Sixty years ago, Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged. The book is set in a dystopian United States on the brink of economic collapse. Exhausted by a corrupt government, the hero, John Galt, packs his things and starts a self-sufficient community in an isolated valley, hidden — and separate — from the U.S. He recruits the nation’s business leaders to quit their jobs and populate his utopia.
The book was a hit, especially among disaffected people who felt the U.S. was on the wrong track. Sales spike whenever America experiences a downturn. In 2009, following the Great Financial Crisis, half a million copies were sold. Ayn Rand’s message: Government is rigged, America is broken, and you should quit. She eventually became a conservative icon, and Atlas Shrugged, the quitter’s bible.
Quitting used to mean being anti-government. But social media has morphed the message into something larger. There are now multiple ways to quit — and multiple gurus, communities, and schools of thought to guide you.
Libertarianism is one path: an entire political party dedicated to going it alone. Or you can take more extreme measures. One Republican representative recently suggested a “national divorce.” That we quit on this whole “United” States thing and split the country across political lines. Some of our most influential media personalities support the idea, and an increasing share of Americans are flirting with it.
Others are resigned to all-out apocalypse. Four in 10 Americans are either actively prepping for a Doomsday scenario or have plans to. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, that number is 6 in 10. For tech billionaires, the quitting menu is more expansive. Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, bought a 477-acre bunker in New Zealand in preparation for a U.S. apocalypse, and was given citizenship after spending 12 days in the country. Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, made a pact with Thiel that they’d fly to New Zealand together when the collapse arrives. If that falls through, Sam will be fine: “I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Forces, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.” This is what it means to quit — on the eve of the apocalypse, load up the Gulfstream with guns, and leave.
When did things get so extreme? How did we go from anti-government Reaganism to apocalyptic secessionism? The movement has roots in the Valley.
In 2013 a former general partner of Andreessen Horowitz named Balaji Srinivasan gave a talk at Y-Combinator, the nation’s premier accelerator for tech startups. The talk was titled “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit.” Srinivasan opened with a question: “Is the United States the Microsoft of nations?” The thesis was the U.S. had become outdated, brittle, and slow. He offered two solutions. “You can try to reform” — change the system from within — or, his preferred option: “You can leave.”
In Balaji’s view, this was Silicon Valley’s destiny: to secede from the U.S. and form a techno-utopian state, free from government regulation and any duty to serve the needs and interests of the rest of the country — the “ultimate exit.” It was also, he divulged, the dream of many other prominent tech leaders. Balaji cited Larry Page’s interest in “setting aside a part of the world” for unregulated experimentation, Marc Andreessen’s prediction that the world would see “an explosion of countries in the years ahead,” and, of course, Elon’s mission to colonize Mars.
Balaji predicted that when that time comes, there will be pushback from the “Paper Belt,” a term used to describe America’s less technologically advanced cities — D.C., New York, Boston, and so on. But he believed Silicon Valley would persevere. “We’re putting a horse head in all of their beds,” he said. “We’re becoming stronger than all of them combined.” Technology would be the tool that would let the elite secede from the union without having to pick up a gun.
The speech was an enormous hit, and a precursor to a movement among Valley elite to begin seceding from America via shitposting government, financing MAGA campaigns, catastrophizing on Fox News / Twitter, and demonstrating a general disdain for our country. Several tech startups have emerged dedicated to the secessionist dream. The Seasteading Institute, co-founded by Thiel and Milton Friedman’s grandson, is building politically autonomous floating cities. Prospera bought a plot of land on Honduras’s Roatan Island where you can pay to be an “e-resident.” Nation3 is working on an “online-first, zero-tax nation with its own jurisdiction, court, and system of law.” The list goes on.
It’s no coincidence that the guy who feels Silicon Valley will secede is also pushing crypto. Last week, Balaji made headlines after he bet $1 million that Bitcoin would reach $1 million within the next 90 days. Sort of. The real wager is that the U.S. will enter a period of “hyperinflation” within 90 days — his proxy for that scenario is Bitcoin breaching $1 million. Consider what that means: In his view, the price of Bitcoin is directly proportional to the likelihood that America will experience a catastrophe. Put another way, he’s long Doomsday … via Bitcoin.
