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One of the most well-written takedowns of the Paul Graham / Y Combinator lie that has been written in recent memory.

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    I’m historically all for complaining about PG essays, but this one has some gaps that just aren’t fixed. I disagree on points both procedural, ethical, and factual:

    Sales needs a product team to design a solution to spec for their clients, an analytics team to provide data on its effectiveness, marketing to shape and package the value proposition, etc.

    This is a very optimistic–read: over-complicated–view of sales. All sales needs are clients who are willing to buy whatever they’re selling–anything else just lets you get by with more finicky clients or increase your odds of making them happy.

    Yes, product teams working in concert with sales can be great, but their job is fundamentally to talk somebody into paying for either whatever the product team already has or some dream that may not have any actual relation to anything the product team has done. I’d love to live in a world where we required a closer collaboration, but we’re not in that world.

    Analytics and marketing and all the rest is really great to have, but you can get by with a really good salesman alone if needs be.

    ‘The smartest guys in the room’ was a phrase used to describe Enron, and certainly no one would want to emulate them today.

    Depends whether or not they got away with it–go check out how Lou Pai made out. Another one, a fellow I actually worked with once, wasn’t so lucky.

    How interesting then that Graham ignores this point when considering the value of programmer’s labor. Perhaps he was led to this conclusion upon reflection of the fate of Viaweb and how lucky he was to have sold at the right time. It turned out that the “wealth” he created was not so durable after all.

    Author kinda misses the point here in order to make a cheap shot at Graham–the thing is, no form of intellectual wealth is permanently durable. Samuel Colt is marvelously surpassed today, but a century and change ago he was hot shit. Edison and Tesla’s work is now quaint and antiquated, but at the time worth the equivalent of millions.

    ~

    And then the big one. The big fuckup that I just can’t ignore, because it’s so earnest, so poorly-sourced, and so goddamn close to what might be a defensible position. The libertarian bit.

    For reference, this is the PG blurb on that:

    This is why so many of the best programmers are libertarians. In our world, you sink or swim, and there are no excuses. When those far removed from the creation of wealth– undergraduates, reporters, politicians– hear that the richest 5% of the people have half the total wealth, they tend to think injustice! An experienced programmer would be more likely to think is that all? The top 5% of programmers probably write 99% of the good software.

    And the author’s critique?

    Even if we were to overlook these deficiencies in the argument leading up to the conclusion, the most critical of errors Graham makes is the assumption that a world constructed in a libertarian framework would rightly and justly reward hard work with a proportionate amount of wealth. It remains a giant leap to assume that a libertarian world would operate in such an equitable fashion.

    Author fails to mention that, well, the current world doesn’t exactly reward hard work either. And honestly, that’s part of one of PG’s background points in the essay: putting in long hours doing the wrong work at the wrong time isn’t going to get you a big payoff.

    It might be a leap of faith to assume libertarianism–which the author never defines–is the answer, but it remains the burden of the critique to show why the “hacker attitude” of a minority of people creating the majority of wealth and getting preference based on that fact is incorrect or out-of-touch with reality.

    <aside> I’m not advocating for libertarianism, if by libertarianism we mean “the world we live in now but without BIG GUBBERMENT”. I’m similarly not advocating for libertarianism, if by libertarianism we mean “the free market will solve all the problems in the world without need for laws”. Both are positions that lack nuance and are pretty easy to poke holes in; and yet, the author kinda winks and nudges and presupposes PG’s view there.

    One might, though PG doesn’t here, make the observation that the programmers who like libertarianism may do so because:

    • They work daily with complicated systems and know how messy they are, and seek to reduce that messiness.
    • They know how arbitrary (rightly or wrongly) a lot of the demands of the real world are, because they have to bridge the clean business logic of their code with the harsh corner cases and feature requests inherent in interfacing with meatspace. They’ve seen the platonic ideals and had to turn back.
    • They actually have a pretty wide depth of experience on designing systems, and know how cruft forms and cults treat cargo in hopes of job security–all this to say, they aren’t awed into submission by institutions of government.

    Any of those are reasons people have used, not just this “fuck you got mine” that the author seems to hint at. </aside>

    So, our author goes and complains

    In the midst of discussing the hacker and its discontents, Graham notes, though without any empirical substantiation, that “so many of the best programmers are libertarians.”

    And then, since PG is clearly lacking in proper documentation and evidence, our author steps up and provides solid proof (proof!) that he’s wrong, right?

