It’s an irony of our times that a former South African, a creature of deep-blue, progressive Silicon Valley, and now the richest man in the world should become a divisive, cultural touchstone for the enduring importance of freedom. Fighting lockdowns and vaccine mandates, Mr. Musk has earned the respect of conservatives and the ire of progressives.
Full disclosure: I am not now nor have ever been a fan of electric vehicles. I’ll take a high-revving naturally aspirated, manual transmission car any day of the week. Nor was I much of a fan of Elon Musk in particular until quite recently. Previously, I found him arrogant and over-rated, the comparisons to the real life Thomas Edison or the comic book Tony Stark incredibly over the top. Ever since the start of the pandemic, however, Mr. Musk has literally been on fire, defying ridiculous state and local “safety” regulations, fighting them at every turn, and ultimately relocating Tesla’s headquarters from business-killing California to business-friendly Texas. Perhaps needless to say, as Mr. Musk’s stock has risen in my eyes, it has fallen even further in the eyes of progressives. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised when Time Magazine had the courage to name him Man of the Year, likely knowing there would be significant pushback.
Mr. Musk was born to a Canadian mother and South African father on June 28, 1971. He was raised in Pretoria, South Africa until leaving for Canada at 17 years old to avoid conscription into the military (on a side note, Dave Mathews actually did the same.) His family was considered wealthy at the time, but his parents split when he was 9 years old and he chose to live with his father, a choice he would come to regret deeply. Today, Mr. Musk describes his father as a “a terrible human being… Almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done.” From a young age, he was an awkward and introverted boy who would ultimately be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Growing up, he was frequently bullied, once so badly that he was thrown down a flight of stairs and spent time in the hospital to recover. He developed an interest in computers at an early age, perhaps something he picked up from his father who was an electromechanical engineer, pilot, sailor, consultant, and property developer. In fact, he sold his first piece of software at age 12.
“He was raised in a tough environment and born with a very special brain,” explains Antonio Gracias, a close friend of two decades, and a member of the boards of both Tesla and SpaceX. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people in that situation don’t come out of it. Some small percentage come out of it with the ability he has to make great decisions under extraordinary pressure and the never-ending drive to change the course of humanity.” After emigrating to Canada, Musk spent two years there before making his way to the University of Pennsylvania, earning a bachelor’s degree in both economics and physics. He was accepted as a doctoral student at Stanford University, but only lasted two days before he was overcome by the entrepreneurial urge. He has since founded some 7 companies, the most well known being PayPal, Tesla, and Space-X. As a manager and executive, Mr. Musk has earned his fair share of detractors. “He is a savant when it comes to business, but his gift is not empathy with people,” explains his brother and business partner Kimbal Musk. Time Magazine describes him as “petty, cruel and petulant, particularly when frustrated or challenged,” noting also that he’s “made statements downplaying the virus, broken local health regulations to keep his factories running and amplified skepticism about vaccine safety.”
Thus, the beginnings of Mr. Musk’s recent schism with progressives, who have turned on the man many believe has done more to change the trajectory of climate change than anyone else, and his corresponding increase in appeal to conservatives. To me, Mr. Musk now serves as a sort of Rorschach test for your belief or lack of belief in the once-foundational and now-controversial American idea that freedom, simple basic freedom to think, act, and associate as you think best, is paramount above other concerns. There are things the state simply cannot do, even if they believe it is for your own benefit. Whether liberal or conservative, libertarian or whatever you wish, without freedom itself any other appellation is meaningless. It’s an irony of our times that a former South African and a creature of deep-blue, progressive Silicon Valley should become a divisive, cultural touchstone for the issue, but immigrants sometimes understand the nature and importance of freedom better than the native born, who can certainly take it for granted.
This has placed Mr. Musk at the forefront of fighting pandemic restrictions from the very beginning. “I think people are going to be very angry about this, and are very angry,” he said on an earnings call during the initial 45-days to slow the spread way back in April 2020. “If somebody wants to stay in their house, that’s great, they should be allowed to stay in their house, and they should not be compelled to leave. But to say they cannot leave their house, and they’ll be arrested if they do, this is fascist. This is not democratic, this is not freedom. Give people back their goddamn freedom.” Mr. Musk did more than just talk. He continued to operate the Tesla plant in Fremont, CA, in defiance of lockdown orders, risking punishment from officials. “So, the extension of the shelter-in-place, and frankly I would call it forcibly imprisoning people in their homes against all their constitutional rights — my opinion — and erasing people’s freedoms in ways that are horrible and wrong, and not why people came to America or built this country. What the fuck? Excuse me.” He continued, citing the devastating effects on small business in particular. “It will cause great harm not just to Tesla but to many companies, and while Tesla will weather the storm there are many small companies that will not. And everything people have worked for their whole life is getting destroyed in real time. We have many suppliers that are having a super hard time, especially the small ones, and it’s causing a lot of strife to a lot of people.”
