Thiel's Priceless Publicity
By Bryan Caplan
Thiel is starting a new initiative that will offer grants of up to
$100,000 for kids to drop out of school. Yes, you read that right.
Though that’s not how Thiel puts it. Instead, he calls it “stopping out of school.”
The basic gist is that he will fund up to 20 kids under the age of
20 who apply for this grant. His hope, obviously, isn’t to ruin their
lives, but instead to find the best minds thinking about big things
early in life. This is where true disruption comes from, Thiel believes.
As a proponent of the signaling model of education, I couldn’t be happier. Sure, school pays at the individual level. But from a social point of view, Thiel’s right: The world would be a better place if smart, motivated kids tried to please billions of consumers instead of a few dozen professors.
As expected, Thiel’s audacity provoked a lot of venom – a.k.a. “the kind of publicity that money can’t buy.” I bet that Thiel will have thousands of awesome applicants… largely thanks to criticism like this:
the program, Thiel made clear his contempt for U.S. universities,
which, like governments, he believes, cost more than they’re worth and
get in the way of what really matters in life, namely tech startups.
Where to start with this nasty idea? A basic
feature of Thiel’s world view is its narcissism. Thiel fellows will
have the opportunity to emulate their sponsor by halting their
intellectual development around the onset of adulthood, maintaining a
narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible and thereby
avoid the siren lure of helping others or pursuing knowledge for its
Accurate summary plus impotent fuming – could Thiel ask for more? Still, there is a more substantive criticism:
Thiel’s premise is that America suffers from a deficiency of
entrepreneurship. In fact, we may be on the verge of the opposite: a
startup bubble in which too many weak ideas find funding and every kid
dreams of being the next Mark Zuckerberg.
This objection is plausible on the surface. In all honesty, most of the aspiring entrepreneurs I’ve met seem pathetically deluded. Starting a business? They’d be better-off betting their life savings in Vegas.
What’s special about Thiel’s initiative, though, is that it financially and morally encourages talented young people to redirect their attention. He isn’t handing out money to random dreamers who want to open their own restaurants; he’s searching for creative kids who’d otherwise run the safe, sure, sterile educational marathon. When he finds them – and find them he shall – billions of consumers will have Thiel’s iconoclastic benevolence to thank.