    He assumes that a more libertarian society would necessarily be more meritocratic. But this assumption has been proven false time and again, based on everything we know about the nature of power and corruption. Historically, societies with laissez-faire economic policies have been associated with rigid, hierarchical social structures with negligible social mobility.

    Yep, sure, our author sho–oh, oh wait. Oh dear. No they don’t. Not a hyperlink, not a reference, not a name…just the continued bluster of big words and strong claims (“time and again”, “everything we know”, etc.).

    Everything we know, chummer? How’s that exactly?

    If you want to look at a time of decent social mobility due to laissez-faire policies, consider the opportunities available to folks working for the British Empire in settling the New World (at least at the start), for the Chinese today working out in Shenzen building things, for Americans after WW2, or for certain Russians just after the Iron Curtain fell.

    If you’d like to see the converse–lack of social mobility due to tight economic regulation–please consider present-day North Korea, 20th century Japan, and the Dutch East Indies company in South Africa in the 18th century.

    And yeah, at least one of the examples I gave above is bullshit…see if you can guess which one(s). That said, you at least have examples to argue with.

    There are great and numerous arguments to be made against the sort of libertarianism that PG might actually support and even against the ill-defined strawman the author suggests here, but the author made no argument. They blithely asserted their own correctness, without support.

    And then they start going on about “power”.

    Power, on the other hand, is most definitely a zero-sum proposition, and those who have it will stop at nothing to retain it and quash any perceptible threat. Power is a black hole—it consumes everything and yet remains a perpetual void.

    This may be the case if you’re a mouthbreather quoting your copy of The Prince that you picked up in middle school, but in the real world and in history we see numerous cases where those in power saw the wisdom in delegating power or even yielding control over some domain to others so that they could prosper.

    Don’t believe me? Look at the system of government that Britain favored when setting up colonies. Look at any number of modern businesses who are given free reign in market niches because the larger folks just have more important shit to do–even if the businesses themselves grow out of it (see also: Microsoft, Dell, etc.).

    And for the folks who did believe in such a despotic zero-sum view of power? They’re all dead, gone to ash or withering away. Mussolini and Franco and Stalin? Dead. Steve Jobs? Dead. Richard Nixon? Dead. Pablo Escobar? Kim Jong-Il? Saddam Hussein? J. Edgar Hoover? Dead dead dead and dead.

    In the real world, even the most terrifying and soulless pursuit of power, no matter how successful, is doomed to fail unless it realizes that it must at times empower others and build a system that can outlast itself, and the author couldn’t be arsed to point that out despite numerous historical examples.

    The author does keep up with the scaremongering though:

    Loosen or remove those controls and power, unchecked, will accumulate until nothing remains. Anyone or anything in its path will be destroyed.

    This plays well with the self-flagellating anxious crowd, but even to an old cynic like me with just a bit of historical knowledge this rings hollow.

    ~

    The author decides to wrap it up all with an utterly glib and half-assed approach:

    This section is so painfully amusing to read that it is almost not fair to critique it because it was clearly written as an after-thought to cap off an already lengthy essay.

    If the author had spent more time reading and critiquing instead of being amused perhaps they’d’ve been able to rebut it properly, but that’s not what happened:

    Surprisingly, however, it can all be summed up in a few quick paragraphs that basically argue that the triumph of Western civilization is all owed to nerds who wanted to get rich. Feudalism and communism were just bullies on the playground, and any government intervention preventing nerds from accumulating more wealth will only lead to ruin.

    The author deliberately misstates–or is too fascinated by their own narrative to get right–PG’s position. To my reading, the PG essay suggests (in separate points):

    • Civilizations must allow nerds to accrue wealth on short time scales, not merely long ones.
    • Technical innovation happens rarely, not merely slowly, because you have to look for hard problems–the motivation for which requires a huge payoff.
    • People that have chose to make wealth (by PG’s definition) have been around for millenia.
    • Civilizations following this policy (Western Civ.) get the benefits of better military tech and things that others (Soviet Union, others) do not.

    Now, the author flat-out whiffs on the first point, because the any government intervention preventing nerds from accumulating more wealth will only lead to ruin ignores the nuance of PG’s statement: it’s not merely enough to allow them to accumulate wealth, but to allow for them to do so quickly in pursuit of a market. A court appointment would result in wealth but not progress.

    The author fails to address the second point entirely.

