So I see that Peter Thiel and Sergey Brin are squabbling about politics again. At one level that’s not surprising, since they’ve been at political odds for years. Indeed, as far back as 2016, Brin, like many tech billionaires, expressed deep concern about the election of Donald Trump, while Thiel was famously a Trump supporter.
But that was more than half a century ago; last year, Thiel celebrated his 100th birthday, although he doesn’t look a day over 60. Yet they’re still at it.
And until recently it seemed all too likely that their argument would go on for decades to come. As a classic line has it, people generally get worse as they grow older, because they become more like themselves. And today’s billionaires just keep getting older, and older, and older.
Wealth as a means of life extension
Even in the early 21st century, a growing number of people realised that America was becoming an oligarchy, with a hugely disproportionate share of income, wealth and power held by a small number of people.
In 2014, French economist Thomas Piketty added a further twist by noting that the dominance of the elite was increasingly based on assets, which could be passed on to the next generation. We might, he warned, be heading back toward the “patrimonial capitalism” that prevailed in the 19th century — dominance by dynasties centred on vast inherited wealth.
But while the dynasties of the past often endured for a very long time, the dynasts themselves didn’t. Sooner or later, like everyone else, they grew old and died.
Nowadays, not so much.
It was no secret, back in the ‘teens, that some tech billionaires, including Thiel and Larry Ellison, were donating large sums to “life extension” research. After all, these men weren’t just immensely rich, they were accustomed to the belief that there was a technological fix for every problem. So why not a fix for this whole get-older-and-die thing?
What few people seem to have thought about seriously was what would happen if the research actually panned out.
It would be one thing if life-extension technology were relatively cheap and could be made widely available. Even that would have created huge problems. As it turns out, however, the technology is obscenely expensive, deep into the range of “If you have to ask what it costs, you can’t afford it”.
So the technology is directly affecting only a handful of incredibly rich people. But the indirect effects of life extension for a privileged few have been huge and, dare I say it, sinister.
Some writers of speculative fiction at least imagined something like what eventually happened. Richard K. Morgan’s 2003 novel “Altered Carbon,” made into a TV series in 2018, envisioned a society in which wealthy “meths” (for Methuselah) could transfer their consciousness into newly grown clones.
That’s not how the actual technology works, and Morgan’s term never caught on; most of us prefer the portmanteau “evergarchs”, for oligarchs who seemingly go on forever. But Morgan’s vision of a society utterly corrupted by near-immortal privilege turned out to be all too accurate.
The wealthy will always have a Plan B
Indeed, until recently it looked as if the political dominance of the evergarchs would extend indefinitely into the future. After all, the wealthy have always had vast influence, and we’re talking about people who were generally power hungry to start with — that’s how they got where they are — and they’ve had an unnaturally long time to build connections and buy influence.
But nothing is forever, even in an era of life extension. Public rage against the evergarchs has been building for decades, and it may now have reached boiling point.
So what should be done? Some are proposing that we simply try to diminish the evergarchs’ influence with steep taxes on huge fortunes, which is a good idea in any case.
But there were real concerns about tax evasion even when oligarchs were merely mortal; imagine how good people can get at hiding their assets when they can spend decades, even generations, building their tax shelters.
No, life extension for a privileged few is, by its nature, a socially destructive technology, and the time has come to ban it. Take the evergarchs off their treatments, so that they start ageing like everyone else, and don’t let anyone else get started.
Prosecute anyone who tries to evade the ban, which shouldn’t be hard to determine: Billionaires may sometimes manage to hide their assets, but they can’t hide failure to age.
And no, let’s not make any exceptions for those who have made special contributions to society. After all, who’s going to make that determination? If you want to see how badly that could go, just think about some of the people who’ve received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The fact is that we can’t have a decent society unless all citizens have some basic things in common — and unless we develop a much cheaper life-extension technology, mortality will have to be one of those things.
Sorry, billionaires, but we can’t restore the kind of country we were meant to be — we can’t bring the Republic back to life — unless we reestablish the principle that, in the end, all men must die.