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Startups and Libertarian Populism

As more and more people look to the startup community to save our nation and our economy, it is only reasonable for things to get way more political. As more former bankers and teachers and rodeo clowns start companies, we're witnessing the emergence of entrepreneurs as a political bloc. But we are influenced by a different set of issues than the average partisan -- H1B visa reform, patent reform, regulatory streamlining, et cetera -- some of which haven't yet been divided along partisan lines. In fact, it's extremely difficult to assign the "entrepreneur's agenda" to a traditional right-left spectrum. But this makes it even more interesting to attempt to arrive at some conclusions about the unique political beliefs of entrepreneurs.

However, some challenges. First, it's notoriously hard to generalize anything about an entire industry. You can say that auto dealers and doctors tend to be conservative while teachers and scientists tend to be liberal, but technology-focused entrepreneurs are an even more diverse bunch. I've met founders who are die-hard socialists and others whose neo-conservative beliefs would make Glenn Beck blush. Second, politics is something that many founders simply don't discuss in public. It's tends to have a pretty poor risk-reward ratio.

However, I've seen a couple broad, fairly common threads among the political beliefs of startup founders, investors and early employees. I summarize them as "Libertarian Populism", combining two political philosophies rarely seen together in the wild:

Libertarianism: A strong belief in individual freedom of thought and action. See the broad-based support for patent reform, creative commons licenses, regulatory reform (often de-regulation) and immigration reform.

Populism: The belief in the struggle of the people versus the "elites", commonly represented by large corporations, specifically Wall Street. This tends to be particularly strong in developer-centric communities like Hacker News -- most of the articles I've written that have hung on the front page for a while have had a strong populist streak.

But it's more than just the independent adoption of these beliefs. Rather, libertarianism and populism are combined into a desire for freedom from all institutions, with little distinction between government and large corporations. After all, government and larger companies are both things that can (and do) harm small businesses. In many cases, government and big companies seemingly collaborate to attack startups: modern US patent policy, for instance, gives a massive advantage to enterprises with hoards of cash and lawyers.

Many entrepreneurs -- especially the more common, cash-flow-focused entrepreneurs creating lifestyle businesses -- consider their actions to be a declaration of independence of sorts from institutionalized corporate America and 9 to 5 drudgery. Yet the government's rules tend to be written with the assumption that all companies are big companies, and the resulting administrative headache creates an antagonistic relationship between entrepreneurs and governments. Add to that the fact that big corporations -- say, a health care provider -- have similarly unfriendly rules, and the entirety of mainstream American institutions are thrown into the same bucket. Thus, libertarian populism.

This all has interesting implications. For instance, I've lately seen entrepreneurial populism leveraged to attack VCs. Take Chris Dixon, for instance, who has done a remarkable job leveraging his audience's populist streak to paint VCs as the "other". In reality, Chris is probably wealthier than most VCs -- but he doesn't have to answer to LPs, who are easy to lump into the government/corporate mob (and often justifiably so).

As our nation's expectations of the startup community grows, expect the politicization of entrepreneurs to only deepen.

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