    The author totally drops the ball on the third point: invoking feudalism, the author totally ignores the fact that the rise of a rich merchant class and artisan guilds were critical for the creation of the demographics needed to graduate beyond feudalism. Insofar as they’ve existed today, that form of government only survives when the natives have natural resources more advanced countries are willing to pay for in exchange for propping up their feudal and tribal systems (see also the Middle East).

    The author also ignores the forth point, which is a shame because it’s worth giving an honest going-over. Were they so inclined, they could’ve picked on PG’s example of the UK in the 60s/70s being technically stagnant, which is not really the case–the BBC, for example, did a lot of pioneering work in broadcast television and film at the time, and there was weird and crazy music innovation.

    So, where does the article leave off?

    Thus, the power elite will readily command vast armies of people and resources to ensure that you stay down. This will be their first priority. Their second priority will be to extract labor from you in the manner that serves them best. In a perfectly libertarian society, the bullies would not only take your lunch money, they would murder your family, burn your house, and leave you for dead by the side of the road. This is your free society. Enjoy.

    I’ll just rattle off some quick gripes:

    • Author still hasn’t defined the form of libertarianism they are railing against.
    • Author doesn’t appreciate that the “power elite” don’t exist in certain formulations of libertarianism, because if they do things start to look oddly like renamed big government.
    • Author makes the stupid assumption–even within their own framework of bullshit power politics–that somehow it is more economically viable to seize goods and pillage in the short-term than to properly enslave and exploit for the long term.
    • Author wants to argue that power corrupts absolutely and hence the first priority is the suppression of others; this is dumb, because the entire point of wealth capture is that it need not be zero sum.

    Really, the author just starts jerking themselves off about this bogeyman with such vigor and gravity that it’s hard to take them seriously–their increasing sloppiness as their essay evolved having destroyed any good will I may have had for such an act.

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      (Don’t have time right now to go through the whole article, but this kind of jumped out at me.)

      Author doesn’t appreciate that the “power elite” don’t exist in certain formulations of libertarianism, because if they do things start to look oddly like renamed big government.

      I think that, just like the Communists, Libertarians have a duty to explain exactly how their plan for Libertarian utopia will plausibly defend itself from control by a powerful elite and how we can get there from here without the large piles of skulls that seem to be the natural result of most revolutions.

      Otherwise, they’re simply telling fairy stories about a people who walk and talk just like real people but are in fact magic Libertarian people.

      Honestly, this is one of my sticking points with so called Libertarianism of all stripes - I just don’t see how, in this world, you prevent it from rapidly decaying into an oligarchy which then in turn becomes a quasi-hereditary ruling class.

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        Analytics and marketing and all the rest is really great to have, but you can get by with a really good salesman alone if needs be.

        Yep. OP is completely wrong about sales. There’s a reason why sales guys end up becoming executives. It won’t change. While they need ground support in theory, the fact is that they get most of the glory and it will always be that way in a capitalistic system. Without sales, the company is dead. On the other hand, if sales overshoots and promises a dream that engineering can’t deliver, that’s fixable (at least on paper) because you can hire more engineers. You can hire better engineers– or, at least, you can pay more for engineers and if they aren’t actually better, well that’s “not your fault” as a manager and you can blame engineering (which is what everyone does when things go wrong).

        Sure, sometimes the sales organization will over-promise and leave a customer eating the costs. If the sales people are good at their jobs, the client will still like and trust them anyway. This has everything to do with personal skills and nothing to do with technical skill or ethics, and that’s depressing but it’s just a fact of life in the capitalist world. You can tell by a very simple measure if sales people are good at their jobs: do clients like them? Do clients trust them? Will clients follow them? Nothing else matters. Engineering is an implementation detail that can be fixed, at least as executives see it. Losing a client when your top sales guy starts a competing company, that hurts a lot more.

        The mark that I’d register against Paul Graham (and that OP acknowledges) is that Graham sells this “Startup” brand on the premise that engineers actually matter in VC-funded tech startups. For the most part, they don’t, not any more than they matter in sales-driven large companies. It’s dishonest marketing.

        Author kinda misses the point here in order to make a cheap shot at Graham–the thing is, no form of intellectual wealth is permanently durable. […] Edison and Tesla’s work is now quaint and antiquated, but at the time worth the equivalent of millions.

