Delusions of Philanthropy

There is no denying that Big Tech and its well-known industry leaders have done the world plenty of good. The device you’re using to read these words, and the speed at which you downloaded them, would not exist if not for their relentless spirit of innovation and their desire to push technological boundaries.

But an old rule still applies: outsized success inevitably engenders hubris; that hubris breeds blindness; and blindness in wealthy elites does untold damage to a country’s social fabric and economic health. It is a tale as old as time.

Such hubris, and the blindness that follows, has infected Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. Two weeks ago, Andreessen published a manifesto in which he argued that amassing personal fortunes is inherently philanthropic. Yes, you read that correctly. He’s claiming that the mere act of accumulating vast riches, without giving any of it away, is in and of itself an act of charity.

This farcical notion is definitionally at odds with philanthropy, but it’s hard to know where to begin refuting it. This is because Andreessen’s erratic, disorganized, and generally confusing screed touches on everything from artificial intelligence to carbon emissions to communism.

We don’t have the time – or the stomach – to address every erroneous claim Andreessen puts to paper. At its heart, however, he is making an impotent attempt at reviving old (and exhaustingly discredited) notions of greed being good. So why are we discussing it here? What really sets Andreessen’s little blog apart from more pedestrian libertarianism is what follows the tired “Free-Markets-Are-Infallible” tropes: he dedicates significant ink to explaining “The Enemy.” In his mind, the enemy is anyone who stands in the way of his deeply demented vision of a bizarre techno utopia ruled by a neo-feudal aristocracy composed of wealthy tech tycoons.

The New York Times opinion columnist Elizabeth Spiers took on Andreessen directly by saying the “manifesto has the pathos of the Unabomber manifesto but lacks the ideological coherency.” In other words, if anyone other than a tech billionaire had published these ravings, they would be considered deranged at best and, in all likelihood, referred to medical professionals for psychological observation.

It would be reassuring to think that Andreessen and his unhinged thinking are anomalies in Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. As Axios explains, Andreessen’s manifesto is only the latest iteration of an existing ideology festering among the tech elite. The “selfishness is philanthropy” notion has buy-in from ultra-wealthy magnates like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Larry Page, Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, and, of course, the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos.

Andreessen and his friends are following in the footsteps of industrial titans who, for centuries, have argued that they are already philanthropists merely by building businesses that give people jobs and create useful products. You may recall an oft-misquoted quip from General Motors CEO Charlie Wilson during his Senate confirmation hearing to become Secretary of Defense in 1953 that goes something like: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” While not verbatim what Wilson actually told Congress, this quote embodies the thinking of industrialists looking to justify their greed: if one can equate profits with patriotism, they can justify mistreating their workers, dodging taxes, and skirting regulations.

At first glance, this all seems like a smokescreen to obscure morally repugnant behavior. But it becomes more alarming when you consider that many of their ideas are already dogma in politics and media. In her thorough takedown, Elizabeth Spiers goes on to say:

“… the real problem with Mr. Andreessen’s manifesto may be not that it’s too outlandish, but that it’s too on-the-nose. Because in a very real and consequential sense, this view is already enshrined in our culture. Major tent-poles of public policy support it. You can see it in the work requirements associated with public assistance, which imply that people’s primary value is their labor and that refusal or inability to contribute is fundamentally antisocial. You can see it in the way we valorize the C.E.O.s of ‘unicorn’ companies who have expanded their wealth far beyond what could possibly be justified by their individual contributions. And the way we regard that wealth as a product of good decision-making and righteous hard work, no matter how many billions of dollars of investors’ money they may have vaporized, how many other people contributed to their success or how much government money subsidized it… Would-be corporate monarchs, having consolidated power even beyond their vast riches, have already persuaded much of the rest of the population to more or less go along with it.

This all lays the ideological groundwork for tech magnates to seize ever-greater levels of power and influence at the expense of working people. As the Patriotic Millionaires have said before, when extreme wealth is allowed to accumulate unchecked, oligarchs will use that wealth to gain political power. It’s dangerous and destabilizing. But perhaps more terrifying, we now understand what they hope to do with their political power. Their vision for our country is terrifying.

Critically, Spiers’ essay also explains how Andreessen’s twisted neoreactionary ideas – from his prescriptions for economic growth to hostility toward regulation of artificial intelligence – are fundamentally hostile to democracy. Many tech billionaires are quite open about their feelings on this: Peter Thiel has argued that democracy is incompatible with freedom. If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, we don’t know what will.

You’ve heard us say this once or twice before: the ultra wealthy must pay the taxes they owe society. But it’s not about paying for this program or that federal department. Rather, it’s about ensuring that wealth is not used as a political weapon, preventing oligarchs from controlling our institutions, and building an equitable economy for every American. Taxing extreme wealth is how we prevent Marc Andreessen and his fellow tech moguls from anointing themselves monarchs and turning our world into their laboratory for extremist ideologies.

In the meantime, we can start by categorically rejecting the idea that selfishness is philanthropic and greed is good. If Andreessen and his buddies want to help usher in a new era for humanity, they can start by denouncing this insane ideology. And if they want to truly be considered philanthropic, they’ll need to start actually giving away their money.

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