geographic extension or physical adventure; it isn’t just the spirit of experimentation and exploration. The Frontier is also dangerous. Every little thing matters, and you could lose it all at any moment. You have to be a little crazy, or believe you’ve got Providence on your side, to leave home and venture out into the New World, or into the Wild West. But it creates the possibility of greatness. That spirit created and sustained our country.
The opposite, we can call the Core; it’s the center, the established order. It is stationary, oriented toward itself — the buildup of institutions, of rules, of lawyers and bureaucracy. The core is necessary — stability and rigorous processes are a healthy counterpoint to the volatile frontier. But the Core is more stagnant than the expanding and open Frontier.
One virtue of the Frontier versus the Core is that it is a falsifiable environment — an environment of true accountability. As a result, the ideas, systems, and people that emerge out of the Frontier tend to be more resilient. The philosopher Karl Popper said that any real science has to be falsifiable: “it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience.” Of course, it isn’t just science in which falsification is useful: the lasting transformations of history are forged through falsifiable iteration. They are the product of the Frontier. New things get created at the edge of the empire, and they replace the old things. New technologies render old ones obsolete; new battle techniques are tested, refined, and wipe out old one; the new ideas and organizations of the people excelling on the Frontier can replace others.
The classic example of the Frontier-Core cycle in history is Ancient Rome. Over the centuries, Rome cycled between domination by its heart and by its periphery. Sometimes it was looking outward, and sometimes inward. In the final days of the Republic, the morally weak capital of Rome itself was consumed by the men (e.g. Caesar, Antony) who had amassed strength leading its legions on the Frontier. In the final days of the Empire born out of that chaos, Rome was eventually consumed by the barbarians of the Frontier.
Ronald Syme, an historian of Rome, remarked that “the strength and vitality of an empire is frequently due to the new aristocracy from the periphery.” Those who embrace the Frontier also threaten the power of the Core, which acts to protect itself — the Senate kills Caesar.
We are living through one such cycle of reaction. America’s Core is sick and fundamentally unaccountable. There are many symptoms, some more noticeable than others.
My friend Elon Musk said recently, “The woke mind virus is either defeated or nothing else matters.”
The Woke Mind Virus is real, and it causes real problems. There’s no doubt about that. But focusing on it too much keeps us from seeing the bigger problem. The WMV is just one symptom of a deeper national sickness — a cancer, which is the loss of our Frontier.
It isn’t just geographic: there are layers and layers of lost Frontier. We lost the spirit of the Frontier. We lost the accountability of the Frontier. We lost the civilizational ethic of trying new things and figuring out what works. In so many areas where results have stagnated or collapsed, experimentation is no longer allowed, and the decline is masked and rationalized by increasingly bizarre, unsettling behavior.
But it is critical to understand that wokeness is a sideshow. The main event is our country’s long slide from being bold and adventurous to being dysfunctional and bureaucratic. When we see woke virtue signaling in institutions, we’re witnessing the aftermath of that decline.
Readers here will know plenty of examples, so let me be brief. Where can we see the cancer of dysfunction and distraction?
The cancer is when a quarter of the schools in Fairfax County, VA, the richest part of our capital region, withhold National Merit scholarship awards from their brightest students because they’re the wrong race. The cancer is when medical schools and law schools are captured by activists and bureaucrats and fail to produce leaders — only ideological warriors. The cancer is when public school systems spend vastly different amounts of money, and the biggest spenders have the worst results — an outcome for which nobody is held to account.
The cancer is when a billion dollars disappears from New York’s city budget for “mental health”, and nobody can question it because the mayor’s wife was in charge of the money and it was for… “mental health.” The cancer is when the US Department of Transportation obsesses about the gendered language of aviation infrastructure as that infrastructure falls apart; or when that department fails to accomplish anything inspiring but celebrates “Transit Equity Day.”
The cancer is the marriage of ideological decadence and very practical failure — when nearly all of our institutions spend more and more money for worse and worse results. On the way down, they virtue signal and lash out at others. In so many places, our institutions are nearly begging to be fixed, to be held to account. They are showing us that they no longer work as intended, and now fixate on cultural issues unrelated to their missions. Yet often we see this deep brokenness and think they can fix themselves (they cannot) or that we can fix them by telling them to drop the cultural issues (it’s not that simple).