        The half-life of corporate software is terrible. It took decades for Edison’s work to be outmoded. Corporate software is usually of negative value as soon as the original team moves on. That has a lot to do with the way we make it: we slap together garbage and move on, everyone hoping to be promoted away from what was built before it starts falling apart. Now, I’ve never seen Paul Graham’s Viaweb code, but given that he created a company (Y Combinator) whose literal purpose is to encourage young kids to slap garbage together and sell it as quickly as possible, I think that it’s reasonable to pin some culpability for the overbearing shittiness of software on Paul Graham and especially the ageism/pederasty culture that has come out of Y Combinator.

        Author fails to mention that, well, the current world doesn’t exactly reward hard work either.

        I would hazard the guess that he assumes we already know that. I could be wrong.

        libertarianism–which the author never defines

        That is a weakness of the OP. He assumes that we reflexively equate libertarianism to Asshole Libertarianism, i.e. the right-wing brand libertarianism that socially butthurt teenagers develop after reading Ayn Rand. (“I am John Galt! I will rape the jocks for breakfast! Deregulate the financial industry now!”) He ignores the diversity within the field of what could be called libertarian. Hell, in Soviet Russia, most of us in today’s center-left/intellectual mainstream would have been considered radical libertarians for simply believing (a) that capitalism isn’t always evil, (b) that free speech is necessary, and © that homosexuality is not only not evil but relatively normal and ought not to be stigmatized.

        They actually have a pretty wide depth of experience on designing systems, and know how cruft forms and cults treat cargo in hopes of job security–all this to say, they aren’t awed into submission by institutions of government.

        If anything, I think that Americans are unduly negative about government. Even though Americans like most things that governments do (roads, national parks, Medicare, Social Security) there has been a negative connotation in “government” ever since (a) Nixon gave us an inside view of corruption and illegality at the upper reaches of government, (b) Reagan attacked government head-on, saying that it “is not the solution” but “is the problem”, © the Democrats have been playing defense ever since then, resulting in (for example) a watered-down healthcare bill with a fucking individual mandate, and (d) Congressional Republicans have been hell-bent on proving their thesis that government doesn’t work by defunding and obstructing key programs.

        There’s also a bit of racism in the U.S. anti-government attitude. Before the 1960s, even low-level government jobs like clerking in a post office were more prestigious than comparable jobs in the private sector. Because they were prestigious, they usually went to well-connected white kids. In the 1970s, governments started rolling out affirmative action programs (some of which were badly designed or even flat-out unfair– for a long time it was mathematically impossible for a non-veteran white male to become a park ranger, because the cutoff exam score for white men was over 100) and white people became angry. When Reagan attacked “government” in the ‘80s, he was tapping in to the resentment felt by white people whose uncles could clerk at post offices to pay their way through college but who themselves had to stock shelves at the local chain supermarket because “those people” got all the government jobs. People who had no problem with government when its people looked like them suddenly became anti-government when that changed.

        All taken in, it’s complex. Government waste does exist (but, then again, so does private-sector inefficiency) and government maintains a somewhat unduly negative reputation in the U.S., even though most government services are (a) delivered competently and (b) well-liked, hence the “Get Your Government Hands Off My Medicare” signs that we saw from the Tea Party in the early 2010s.

        Any of those are reasons people have used, not just this “fuck you got mine” that the author seems to hint at.

        I think we all know that the Silicon Valley elite (regardless of their public political positions) are the way they are exactly because of a “fuck you, got mine” attitude. I don’t think it’s fair to paint everyone who identifies as libertarian with that brush but as for the Silicon Valley elite… it’s exactly that and everyone who knows them knows it.

        And for the folks who did believe in such a despotic zero-sum view of power? They’re all dead, gone to ash or withering away. Mussolini and Franco and Stalin? Dead. Steve Jobs? Dead. Richard Nixon? Dead. Pablo Escobar? Kim Jong-Il? Saddam Hussein? J. Edgar Hoover? Dead dead dead and dead.

        This doesn’t refute your point, but several of those people died of natural causes. Jobs lived what most would consider an enviable (if somewhat short) life. Nixon managed to recover his reputation to a large degree, lived to be 91, and had a net worth over $15 million when he died.

        The author does keep up with the scaremongering though:

        Loosen or remove those controls and power, unchecked, will accumulate until nothing remains. Anyone or anything in its path will be destroyed. This plays well with the self-flagellating anxious crowd, but even to an old cynic like me with just a bit of historical knowledge this rings hollow.

        Organizations often mellow out over time as people age out and are replaced, and obviously, not everyone turns into a power-mad Kefka, sitting atop a tower of rubble and destroying lives for the hell of it. The Kefkas emerge under certain conditions. Some conditions encourage those with disproportionate advantage toward peaceful decline (as the British Empire did, while the living conditions of the British people improved) but other conditions encourage the Kefkas to come out.

