Politically, Steve Jobs Was Pure Microsoft
The recently deceased Apple honcho Steve Jobs had a Manichean take on the digital marketplace. As he saw it, Apple -- with its closed systems; its elegant simplicity; and its organic, innovative thoroughly integrated hardware and software -- reflected the good, spiritual world of the light.
On the dark, material side of the digital divide -- with its open operating systems, all promiscuously licensed, and its imitative, inorganic content and applications -- loomed Microsoft.
The Steve Jobs whom the reader meets in Walter Isaacson's masterful new biography of the same name sought to impose the Apple ethos on those external systems he could control -- his own health care regimen, for instance -- and lamented its absence in those systems he could not.
The one glaring exception to this rule was politics. As a political philosopher, Steve Jobs was pure Microsoft. He entertained at any one time a jumble of opinions that had not a whit of innovation or integration about them.
The nearly incoherent openness of his political operating system showed itself most clearly in the last year of his life. In the fall of 2010, he met with a struggling Barack Obama. "You're headed for a one-term presidency," Jobs told Obama at a meeting that almost did not materialize because the president did not personally call Jobs to request it.
In the meeting, Jobs said many sensible things. The White House needed to be more business-friendly. Regulations and unnecessary costs made building factories in America almost impossible. The teachers unions' were crippling education. Textbooks were obsolete. School years were too short.
At a subsequent group meeting with Silicon Valley CEOs, Jobs spoke of the need for more trained engineers and asked that foreign students who earned engineering degrees in the United States be allowed to stay. Always the partisan, Obama claimed that this could be done only in the context of the "DREAM Act" on illegal immigration, which, he claimed, the Republicans would surely block.
Put off as he was by this response, Jobs failed to see Obama's obstructionism for the systemic rejection of progress it was. He overlooked the fact that the teachers' unions constitute the single most potent force in the Democratic Party, or that the most counterproductive regulations serve to pacify the interest groups that constitute the party's base -- environmental, ethnic, labor, feminist, gay, state-dependent.
Unknown to Jobs, Obama had long ago adopted this ideological goulash as his own operating system. No entreaty Jobs made on Obama could refine it. And yet as alien and incoherent as Obama's politics were, Jobs volunteered to create Obama's 2012 campaign ads just as he had volunteered in 2008, an act as seemingly out of character as if he had volunteered to create ads for a new Windows rollout.
The reason for Jobs' inconsistency here is not hard to fathom. The wizard of Cupertino was as blind to the organic simplicity of conservatism as he was to the messy inefficiency of liberalism. This showed in his relationship with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whom Jobs personally liked but whose politics he did not.
"You're blowing it with Fox News," Jobs told him on one occasion. "The axis today is not liberal and conservative; the axis is constructive-destructive, and you've cast your lot with the destructive people. Fox has become an incredibly destructive force in our society. You can be better, and this is going to be your legacy if you're not careful."
Jobs worried deeply about his own legacy. Unlike the Bill Gates of his imagination, he was less interested in making money than he was creating a tradition of excellence that would endure. This passion makes Jobs' failure to understand the conservative legacy all the more perplexing.
Had Jobs inquired, he would have had to admire a political system so straightforward that it can be summarized in fewer than ten words: limited constitutional government as close to home as possible. To appreciate the elegant architecture of the Constitution, however, Jobs would have had to acknowledge, as John Adams did, that it "was made only for a moral and religious people" and was "wholly inadequate to the government of any other." This would not have come easy for him.
Growing up in the California of the 1960s and 1970s, Jobs, like many of his Silicon Valley colleagues, rejected traditional religion and, in Jobs' case, traditional morality as well. That the Judeo-Christian tradition had an enduring legacy of some 4,000 years and was responsible for the bountiful world Jobs inherited was lost on him.
As a young man, California's wackadoodle Zeitgeist shaped Jobs almost to the point of parody. He took LSD, lived on a commune, fathered a child out of wedlock, and sampled many of the Zen-light products then on the shelves. Self-indulgent even by local standards, he drove without license plates, parked in handicapped spots, and routinely treated people like dirt. He never did grow up.
Like all Democrats and too many Republicans, Jobs did not understand the role religion and morality play in creating a citizenry responsible enough to be free. Anglo-Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke, often considered the father of modern conservatism, summed up their effect with a simplicity that should have appealed to Jobs. Said Burke in 1791 to a friend in a France torn violently apart by leftist revolution, "Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without."
Had Jobs been paying attention, the recent history of California -- or just the bio of one Stanley "Tookie" Williams -- would have him shown him what happens when internal controlling powers erode and external ones have to be imposed.
Williams was born in California in 1953, two years before Jobs. That year, the state of California recorded 276 homicides or about 2 per 100,000 residents. As a boy, Stanley had his own bedroom in a comfortable single-family home, but that home, like so many in Tookie's California, had no father and little faith. In 1969, the same year as the Manson murders and California's no-fault divorce bill, the ambitious sixteen-year-old gathered his homies and co-founded the neighborhood association known as the Crips.
In 1979, Williams pulled off a multicultural trifecta, killing blacks, whites, and Asians in the same calendar year, his last year on the streets. On the face of it, the crime generated by Williams and his peers made no sense. The California of his youth was the freest, richest, most productive spot on the planet. It enabled Jobs to make his first quarter-billion before Tookie was tried and his first billion before Tookie was eventually fried.
In 1980, however, the year Jobs turned 25, California recorded 3,412 homicides, or about 14 per 100,000 -- seven times more per capita than in 1953. In a bit of symmetry that Jobs might appreciate, California would expand its prison population in the 25 years after Tookie's incarceration by a factor of seven as well. A state that once built freeways and universities was now building penitentiaries, and with borrowed money at that. The CCPOA -- California Correctional Peace Officers Association -- is the most powerful political force in the state.
The pathology that made this extravagantly costly mayhem possible went unexamined by Jobs. Based on his Murdoch conversation, he seemed less inclined to scold the enablers of this moral collapse than the Jeremiahs. Unreflective progressivism was the default position chez Apple. Al Gore sat on the Apple board. Bill Clinton occasionally called to chat. Jobs joked with Murdoch during one visit that he had to hide the knives lest his otherwise saintly wife eviscerate the man responsible for Fox News. A perfectionist in all things Apple, Jobs pulled his political opinions off the shelf.
As a Mac user since 1984, I am most appreciative of Jobs' genius. Isaacson considers him the most innovative American entrepreneur since Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and I would not disagree. He was a true visionary in many ways, but as a political philosopher, alas, he could not see beyond his neighborhood. Too bad.