Book Review: Ashlee Vance – Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Ashlee Vance – Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (New York: HarperCollins, 2015)

This is an authorized biography, so take it with a grain of salt. Musk is an interesting person whose flaws and accomplishments are both outsized. I was also unaware that Musk is an immigrant, born and raised in South Africa—yet another data point in favor of loosening restrictions against immigrants, who tend to be more entrepreneurial than us native-born Americans.

Musk’s reliance on government subsidies and tax breaks do not get nearly enough attention, and dull some of his sheen. On the positive side of the ledger, Musk is easily one of the highest-profile practitioners of what the Mercatus Center’s Adam Thierer calls “permissionless innovation.” Vance’s stories of Musk telling off innovators and proving stodgy competitors wrong are satisfying; though not so much the stories of how he treats many of his engineers and other employees. His often-humorous trolling also adds some irreverence to a business culture that could use a little more of it; innovation itself is a tacit rebuke of past generations.

The ethos of permissionless innovation is good not just for business, but for politics and culture. Widespread delegitimization of regulators and their rules would do more to limit their power than just about any reform bill Congress could pass. This is an important point many reformers overlook. Individual rules matter, but the institutions that generate those rules matter more. But in the long run, what generates those institutions? Cultural norms. One of the reasons Musk left South Africa is because its culture, barely a generation removed from apartheid, is not exactly innovation-friendly or market-friendly—and its political institutions reflect that. America turned out be a much better fit.

Unlike many green entrepreneurs, Musk believes in what he is selling. He has put almost all of his own money at risk over the years, and has very nearly lost everything more than once. His frenemy and fellow PayPal alum Peter Thiel has had a longtime policy of not investing in green startups because they don’t pan out. Musk, though still subsidy-reliant, has so far proven an exception to the rule with Tesla. While its ultimate fate is still unclear, its recent listing on the S&P 500 bodes well.

One place where Vance’s too-frequent Steve Jobs comparisons make sense is that Musk has something similar to what Jobs’ friends and enemies called his “reality distortion field.” Jobs had a rare charisma and intensity that made people buy into his vision, and work impossibly hard to make moonshot projects happen. Jobs did it with Apple’s computers and phones, and Musk has done it with cars and rockets.

While Musk’s long-term dream of colonizing Mars is unlikely to come to pass during his lifetime, it won’t be because the technology isn’t there. Most of it already exists in his current line of space vehicles. I am not alone in being extremely curious to see what happens next.

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