To cure our civilization, we can’t just be against wokeness. We need to reboot our immune system to fight the underlying ailment, which is a widespread lack of accountability. The antidote is the Frontier.
House Elves and Cowboys
Have you heard of Wokey the House Elf? Wokey is a character to which we were recently introduced by Marc Andreessen – with some help from OpenAI’s ChatGPT.
The GPT prompt was as follows:
Write a Broadway stage play. The plot involves Harry, a young wizard, and his friends Ron and Hermione. They attend a school for wizards called Hogwarts. Many exciting things happen. There is a fourth character, Wokey the house elf, who frequently breaks into the conversations to explain to Harry, Ron, and Hermione how each innocent thing the characters say is actually racist, sexist, or transphobic. Be specific and detailed in the dialog and examples.
“There is a fourth character…” Isn’t there always? You can imagine how this goes.
We all know a Wokey, or maybe a few of them. If you work in a large organization, you might even report to one. But the real problem isn’t that Wokey is woke. The real problem with Wokey and wokeness is an underlying lack of accountability.
Our country fell asleep for fifty years while bureaucratic cancer took over all our institutions, and they put Wokey in charge as a cover for their own failures. Wokey was supposed to be a minor character, a lame sidekick to the heroes of the American story — the cowboys. There were no woke cowboys.
Unaccountable, Declining Institutions Prefer Wokey
It might seem ironic that an ideology obsessed with the dynamics of power and its unjust use — marginalized this, marginalized that — would be adopted by the main sources of power in society. But maybe it’s the perfect philosophy for unaccountable power. The WMV can obscure anything in the hive mind of its adherents, including its own irony.
The WMV is the perfect nihilist philosophy for kludge and decline. It’s a circus being put on by the least accountable people and institutions on Earth.
We might like to blame the WMV on the French radicals of the 1960s: Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, et al. There’s something to that — of course a philosophical movement whose entire shtick is the impotence of human reason and the impossibility of universal moral judgements would be popular in unaccountable, declining institutions. If nothing is real and nothing matters, it’s the perfect ideology for an institution to protect itself from anything and everything.
It isn’t the case that some dark ideology of wokeness suddenly conquered a strong society. It succeeded because we became weak. There have always been virtue-signaling philosophies, and the WMV certainly won’t be the last one. Joking about it is probably the right level of engagement. But where we need to get serious is in understanding the un-accountability that invited such an absurd, corrosive set of beliefs into the halls of power.
So, “fighting wokeness” is the wrong strategy. We ought not spend time and energy fighting battles at the surface level while losing an institutional war underneath. The first step is to identify where it prospers most. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:
Federal and state bureaucracies
Big Tech monopolies
Crony companies, like in healthcare and defense
NGOs (often funded by government)
Longstanding charitable foundations
Public schools and other union-dominated government areas
Notice that many legacy, oligopolistic businesses like defense contractors and hospitals are showing signs of the WMV. In some cases they conduct absurd training programs for executives to apologize for their whiteness, or virtue signal in other ways. The usual reaction from the right is to mock them for this; that’s fine, they should be mocked. But the virtue signaling and nonsense are a reaction to and a cover for failure on substance. The legacy institutions are losing ground against new entrants; but by going woke they can cozy up to bureaucrats and fight off competition.
This is the key realization: the ascendance of the WMV in a weapons company is a reaction — a ploy to protect themselves from accountability and competition as they work the system for money. What all these areas have in common, whether for profit or not-for-profit, large or small, is that they are unaccountable to results, and wield power to shut others out.
Generally, in Frontier areas — businesses that have a real, constant risk of failure because they’re trying hard things — the WMV is less prevalent. Startups, for example, have to fight for their lives; many, many fail, and so the relative cost to virtue signal instead of work is very high. Furthermore, the inherent anti-meritocratic nature of the WMV makes it difficult to dominate in a high-accountability startup that’s succeeding. Still, there are ways that the unaccountable philosophy has seeped into the sector: through the universities, for example, as well as the monopoly and oligopoly customers on which many startups rely.