People have capitalized on catastrophes before — political coups, short selling, etc. — but in the history of humanity, there’s never been an asset class whose value is predicated on collapse. Bitcoin has risen 30% since Silicon Valley Bank’s crisis threatened the banking system. The cryptocurrency has historically been marketed as a “hedge against inflation,” but it’s really a hedge against catastrophe. Which is to say, a bet on catastrophe. Crypto is becoming the ultimate libertarian scheme — the world’s first asset class that encourages you to stop investing in America, and quit.
Guns, bunkers, private islands, crypto, secession … connect the dots. The venture catastrophists now have a vested interest in the nation’s decline. They’ve invested too much in Doomsday not to root for it — maybe even catalyze it. Balaji has a million dollars on the line; Andreessen Horowitz has $8 billion.
Much of their catastrophizing is in response to elements of U.S. society that are legitimately broken. The first block of Bitcoin ever mined is encoded with a message that reads, “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks” — a reminder that Bitcoin was born in response to the failures of our banking system during the Great Financial Crisis. Post-Dodd-Frank, we still have issues. Silicon Valley Bank was mismanaged, and many banks are fragile. The government is gridlocked, parties polarized, teens depressed. There’s a lot wrong with America, and we have reason to be upset about it.
The question is: What do we do about it? For too many, the answer is quit: Instead of fixing the Fed, start a different currency. Instead of healing our divides, split the nation in two. Instead of making this planet more habitable, colonize other planets or put a headset on that takes you to a meta (better) universe. But here’s the thing: We’re stuck here, and with each other.
History’s greatest leaders aren’t quitters, but reformers. Abraham Lincoln felt it was his “duty to preserve the Union,” not to accept its division and cauterize the wound. Despite the headlines, and all the work to be done, our nation’s arc still bends toward bringing groups together. From Civil Rights to gay marriage, America still strives to bring people closer under the auspices of a shared belief in a union that offers liberty and the pursuit of happines. We have lost sight of our achievements. The U.S. is responsible for more than half of the world’s Nobel science laureates and has provided more than a trillion dollars in non-military foreign aid. Inflation is high, but not as high as our developed peers, and our economy continues to grow. We can and will be the first society in history to be a truly multicultural democracy. It comes down to this: Do we invest in Mars or Michigan? Are our most fortunate business and elected leaders citizens or survivalists?
When I was in elementary school, we performed Duck and Cover drills to prepare for a nuclear attack by the Russians. A flash of light from the detonation of a thermonuclear device? No problem, just duck and cover, and you’ll be fine. Spoiler alert: No matter how many rough-cut gems you can shove up your ass or how plush your bunker, there is no escaping the fallout of our democracies failing. Because our democracies are largely capitalist and accept, if not idolize, people who aggregate the wealth of small nations. If shit gets real — I mean real — bunkers will likely become easy targets in the recalibration of society. The previous sentence is a pedantic way of saying the best bet (by far) is to double down on a society that already has Netflix, Nespresso, and Girl Scouts. Citizenship is not just an obligation; it’s also a trade. In the case of America, the best trade is to invest in each other and what MLK called our “beloved community.” We need reformers, not quitters.
The 2003 M. Night Shyamalan film The Village is about a group of people who secede and develop an alliance with creatures who keep villagers in line by terrorizing them. Spoiler alert: The creatures are just villagers in costume. The threat is still real, but it’s exaggerated in order to serve powerful people’s objectives. In the U.S., our threats are also real, but powerful people are dressing them up to suit their own nihilism and self-interest. These anti-citizens do not see dead people (a much better film), but tear at the fabric of what is, and continues to be, the great experiment that is the U.S. They should be called out for what they are: cowards.
Life is so rich,
P.S. Last week on the Prof G Pod, I spoke with Bill Burnett, co-author of the New York Times bestseller “Designing Your Life” and co-director of the Life Design Lab at Stanford University. We discussed how to understand your talent and what to do when you feel stuck. Listen here.
P.P.S. Make your team more strategic — sprint together with Section. In April we’re teaching Problem Solving, Platform Strategy, Writing for Impact, Inclusive Leadership, and Investor Mindset. Ask for a demo now.