All hail King Elon of Twitter?
The pros and cons of a monarchy versus a republic form of corporate governance
With his sudden purchase of Twitter for an eye-popping $44 billion (easily the largest acquisition by a single individual in history), entrepreneur Elon Musk made a bid to establish a monarchy in one of the world’s largest and most powerful digital domains. The outpouring of commentary from conservatives and liberals alike demonstrates how high the stakes are for Musk’s play to overtake and reform what is arguably the most influential platform for shaping elite opinion. For all the commentary about “spurring innovation” and “unlocking shareholder value,” we’d be missing the plotline if we thought that Musk’s Twitter takeover saga was essentially a finance and economics story. No, it is above all a matter of politics and a wake-up call to the need to think in properly political terms about the vast fiefdoms of private industry that increasingly shape our lives, especially in the field of Big Tech.
Musk, even more than most of our era’s somewhat megalomaniacal tech titans, has made it clear it is not money that drives him but a vision of what constitutes human flourishing, a vision he feels uniquely driven and called to deliver. Musk, who is a social libertarian, sees Twitter as an essential venue for the exchange of ideas. It fits with his profile as a disruptor. Whether it’s becoming an interplanetary species, achieving independence from terrestrial energy sources, or unlocking the potential of cryptocurrency, Musk’s larger-than-life ambitions may use market forces as their instruments but his real goals are political. His bid to acquire Twitter is no exception.
As Musk rightly recognizes, digital domains like Twitter serve more than merely market functions. They are not simply places where customers go to buy goods and services to improve their quality of life. Indeed, in the case of Twitter, most users are not customers at all and do not pay a dime for access. Twitter is instead a chaotic public square, sporting everything from merchants hawking their wares to exhibitionists performing before an ephemeral audience to revolutionaries handing out literature. Like the public squares of older times, it often plays host to angry lynch mobs and public shamings. And yet, for all that, it also offers a stage whereon leaders and opinion shapers can hold forth and seek to sway public opinion. To rule such a domain well, Musk argues, requires more than an MBA and a five-year revenue growth plan. It requires a vision of the common good and forceful leadership to make this vision a reality. Hence his frustration at Twitter’s current leadership and his bid to open up the platform for both greater innovation and transparency. Whatever vision for the common good Musk may have, we can surely hope his new purchase will make future iterations of Twitter less woke.
Musk contends that the proper political model to rule such a dominion is not the clumsy republican form of corporate governance that prevails in publicly traded companies (shareholders correspond to voters; board of directors, the legislature; and the CEO, the president) but the more straightforward older model of the monarchy. A monarchy, after all, has some advantages, as even our Founders were shrewd enough to recognize.
Just think along these lines: A monarch can act quickly and decisively in a crisis. Even without a crisis, he can frame policy coherently around a unified vision for the flourishing of the community. A monarch is, to say the least, invested in his kingdom. Musk has made much of this point in mocking the low ownership stakes of most of Twitter’s current board of directors—they own so little of the company they are meant to manage that they can have little incentive to see it flourish over the long haul.
But, even as Aristotle understood, monarchy is a high-risk proposition. Faced with the thought of a titan like Musk wielding sole power over a dominion as vast as Twitter, we are apt to shudder in both anticipation and trepidation. Will he go down in history as Elon the Great or Elon the Terrible? Both? Only time will tell.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.