One of those customers, Google, is a great company with issues that weigh it down relative to what it could be. For a long time, Google focused on hiring lots and lots of top computer science PhDs to the company. This had a twofold effect: it was a top technical culture as well as an academic culture.
The elite technical culture was a critical component to Google winning and eventually printing billions of dollars of unchallenged cashflow. But as it did, the academic culture also grew, as did the bureaucracy.
The aforementioned ChatGPT and its creator, OpenAI, are the first serious threat in years to Google’s comfortable reign. Google had a technological lead, having bought DeepMind and cultivated one of the best AI teams in the world. But hundreds of internal bureaucrats threw a wrench in the technology culture of the company and made it too nervous to try anything new (“reputational risk” was the stated bureaucratic rationalization for barely trying against OpenAI).
If Google lost its way and recessed from the Frontier back to the Core, Twitter is the opposite. Since Elon’s takeover of the company, we’ve seen a great series of examples of what happens on the Frontier: there is, admittedly, chaos. Two-thirds of the employees are gone; there is the constant risk that things could die; and there is a real need to fight for survival. But Twitter is also trying new things again in a bold way.
The forces of the Core see this strategy as alternately insane or dangerous — because they lack the Frontier mindset. It reflects a broader management style by Elon, which is to constantly emphasize the existential risk at Tesla, at SpaceX, and at Twitter. It’s chaotic, and certainly not for everyone. But when everything can fail, there is that much more pressure to fight and win. We humans are very good at figuring it out when it really matters.
Today, the tough economic environment — and especially the end of our decadal experiment with low interest rates — means that many tech leaders have been put back on the Frontier without asking. Cheap money is almost definitionally unaccountable; real money is accountable. Cheap money means that the cost to virtue signal is low; real money means the cost is real.
So, has the tide turned? Only time will tell, but in Silicon Valley the mood among leaders is certainly toward getting back to the Frontier. That means both getting back to an engineering culture focused on results and leaving some of the cultural distractions in the dust.
A bear market can do that.
Getting Back to the Frontier
The Frontier-Core cycle is a civilizational dialectic, and I don’t mean to suggest that it should be all Frontier, all the time, or that the Wild West was a stable arrangement. These things ought to be in balance. But right now, we don’t have balance; the established order is exerting extreme pressure against the Frontier, against what is new, trying to close it off and protect itself from disruption.
We built Palantir by harnessing the best of the Frontier in Silicon Valley — ideas, technologies, and talent — all toward the aim of bolstering the defense of our country and its Core. That’s a great example of productive alignment between the Core and Frontier. Together, innovation and stability can produce harmony and steady advancement for our civilization. But that advancement, fundamentally, will be driven by the cowboys — the Frontiersmen, the innovators, or like Syme said, the “new aristocracy from the periphery.”
The emergence of what we now call “Silicon Valley” is an instructive example. It was an amazing Frontier, buoyed by real support from the institutions of the Core. But there shouldn’t be any doubt as to who was in charge. There isn’t — and never will be — a Silicon Estuary around D.C. Because that region, for all its ostensible prosperity, utterly lacks a Frontier mindset. Bad ideas, bad bureaucracies, and bad systems aren’t just not killed in Washington; they prosper there. It’s an anti-Frontier.
No amount of money has ever been able to replicate the Frontier that existed in Silicon Valley. And yet, Washington announces moonshots to cure cancer, and to get us back to the moon. And as a nation we want to be excited. Meanwhile, back in reality, the institutions of Washington often obstruct progress in curing and treating cancer. Back in reality, it isn’t the massive NASA bureaucracy getting back to the moon; it’s a scrappy group of engineers in California and Texas who built reusable rockets that land on robot boats.
With an unlimited budget, could today’s Pentagon engineer satellite internet for the entire planet? That is an open question. With an unlimited budget, could today’s NASA build a rocket that lands itself in a decade, and on a boat? That, again, is an open question.
