The Billionaires Who Are Threatening Democracy

By 2017, the billionaire financier Ray Dalio had grown his company, Bridgewater Associates, into the world’s biggest hedge fund. And like many wealthy executives, he had also begun to reinvent himself as a “thought leader,” weighing in frequently on topics such as geopolitics, public education, and workplace culture.

In the fall of that year, Dalio was interviewed by Michael Milken, a fellow billionaire who had previously been imprisoned for fraud. Onstage in Santa Monica, California, Dalio hailed Lee Kuan Yew, considered the founder of modern-day Singapore, as “probably the greatest leader of the last 50 or 100 years.” Lee’s three-decade rule transformed the country from what Dalio called “a mosquito-infested backwater” into a vibrant economy with a GDP per capita bigger than that of the United States. “The man was a very strong man,” Dalio said. Under Lee’s rule, “there was a firmness … there was a strictness in terms of the definition of what a good citizen was.”

To Lee’s critics, however, that’s not far off from authoritarianism. Today, Singapore is rated as only “partly free” by the human-rights organization Freedom House. Although the city-state has regular elections, the outcomes are largely predetermined: The ruling People’s Action Party has held power since Lee took office in 1959. (Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, has been prime minister since 2004.) Political protest is rarely tolerated. “We decide what is right,” the elder Lee once said. “Never mind what the people think.”

At the same time, thanks in part to its deep integration with global financial markets, its huge flows of international capital, and the productivity of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers with limited rights who are housed cheaply in dorms, Singapore is an economic powerhouse. For a small but powerful collection of executives, along with certain investors and libertarian ideologues, Singapore’s “benevolent dictatorship” offers a model for how well a market-driven system can work when concerns about democracy don’t get in the way. In his new book, Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy, Quinn Slobodian focuses on these figures—an informal grouping he calls “market radicals”—whose influence on the political right seems to be growing.

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Slobodian, a historian of ideas at Wellesley College, seeks to understand how these market radicals undermine democracy. His analysis zeroes in on a particular worldview that he claims is shared by an eclectic cast of characters, including former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Silicon Valley billionaires Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen. How this radicalism is expressed varies greatly: There are executives and investors who scour the globe for places to shelter and multiply their wealth, and who may not actively oppose democracy but do see civil and political freedom as secondary to economic permissiveness and societal stability. Some echo that most laissez-faire of economists, Milton Friedman, who once lamented that “political democracy has elements which tend to destroy economic freedom.” On the most extreme end, they include libertarian ideologues like Friedman’s grandson Patri, who advocates for “seasteading”—the creation of secessionist (and tax-free) communities that are built on floating platforms in international waters and, in turn, not beholden to meddlesome laws and regulations that don’t suit their founders.

As Crack-Up Capitalism shows, what unites market radicals is the conviction that societies should be designed to prioritize capital, not people. The book illustrates the profound fatalism about democracy—and sometimes outright contempt for it—that sits at the core of many market radicals’ beliefs. As Slobodian writes, they believe that democracy—self-government characterized by citizen participation, civil and political freedoms and protections, and representatives responsive and even beholden to the people’s demands—does not provide an adequate environment for maximal profit-making.

This opposition to democracy, however, doesn’t imply an opposition to government. As reflected in the desperate demands of venture capitalists and other wealthy investors for a bailout of Silicon Valley Bank, market radicals are enthusiastic about state power and resources—as long as that power prioritizes their ability to do business. “Their goal,” Slobodian writes, is “not to take a wrecking ball to the state but to hijack, disassemble, and rebuild it under their own private ownership.” Crack-Up Capitalism argues that market radicals aspire, above all, to use the authority of government to serve their interests: to eliminate taxes, unions, workers’ and citizens’ rights, political uncertainty, and barriers to capital flows, and to put the resources of the state—whether labor, land, or the legal system—at their disposal. They believe that this approach will, in turn, result in a more prosperous society with benefits eventually accruing to all.