        Right now, conditions are ripe for bad people to acquire power. We see it in politics all over the world (resurgence of right-wing nationalism) and we see it in the corporate world (startup/tech sleaze). It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this isn’t always the case. We’re on a downswing, a stretch of moral and organizational decay, but history isn’t linear and things aren’t always going to be falling apart. While there are many issues with the Strauss-Howe generational theory, I do think that there’s some truth in it and right now we’re in a “Fourth Turning” (unraveling and crisis) phase that will pass.

        Author wants to argue that power corrupts absolutely and hence the first priority is the suppression of others; this is dumb, because the entire point of wealth capture is that it need not be zero sum.

        Over time, in certain conditions like those that exist currently, zero-sum players tend to drive out positive-sum players, just because they’re nastier and better at social competition.

        The OP is wrong about inevitable personal evolution toward power-hungry madness, group dynamics can lead this way. Take Y Combinator and Paul Graham as a perfect example. Paul Graham is a counterexample to the accelerating power-hungriness hypothesis insofar as he’s retired from his crime syndicate, Y Combinator. He’s not Kefka. He’s not driven in that way; he’s rich enough, and he’s done. On the other hand, Y Combinator hasn’t halted.

        Y Combinator’s Kefka figure is still waiting in the wings, and it’s not clear who he is. Paul Buchheit seems to have strong Kefka potential, but who knows? I don’t think that he’s smart enough. Dan Gackle (“Gack”) enjoys playing Kefka on Hacker News, but it’s unclear whether he has the stomach to bring his evil to a greater game.

        Individuals choose to delegate or even relinquish power when they tire of it, but conditions such as those that exist now make it more likely than not that the next generation of power-holders will be worse than the one exiting. So, if you lose focus on individuals, miss the fact that history is cyclical rather than linear, you can end up at the conclusion that power inexorably corrupts.

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          […] the Chinese today working out in Shenzen building things, for Americans after WW2 […]

          ?

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            Hey, I pointed out that at least one of my examples was bullshit–again, the point is that I listed them. Then again, some folks seemed to benefit in social mobility under that approach, hence my China example.

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              My eyeroll was in appreciation. I thought those two were masterful examples of reality vs. popular narrative.

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          I like articles like this because it reminds us programmers how complicated real world is. One would think that we should be able to deal with complexity much better than most people would, but I think there’s a catch here; we’re trying to model that complexity while others are just trying to get by! I’ve seen, in my life, many rich idiots that would be incapable of explaining to you why they ended up being rich. This shouldn’t be surprising because they were just following money, taking decisions one at a time in their neighborhood of real life. Some of those idiots end up ruining their lives, some others end up in a prison, but many end up being rich in the end.

          Another lesson to be taken here is the fact that large corporations aren’t actively trying to trap you inside a sea of mediocre people so that they can undervalue your talents. In real life, it’s really hard to attribute value to an employer (to anything really, that’s why we need marketers and salesmen) and that’s why large corporations naturally give rise to office politics. That’s not the end of the world though, there are so many checks and balances, feedback loops etc. so, just like in real life, politics has to exist in harmony with real productivity.

          So, I guess the point is that we should learn to observe our neighborhood without having to model it inside a grand picture of the life, the universe and everything, and then take decisions accordingly.

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            we’re trying to model that complexity while others are just trying to get by

            I doubt it. I think tech industry largely ignores the complexity of what makes the world work. If anything, they come up with models that are too rational or simple. Or write stuff off as ignorance when it’s not. The real world runs on decisions rooted in a combination of emotion and reason leaning toward emotion. Politics, ownership, management, and market demands are good categories here. Geeks keep thinking they’re changing the world where most of the world is determined by who knows, persuades, or pays influential people. It’s what the modern version of Silicon Valley and all the intellectuals are ignoring the most it seems outside a few exceptions like Paypal and Google.

            Certainly, outliers cause changes in other models but they’re very rare and often tie-ins to existing schemes. Examples are surveillance-oriented companies or those acquired by greedy, lock-in-oriented companies.

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              We’re actually saying the same thing; by “modeling complexity” I don’t imply we’re ending up with a useful model. Real life is far too fractal for a geek to model it wholesale in any meaningful way. That’s why people end up being more successful when they don’t try to model the big picture and just take the next step based on a combination of instincts, local reasoning and imitation of others.