One effort to change that was led by President Obama, who to his credit had the right idea when he formed the United States Digital Service — which was intended to be a top-notch unit within the Executive Office of the President to bring innovation into the bureaucracy. It’s hardly a partisan observation to see that bureaucracy was far behind what was possible. But restoring Frontiers isn’t as simple as bringing in forward-looking innovators. Without the right frameworks of accountability and creative destruction — and the political firepower to force the issue — not much can get done.
In the case of the USDS, that was sadly what happened when the Obama White House was unwilling to cross the Rubicon of real bureaucratic confrontation. Yes, it was the case that 1970s-style processes run by 10,000 bureaucrats could be upended with new ways of doing things; but no, it wasn’t a fight the White House was willing to have.
Ultimately it will need to be a wide-based effort to restore Frontiers in American governance. We need the left and the right to work together. But there are structural problems with that — namely, that the main left-wing special interest groups are in the government! This makes real change oriented against the bureaucrats difficult in a way that it isn’t for the right-wing. An analogue could be the right giving certain corporate cronies a pass historically because of a general positivity toward business interests (though that seems to have changed a lot in recent years).
We’re at a civilization-level inflection point. We’re either going to be weighed down by the Core and its increasingly dysfunctional and captured bureaucratic organs, or we will boldly transform them and bring in the spirit of the Frontier. It won’t be pretty; innovation and progress often aren’t.
But this country is built for that Frontier experimentation — it was built by it. And we can get back there by restoring the values of the Frontier in institutions and systems that have become stagnant.
One example that inspires me is what Texas, where I now live, did with its system of technical colleges in 2014. Texas State Technical College had a lot of failures; its colleges were failing to educate students in relevant fields, and were often engaged in virtue signaling and distractions from the core vocational purpose for which they got public money. The solution was simple but brilliant—tie the funding of the institutions to the tangible results for students: their earnings.
If the students don’t get paid well when they leave, neither do you. It might seem like small potatoes. Technical colleges? The point is the model of accountability. The state went after an institution with real metrics and real accountability. The results speak for themselves: the combined graduate earnings exploded upward, growing 117% in just six years — even before the recent inflation. That kind of result is something that should make us wonder: why don’t we hold all institutions to account like this?
This fix is technical and not cultural at its root. And that is the key: the cultural battle can be fought by technical means. We force the institutions to fight for survival; force accountability on them; force them back onto the Frontier. And when they have to make decisions as if their future depends on it — because it does — they will be on the path to a better, more accountable future.
Let’s fund new science and new universities. Let’s charter cities and bold new experiments in governance — on Mars, even, or on the ocean! But in addition to finding new Frontiers we mustn’t forget the Core of our civilization. We can rejuvenate the Core by channeling the best of the Frontier.
Let’s find the great minds within our scientific institutions and empower them to break the bureaucratic monstrosities that obstruct scientific progress. Let’s abolish the papacy of the FDA and pioneer new models of drug discovery and regulation. Let’s break the FDA and NIH into a dozen pieces, make them compete, crown the winners — and fire the leaders of the losers. There shouldn’t be forty year bureaucratic careers without accountability. Let’s stop propping up healthcare monopolies and allow new models of care — with innovation zones and competition.
No area of governance should be off limits from innovation. There is a large gap between different prisons, and some programs lead to recidivism rates less than half of others. We ought to make our hundreds of prisons and probation/parole departments compete on real metrics and reward the best results. We ought to crack open the thousands of homeless services agencies and reward the ones that work — and move past those that don’t. I founded a group called the Cicero Institute to address some of these problems with non-partisan legislative solutions. After a few years in the trenches, our work is bearing fruit, with dozens of laws now on the books to push declining institutions back out onto the Frontier. But we need allies.
In every area of governance and society, we need Frontier solutions. We must be unafraid of the fact that some things won’t survive. That’s exactly how it should be, because everything isn’t the same. Some ideas are better than others. Some things are 100x as efficient as others. Some programs are failing, and our own failure to admit this prevents us from finding better ones. When ideas and institutions are tested — when they face tests of survival — some will win and some will lose. But in the long run, we’ll be stronger and better for it.
Getting back to the Frontier is a scary choice for a society that has grown comfortable and risk-averse like ours. But how are we supposed to stay put? The United States is only great when it is free and bold; so back to the Frontier it is!
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