In the lead-up to the United Kingdom’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union, many Brexit advocates believed that, once freed from EU regulations, Britain would become some sort of “Singapore-on-Thames.” But as Slobodian makes clear, this fantasy had it backwards. Singapore’s economic prosperity doesn’t stem from the absence of the state. Instead, the country’s growth depended in part on the government’s rigid social and political control of its people.

Singapore is just one of the world’s many legal jurisdictions where the government has used its authority to throw out traditional rules and laws—particularly those involving taxation. These pockets exist internationally but differ in size and scope and specifics. Some, including Singapore and Liechtenstein, are independent nations. Others are heavily promoted development projects, such as London’s Canary Wharf and New York City’s Hudson Yards. Still others are hardly visible to the unaware eye and might be as small as a few blocks. The 2017 Trump tax cuts, for instance, established “opportunity zones” that are intended to, according to the IRS, “spur economic growth and job creation in low-income communities while providing tax benefits to investors.” In these areas, the U.S. government subsidizes private investors by allowing them to avoid paying capital-gains taxes if they maintain their investments for at least a decade. (There are now more than 8,700 opportunity zones across the United States; Washington, D.C., alone has 25.)

Some of the zones most admired by market radicals can be found in Dubai. Like Singapore, the Persian Gulf emirate is remarkably welcoming of foreign money and responsive to the desires of corporations and investors. It is also willing to maintain different legal jurisdictions, allowing investors and companies to cherry-pick the configurations that best suit them—including those that weaken labor laws, protect investment assets from outside scrutiny, or even maintain a separate court system designed to cater to business interests.

Perhaps most important, however, Dubai is hyper-controlled—as an authoritarian monarchy, it is generally safe from any threat of political uncertainty or dissent. Its Jebel Ali Free Zone, an enormous port housing industries including retail, petrochemicals, and oil and gas that bills itself as “the world’s largest free trade zone,” attracts international investors in part by levying no personal-income or corporate taxes. But its appeal also stems from cheap labor and almost nonexistent workers’ rights, which means that migrant workers can simply be deported if they demand greater protections, raise concerns about their working conditions, or threaten to strike.

This combination of features has made Dubai and its neighboring emirates into hubs of investor capital and corporate interests. (Last month, for instance, Bloomberg reported that Ray Dalio would open an office in the Abu Dhabi Global Market, another low-tax zone in the UAE, to manage his family’s wealth.) But Dubai has also attracted another cohort of market radicals: libertarian ideologues who see its authoritarian model as an inspiration. Among Dubai’s vocal fans is the influential software engineer and blogger Curtis Yarvin, sometimes known by his pen name Mencius Moldbug, who has cited Dubai as evidence that “politics is not necessary to a free, stable, and productive modern society.”

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While Yarvin may not be a household name for most Americans, he has grabbed the attention of some of the most powerful figures on the right, including Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, and Peter Thiel, one of the biggest Republican campaign donors in recent election cycles. In 2022, Thiel, who is friends with Yarvin and has written that he doesn’t “believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” invested tens of millions of dollars in the Senate campaigns of J. D. Vance and Blake Masters, both of whom, as Vox reported, have also praised and cited Yarvin’s work. Yarvin has even advocated on his blog for bringing some of the characteristics he admires about Dubai—namely, an authoritarian form of leadership—to the United States, which would ideally be run by a CEO “without any interference from the Congress or courts.” This worldview doesn’t exist on just the fringes of the internet. Slobodian suggests that it is beginning to infiltrate one of America’s main political parties.

Many of the market radicals Slobodian writes about say they are fighting to liberate humanity and unleash markets from the tyranny of government and bureaucracy. Thinkers and investors emanating from Silicon Valley, in particular, claim to be hacking the state to make it more efficient and effective. But Slobodian argues that many of these self-proclaimed advocates for disruption actually just want to disrupt the norms—such as civil and political freedom—that might threaten their interests. Democracy is already facing numerous threats from factions on the right who question the legitimacy of election results that don’t go their way. Crack-Up Capitalism is a reminder that this political challenge is only one of a number of fronts in the sustained attack on American democracy.

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