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              That’s not the end of the world though, there are so many checks and balances, feedback loops etc. so, just like in real life, politics has to exist in harmony with real productivity.

              The evil of tech startups is that they have the negatives of old-style companies but none of the positives. They have all the “big company” issues around office politics and mediocrity, but they have new problems as well.

              If you had a bad manager or a rotten first year in an old-style company, they’d give you another chance on another team. If this kept happening and the company needed to let people go, you’d be one of the first ones out the door, but they’d give you severance and a decent reference. In the new-style company, fast firing for superficial reasons is common and business-based layoffs are represented as performance firings because tech companies are too sleazy to own up to an honest layoff.

              Likewise, the old-style company had a stodgy hierarchy but you knew where you stood and what you had to do to get to the next rung. It would take longer than most people would have liked, but it was dependable. In the new-style company, the same behaviors that get you fired are the ones that get you promoted and political skill and luck determine which outcome you get.

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              Introversion is a curious and wonderful trait: the ability to create and inhabit a mental utopia devoid of the complications of external reality is a truly liberating experience.

              That is where I tried to stop reading. Believe it or not, software engineers are not synonymous with awkward mouth breathing basement dwellers.

              I did skim a little further and most of the opinions were similarly offensive.

              hackers appear positively child-like when it comes to non-silicon matters

              The author condescends about how dumb, misguided, and arrogant hackers are. I think the author is right, but didn’t notice that these failings apply to humanity in general. Sales people, doctors, mechanics and parents all believe they have unique insights into how the world works. They all have opinions on subjects they are unqualified to have an opinion on.

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                Believe it or not, software engineers are not synonymous with awkward mouth breathing basement dwellers.

                Believe it or not, introverts are not synonymous with awkward, mouth-breathing, basement dwellers. There’s a range of it in terms of social skill. There’s also those born with less that achieve more than expected. Even blend in like extroverts because job or social life demands it. I’m in that category where few coworkers can believe that I’m a nice, laid-back introvert given how I have to handle my work environment for high reward but lower risk.

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                Why does an otherwise very well written critique have to march towards a poliical strawman to end in? Ruined it.

                But to make ot vlear, what most Americans call laissez-faire has nothing to do with the thing itself. It’s an Orwellian misnomer, like liberals taking over the word liberal, causing a need for the word “libertarian”.

                Countries with freedom do have social mobility, you can just look at Hong Kong to see that. But it’s not called laissez-faire, though it pretty much is. Or it’s not generally not spoken about. Or the worst case is conflating some other cultural issue as being a direct consequence.

                Startups, and small companies, at least where I hail from, have started to see the value in workers and take care of them. This is despite huge costs of employment and tight regulation around companies. Why? The libertarian solution: you get fucked over, you jump ship to a competitor.

                Of course there are career paths worse off, say accountants, who are so fucked so hard and mainly by government deadlines, and the fact that better pay would ripple through the economy in a deleterious way, that there really is not and cannot be competition among employers: they’re all hell.

                But apart from that, a fine article raising valid points against the lie that is startups.

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                  Eh, Hong Kong isn’t called laissez-faire because it’s not really. It’s definitely more permissive in certain sectors, but also more interventionist in others. Sometimes even in the same sector. Take real estate, for example. Compared to the U.S., it is much more accommodating of developers tearing down existing buildings and building high-rises, without a ton of red tape and NIMBY-enabling laws. That’s one place it gets a laissez-faire reputation. But it is also much more interventionist in building state-owned and state-subsidized public housing estates: approximately half of all Hong Kong households live in public housing, compared to only 1% of U.S. households.

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                    Take real estate, for example. Compared to the U.S., it is much more accommodating of developers tearing down existing buildings and building high-rises, without a ton of red tape and NIMBY-enabling laws. That’s one place it gets a laissez-faire reputation. But it is also much more interventionist in building state-owned and state-subsidized public housing estates: approximately half of all Hong Kong households live in public housing, compared to only 1% of U.S. households.

                    That’s the ideal synthesis. When the private sector is clearly doing good (i.e. replacing low-slung housing with high rises, increasing total available stock and preventing SF-style insanity) the government gets out of the way, but when government is needed, it steps in.

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                      Where does laissez-faire exist? What exactly is it? What is often called by that name is actually something heavily regulated with side effects, giving the term a bad, or at least open-for-interpretation, name.

                      In a sense, having the state as a more equal player among the market, is more laissez-faire than most other setups.