Updated Oct 21, 2023 - Economy

Silicon Valley's perversion of philanthropy

Illustration: Peter Fowler/Axios

Selfishness is philanthropic. That's the message being sent by a series of high-profile Silicon Valley leaders, most recently billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.

Why it matters: Philanthropy has historically been framed as giving back — after making their fortune from and within society, individuals then return the favor.

  • Under the new conception of philanthropy, the act of making the fortune itself is the philanthropic act. There's no need to give any money away — feel free to go ahead and drop more than $220 million on Malibu property if you're so inclined. Just by dint of getting rich, your philanthropic work is largely done.

The big picture: Harvard and Stanford economist Robert Barro sketched the broad outlines of this philosophy in a 2007 WSJ op-ed, focused on Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.

  • Gates, he wrote, "is kidding himself if he believes that the efforts of the Gates Foundation are likely to provide society anything like the past and future accomplishments of Microsoft."
  • Barro's logic was then cited approvingly by The Economist's Matthew Bishop, who went on to convene countless discussions about philanthropy in luxurious splendor on the shores of Lake Como as director of the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center.

Where it stands: This vein of thinking is now solidly in the Silicon Valley mainstream.

  • Google founder Larry Page said in a 2014 interview that the most philanthropic thing he could do with his fortune would be to give it to Elon Musk. As New York magazine's Kevin Roose explained, Page was "saying that companies like SpaceX and Tesla are themselves philanthropic organizations, and that supporting those companies financially is preferable to supporting charitable causes in the traditional way."
  • PayPal and Palantir founder Peter Thiel said in 2016 that seeking revenge on Gawker by bankrolling legal cases against the company was "one of my greater philanthropic things that I've done."
  • Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was asked in 2018 how he could "do good with" his fortune. His answer was that "the only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel" — something he described as his "most important work."
  • OpenAI founder Sam Altman decided this year that his organization's philanthropic mission would be best served by converting it from a nonprofit to a for-profit.
  • FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried famously told anyone who would listen that he was making billions of dollars for purely altruistic reasons. (His colleague Nishad Singh, another adherent of effective altruism, gave evidence in court this week about the time he took a $477 million loan from FTX in order to donate the money to charity; he then admitted he never actually got around to doing that.)

Driving the news: Andreessen's techno-optimist manifesto, published this week, generalizes such thinking.

  • "Technological innovation in a market system is inherently philanthropic, by a 50:1 ratio," he writes.
  • In other words: Every dollar an innovator like Andreessen makes for himself equates to a $50 philanthropic donation to society at large. Why even bother giving away the dollar, if that's the case.

The bottom line: Andreessen doesn't feel the need to justify his wealth by saying he intends to give his money away, as Bankman-Fried did. Instead, he's redefining the very concept of philanthropy so that the more money he makes, the more philanthropic he is being, even if he gives no money away at all.

"Any deceleration of AI will cost lives," writes Andreessen in his manifesto. "Deaths that were preventable by the AI that was prevented from existing is a form of murder."

Why it matters: Andreessen's statement is a prime example of Silicon Valley's peculiarly bloodless worldview — one where concern for hypothetical future humans regularly outweighs the pressing needs of those alive today.

  • As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has written: "All lives have equal value, and that includes the many more people who will live in future generations than live today."

The big picture: From the Olympian heights of Big Tech, humanity has a tendency to look rather small. At a company like Facebook, where Andreessen has served as a board member for more than 15 years, billions of humans are aggregated and monetized, viewed as a complex yet predictable emergent organism.

  • When your day job involves seeing humans as the product you're selling to your customers, people become fungible entities, something that algorithms can operate on.
  • In such a world, it's enormously tempting to reduce morals to algebraic operations, as in the case of the notorious trolley problem.

Between the lines: Andreessen's conception of murder doesn't just echo the logic of those who believe that contraception is murder. Its reliance on hypotheticals and thought experiments also makes it clear that he's the kind of person who takes trolley problems seriously.

  • As Stanford law professor Barbara Fried (yes, that Barbara Fried) has persuasively explained, however, trolley problems are functionally useless when it comes to resolving real-world problems.
  • Specifically, she writes, trolley problems garner no insight into how to approach "socially useful conduct that poses some risk of harm." That category accounts for most of the harmful yet non-criminal behavior that companies like Facebook engage in and that should be top of mind for its board members.
  • Yet serious approaches to tackling such dilemmas at powerful companies — trust and safety, tech ethics — are explicitly listed in Andreessen's manifesto under the heading of "The Enemy."

The bottom line: Perhaps dogmatic manifesto writers shouldn't sit in positions of great societal power.

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