He kept the theme up in his tweets, writing “FREE AMERICA NOW,” “Give people their freedom back!” and even “Bravo Texas!” when the Lonestar State was ahead of the curve on re-opening businesses. It’s hard to overstate how entirely unique Mr. Musk’s enthusiasm for freedom was in the world of Silicon Valley. Instead, other tech billionaires like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg parroted the government line, and even enforced speech codes, censoring people on their platforms. “While there are massive societal costs from the current shelter-in-place restrictions,” Mr. Zuckerberg explained. “I worry that reopening certain places too quickly before infection rates have been reduced to very minimal levels will almost guarantee future outbreaks and worsen longer-term health and economic outcomes.” As the pandemic waxed and waned as these things surely will, Mr. Musk moved on to fight vaccine mandates. He and his family are fully vaccinated and he believes the science is “unequivocal” when it comes to the benefits of vaccination, but, like millions of others and this author as well, he believes each person has a right to their own personal healthcare decisions. “You are taking a risk, but people do risky things all the time,” Mr. Musk says of the unvaccinated. “I believe we’ve got to watch out for the erosion of freedom in America.”
Earlier this summer, Mr. Musk was asked via tweet to define freedom. His response: Maximum set of possible future actions. It’s a typically “Muskian” definition that draws from his background in math and engineering, but one with some appeal. I’m reminded of famed science fiction author Dan Simmons, creator of the Hyperion series, and his vision of life as a collapsing cone, the path we take is a spiral down to the bottom. At birth, it seems like anything is possible and the cone’s radius is large, but each passing moment reduces the range of possible decisions until a person’s entire existence is reduced to a single point at the time of death. Musk believes we can expand that cone by increasing the freedom of action at every point, enabling people to make more choices as they determine what is best for them and their family.
Once upon a time, these ideas weren’t controversial, but not today. As Mr. Musk has transformed into an avatar in the fight for freedom, he has increasingly found himself under attack from previously friendly progressive quarters. Thus, the announcement that he was named Time’s Person of the Year was met with some vitriol and scorn. Progressive politicians took issue with how much he’s paid in taxes, calling a man who has created thousands of jobs and revolutionized multiple industries a “freeloader.” Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “Let’s change the rigged tax code so The Person of the Year will actually pay taxes and stop freeloading off everyone else.” Irony, apparently, is lost on the Senator from Massachusetts: She literally lives off our tax dollars, a parasite her entire life, first as professor at universities feeding from the public trough, now as a Congressperson with a direct salary from the taxpayer, who has accumulated a $12 million net work. We await her tweets on Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet, who have paid about the same rate as Mr. Musk, but of course, claim to champion redistribution and high tax rates while stealing every dollar they can.
In the meantime, Mr. Musk himself personally responded to Ms. Warren, asking her to “Stop projecting” and sharing a link to an article about how she lied about her Native American ancestry for her own gain, then saying she reminds him “of when I was a kid and my friend’s agent Mom would just randomly yell at everyone for no reason,” and finally slamming the door with “Please don’t call the manager on me, Senator Karen.” Max Burns, a member of the Georgia State Senate, and a Democratic strategist, tweeted “In a year marked by record levels of pro-labor union organizing across the country, from John Deere to Amazon to Starbucks, @TIME honors a guy who revels in violating labor laws.” Katelyn Burns (no relation), the first ever openly trans Capitol Hill reporter, wrote “This is so embarrassing.” Even a supposed Republican, Kurt Bardella, claimed “And with that @time as lost all remaining credibility…what an absolute disgrace.”
It’s hard to believe any of them would’ve written such things before the coronavirus pandemic, way back when Mr. Musk was an innovative hero challenging the fossil fuel industry and saving the planet, or even when he was breaking with President Trump over the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that resulted in a woman’s death. He was certainly quite popular when he claimed that Trump is “probably not the right guy” and “doesn’t seem to have the sort of character that reflects well on the United States.” It is also true that Mr. Musk is no conservative, describing himself as “somewhere in the middle, socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” He has also called himself as a “socialist” at times and backed a Universal Basic Income, plus supported Andrew Yang in the 2020 Democrat Presidential Primary. In other words, he leans, sometimes far, to the left, but defying the consensus on lockdowns and vaccines was simply too much for progressives to handle.
Now, Mr. Musk’s achievements mean nothing, because for the progressive crowd it’s all politics, all the time and the revolution always eats its own. Not that Musk has much reason to care with that $250 billion fortune. As Time puts it, “He tosses satellites into orbit and harnesses the sun; he drives a car he created that uses no gas and barely needs a driver. With a flick of his finger, the stock market soars or swoons. An army of devotees hangs on his every utterance. He dreams of Mars as he bestrides Earth, square-jawed and indomitable. Lately, Elon Musk also likes to live-tweet his poops.” He’s “clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad; a madcap hybrid of Thomas Edison, P.T. Barnum, Andrew Carnegie and Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, the brooding, blue-skinned man-god who invents electric cars and moves to Mars.” He’s not likely to be cowed by the cancel crowd and good for him.
PS I would be remiss not to mention Mr. Musk’s recent beatdown of Build Back Better. “Honestly, I would just can this whole bill,” he said during a remote appearance at an event organized by the Wall Street Journal. “Don’t pass it. That’s my recommendation.” In addition to concerns about the deficit, he cited endless regulations. “Rules and regulations are immortal,” Musk continued. “They don’t die. The vast majority of rules and regulations live forever … there’s not really an effective garbage collection system for removing rules and regulations, so this hardens the arteries of civilization where you are able to do less and less over time.” Mr. Musk was pressed further on all the “good things” in the bill like subsidies for electric vehicles and charging stations. “Do we need support for gas stations? We don’t,” Musk said. “So there’s no need for support for a charging network. I would delete it. I’m literally saying get rid of all subsidies, but also for oil and gas.”